Remembering the Holocaust… at Elie Wiesel’s home
Visitors to Maramureş County usually describe the area as untouched by the twentieth century, let alone the twenty-first. Outsiders are charmed by the stocky, sometimes toothless, peasant women in short black pleated skirts and chunky woolen sweaters; the soaring spires of churches made of thousands of wooden shingles; the village where young women in search of a husband hang their brightly enameled pots and pans on the trees to signal a rich dowry; the tasseled horses pulling rustic carts; and the traditional singing and dancing.
Indeed, Maramureş is its own world, mostly because of the mountains. It’s where the Communists took the longest to gain control after 1947. There are farm areas here that were never collectivized.
But, in fact, the twentieth century did not pass over Maramureş. The two most brutal movements of the age, Fascism and Communism, touched down here like tornadoes. Invading dictatorships came one after another. The ghosts of those encounters still haunt the timeless simplicity of the place, and whisper in plain buildings that stand today as museums to the past and to the people who shared this landscape.
You see the traces of this history in Sighet, the former capital of Maramureş. A town of about forty thousand people on Romania’s northern border, it’s situated just across the Tisa River from Ukraine. During Communist years, when Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union, that proximity gave the prison in Sighet special importance.
But before that, Sighet was the birthplace of Elie Wiesel, who survived Hitler’s Holocaust and was awarded the Nobel Prize for the witness he bore.
“Sighet is a small town, but it will be looked for by tourists because of its cultural heritage, the geography of the region, and also the Jewish monuments bound to this place,” explained Mihai Dăncuş, a local historian.
During our first visit to Sighet, our host pointed out the Wiesel home, but warned us not to linger long on the street outside, so as not to intrude on the privacy of the family living there. Within two years, the situation had changed, as Sheilah learned when she went to report a story for PBS’s Frontline/World.
In the spring of 1944, more Jews than Gentiles lived in Maramureş, a remote part of Romania then under Hungarian control. Some of the families had lived there for two hundred years. Most had come in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, fleeing the pogroms of Russia. Some worked the farms, and some lived in villages and towns, working as traders and craftsmen. There were synagogues in most villages, and in the regional capital, Sighet, Jews worshiped at the elaborate synagogue on Nagykoz Street.
Dăncuş, director of Sighet’s Ethnographic Museum and its newest addition, the Museum of Jewish Culture in Maramureş, has labored for three decades to uncover his town’s complicated history. A vigorous man of sixty with penetrating eyes, he grew up in a nearby village, the son and grandson of Greek Catholic priests. Dăncuş says that between the World Wars, relations were warm between the Jewish and Gentile communities, and their children played with one another: “They were together; they were very good friends, the poor with the poor and the rich with the rich. It was a normal life.”
According to Dăncuş, one Jewish trader was especially popular with Romanian peasants from surrounding villages. The first Monday of each month was market day, and peasants needed to arrive the night before to have their produce in place. Shlomo Wiesel allowed them to park their horse-drawn carts in the yard of his house at the corner of the Street of Snakes and Dragoş Vodă Street.
In the late 1930s, reports of anti-Semitic attacks in eastern Romania seemed distant here in the north. After the Vienna Diktat of August 1940 made Maramureş County part of Nazi-occupied Hungary, Jews began to be barred from some jobs and their children were declared persona non grata in local schools. In March 1944 came the order from Hungarian authorities that all Jews in the area were to wear a yellow cloth star on the left side of their coats.
A few weeks later, early on Easter morning, Father Grigore Dăncuş, from the Greek Catholic parish in Botiza, a village near Sighet, watched as police went door to door in the Jewish neighborhood.
“They evacuated every Jew and sealed their homes,” the priest wrote in an orderly script packed tight onto the narrow lines of a cloth-bound ledger. The historian Mihai Dăncuş, only a toddler when his father wrote these words, discovered the journal more than five decades later.
“Their fortune, furniture, cows—all of it was given to be used and cared for by the Christians… All the Jews were boarded at the synagogue, to which they were permitted to take only linens, bed sheets, two pairs of undergarments, and food for fourteen days.”
Three days later, the deportations started.
“At the Vişeul de Jos train station,” the priest wrote, “special German wagons were waiting for them, which did not have windows, except a single opening in the ceiling for air. Into these wagons they were loaded, and then the wagons were closed and sealed. From here they went to Sighet, and up to now, no one knows anything about what happened to them.”
Fifteen-thousand five-hundred Jews were deported from Sighet. One of the Jewish families deported were the Wiesels of Dragoş Vodă Street, including their fifteen-year-old son Elie. Elie’s mother Sara and younger sister Tipuca were killed at Auschwitz in Poland. The father Shlomo and his son Elie were sent in 1945 to the Buchenwald death camp in Germany, where Shlomo died. Elie Wiesel survived, and went on to write about his experiences, becoming a voice for all Holocaust victims. In 1986, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
In July 2002, Wiesel’s simple birthplace was dedicated as a memorial to his family and a museum of Jewish culture. Wiesel, his wife, son, and older sister, Hilda, along with Romanian President Ion Iliescu, were greeted at the dedication by five thousand cheering residents.
To the jubilant vibration of fiddles and voices, they were offered bread and plum brandy, the traditional gifts of welcome.
“It was an extraordinary moment,” Dăncuş says of Wiesel’s visit. Wiesel had returