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Simon Wiesenthal Center criticizes Shimon Perez for saying Romania rescued Jews during WWII

BUCHAREST, Romania (AP) — The Simon Wiesenthal Center criticized Israeli President Shimon Peres on Friday for thanking Romania for saving Jews, saying he should have condemned the Romanian state for the tens of thousands of Jews who were killed there during World War II.

On Thursday, Peres publicly thanked Romania for helping 400,000 Romanian Jews emigrate to Israel during the communist regime that ended in 1989. Peres did that while making the first visit to Romania by an Israeli head of state since 1948 when Israel was formed.

Peres was speaking at a news conference with Romanian President Traian Basescu, who said that Romania would be a loyal partner of Israel and NATO, if there was a conflict with Iran. During that event, Peres did not mention Romania's role in the Holocaust.

In 2004, a historical commission set up to study the Holocaust in Romania found the country was responsible for the deaths of 280,000 Jews and 11,000 Roma during the Second World War under the regime of pro-Nazi Marshal Ion Antonescu.

On Friday, Efraim Zuroff, the Israel director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, issued a statement essentially saying Peres should have mentioned this.

"His failure to condemn the horrific crimes of the Antonescu regime against the Jewish people are likely to have very dire consequences, especially in Romania and elsewhere in Eastern Europe, where there is a growing tendency in post-Communist societies to deny or minimize the highly significant role played by local Nazi collaborators in the annihilation of the Jews," said Zuroff, who also is a Holocaust historian.

During that time, Romanian administrators allowed the nation to become "a gigantic killing field for Jews," said Zuroff, whose center is the world's major Nazi-hunting organization.

On Friday, Peres made a comment while visiting the Holocaust memorial in Bucharest that appeared to address the center's concerns.

Speaking in Hebrew, the Israeli president acknowledged that there was a "cruel and unfair" time in Romania during World War II "when men, women and innocent children were killed for the fault of being Jewish" at the hands of "Romanian assassins."

But he also said Romania is a totally different today, a free and democratic nation that respects human rights.