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Maria Antonescu (born Maria Niculescu, also known as Maria Mareşal Antonescu or Rica Antonescu; November 3, 1892 – October 18, 1964) was a Romanian socialite and philanthropist, the wife of World War II authoritarian Prime Minister and Conducător Ion Antonescu. A long-time resident of France, she was twice married before her wedding to Antonescu, and became especially known for her leadership of charitable organization grouped in the Social Works Patronage Council organization, having Veturia Goga for her main collaborator. The Council profited significantly from antisemitic policies targeting Romanian Jews, and especially from the deportation of Bessarabian Jews into Transnistria, taking over several hundred million lei resulting from arbitrary confiscations and extortion.
Arrested soon after the August 1944 Coup which overthrew her husband, Maria Antonescu was briefly a prisoner of war in the Soviet Union, and, after a period of uncertainty, tried and sentenced by the new communist regime on charges of economic crimes (embezzlement). Imprisoned for five years and afterward included in the Bărăgan deportations, she spent the final years of her life under internal exile at Borduşani.Born in Calafat, Maria was the daughter of Romanian Army captain Teodor Niculescu and his wife Angela (or Anghelina). According to researcher and journalist Lavinia Betea, her father may have squandered the family fortune, which, she argues, may explain why Maria did not have a dowry. She married Gheorghe Cimbru, a Police officer, with whom she had a son, also known as Gheorghe. The child was physically disabled by poliomyelitis. Cimbru died before 1919, after which date Maria Niculescu is known to have moved to Paris. In July 1919, she married a second time, to businessman Guillaume Auguste Joseph Pierre Fueller, a French Jew.
Having divorced from Fueller in 1926 and married Antonescu, Romania's former military attaché in France, she soon after moved to Bucharest, where her new husband served as Secretary General of the Defense Ministry. The two reportedly met and fell in love before her divorce was final. Sources diverge on the marriage date, which is either indicated as August 29, 1927, or an unspecified day in 1928. Reputedly, their life as a couple was marked by Antonescu's rigidity and distaste for the public life. However, as Antonescu reached prominence and earned important political assignments, Maria too became the focus of public attention, which is said to have included negative reactions from the ranks of the upper class, who reportedly viewed her as a parvenue. In 1938, when the relationship between Ion Antonescu and King Carol II degenerated into open conflict, the monarch engineered Ion Antonescu's trial for bigamy, based on charges that she and Fueller had never actually divorced. Assisted by his lawyer Mihai Antonescu, the future Conducător disproved the claim, and the perception that he was being persecuted by an authoritarian ruler reportedly earned him the public's respect. By then, although the officer spoke out against Carol II's extramarital affair with the commoner Elena Lupescu, his own marriage to a divorcée was being treated with contempt by some commentators of the time.
Maria Antonescu herself achieved political importance in late 1940, during the National Legionary State, the short-lived government established in tandem by Antonescu and the fascist Iron Guard as a result of the 1940 crises. In this context, she took over the new state-run charity, which reputedly made her a contender in the conflict opposing her husband to the Guard, before the Legionary Rebellion of early 1941 brought the Guard's downfall: according to Spanish historian Francisco Veiga, her humanitarian effort was endorsed by the more conservative pro-Antonescu factions in reaction to Guardist projects such as Ajutorul Legionar. Named Sprijinul ("The Support"), this body notably ensured participation from Veturia Goga, widow of antisemitic Premier Octavian Goga. They were also joined by the wife of World War I hero, General Constantin Prezan, and Sanda, the spouse of sociologist Sabin Manuilă.
Her promotion to head of the Social Works Patronage Council, merging the recognized charities, coincided with Romania's participation in Operation Barbarossa, the recovery of Bessarabia and Northern Bukovina, and the occupation of Transnistria. These events brought the generalization of antisemitic measures and the massive deportations of the Jews to areas east of the Dniester, a process initiated by her husband, and marked by events in which she herself was implicated (see Holocaust in Romania). In October 1941, Wilhelm Filderman, head of the Jewish Communities' Federation, sent her and her husband letters of protest, stressing that the deportations were tantamount to death—messages which went unanswered. In November, after the ghetto in Chişinău was sacked and its population deported to Transnistria, the authorities set aside confiscated property for the Patronage Council, for the Romanian Red Cross, for Romanian hospitals and the Romanian Army.
In August 1942, the Jewish entrepreneurs Max Auschnitt and Franz von Neumann donated 50 million Swiss francs to the same charity, a precautionary measure which may have played a part in the decision to indefinitely postpone transports from Romania to Nazi extermination camps. This event was notably recounted in a testimony by Ioan Mocsony-Stârcea, a member of King Michael I's entourage. The same month, Jewish Affairs Commissioner Radu Lecca, whose office implied regular extortion of the Jewish community, collected 1.2 billion lei from the ghettos through the government-controlled Central Jewish Office, of which 400 million were redirected toward Maria Antonescu's charities. The total sum passed by the Central Jewish Office toward the patronage Council exceeded 780 million lei. Lecca himself later stated: "The need for extra-budgetary money was continuously rising", arguing that, in addition to pressures from the part of Mihai Antonescu and German Ambassador Manfred Freiherr von Killinger, "Mrs. Antonescu asked for money for her patronage". This type of abuse also touched other communities. Thus, among the special provisions ordered by Governor Gheorghe Alexianu and affecting Ukrainian peasants in Transnistria, one set produce quotas for Maria Antonescu's project, as hospital meals for Romanian soldiers wounded on the Eastern Front.
Maria Antonescu occasionally intervened with her husband to alleviate some antisemitic measures. She is thus believed to have persuaded the Conducător not to create a special ghetto in Iaşi (where the survivors of the 1941 pogrom were supposed to be confined), in exchange for which local Jews provided the Patronage Council with 5 million lei. It was also as a result of her intercession that Romania's Chief Rabbi, Alexandru Şafran, obtained the reversal of an order to nationalize and desecrate Bucharest's Sevastopol Jewish Cemetery. However, Şafran also left an account of her unwillingness to provide water and milk for children and infants confined in Cernăuţi en route to Transnistria. Reputedly, she and Veturia Goga also mediated between the Conducător and Petru Groza, left-wing activist and leader of the clandestine Ploughmen's Front, whose stance against the regime later made him the Antonescu regime's political prisoner.
Detention, sentencing and final years
The Antonescus' status changed dramatically after King Michael and opposition forces carried out the August 1944 Coup, arresting the Conducător and taking Romania out of its Axis alliance. Her son Gheorghe Cimbru died soon afterward, on September 10. Reportedly, his death was suicide, caused by the distress he felt over his adoptive father's downfall. Having fled to Băile Herculane, Maria Antonescu was arrested in Căzăneşti, where she had been offered refuge by a close friend of her personal secretary. According to one account, she had asked for protection from Queen Mother Helen who, as a noted adversary of her husband, refused to grant it.
In March 1945, Maria Antonescu was taken into custody by the Soviet occupation forces, and, like her husband before her, was transported into Soviet territory, where she was only interrogated once. They were not told of each other, even though their cells at Moscow's Lubyanka are said to have shared a wall. Maria Antonescu returned in April 1946, at the same time as her husband. She was submitted to interrogations by Interior Ministry Secretary, Romanian Communist Party member and public investigator Avram Bunaciu, who recorded her views on Antonescu's political choices. Part of the inquiry focused on Maria Antonescu's own involvement. When asked about her support for a war of aggression, which Bunaciu defined as "a war of plunder", she replied: "When I started [work with charities] there was no war. What was I to do? Not to keep going? I originally started because of all the misery in the Romanian land." She denied accusations of having participated in extortion, but admitted to having received funds from Lecca, and replied that she had never considered providing aid to Transnistrian deportees because Jews had "enough funds", and denied knowledge that Jews had been imprisoned in concentration camps.
According to conflicting accounts, she was simply allowed to go free, or detained at Malmaison prison before her declining health made the authorities commit her to Nicolae Gh. Lupu's clinic, ultimately assigning her house arrest in a Bucharest lodging she shared with her mother. She lacked the means to support herself, and was cared for by her friends and family. After his People's Court trial and just prior to his June 1946 execution for war crimes, Ion Antonescu met his wife one final time, handing her his watch with the request that she imagine "it is my heart beating", and never let it stop. Again arrested in 1950, she was indicted by the communist regime and found guilty of "bringing disaster to the country" and economic crimes in general, and of embezzlement in particular. From 1950 to 1955, she was imprisoned at Mislea, a former convent in Cobia. She was kept under the provisions of "in secrecy" solitary confinement, and, according to the account of one of her fellow inmates, allowed to step out of her cell only at night, when she would collect and smoke the cigarette butts discarded by the guards.
After her release from prison, Maria Antonescu was assigned "obligatory domicile" on the Bărăgan Plain, within a wave of Bărăgan deportations. While in Borduşani, Ialomiţa County, she met and befriended fellow women detainees from the Blue Squadron. Another witness to her deportation was engineer Eugen Ionescu, who later escaped to Australia. Ionescu later retold his conversations with the Conducător's wife, specifically her complaint that Ion Antonescu had been refused trial by the International Military Tribunal.
The area was characterized by weather extremes, and she complained of snowdrifts preventing her from leaving her home in winter, and spent much of her time knitting. According to one witness account, Maria Antonescu was also held in Giurgeni, and worked for the local state farm's cafeteria. She was by then afflicted with a debilitating heart condition, and, after petitioning the authorities, was briefly allowed to return to Bucharest for treatment in 1958 or 1959. Maria Antonescu was again in Borduşani from 1959 to 1964, when a turn for the worse saw her internment to a specialist clinic, and then at the Colţea Hospital, where she was cared for by a friend doctor. She died there as the result of a third heart attack, and was buried at in Bellu cemetery, in a tomb owned by distant relatives.
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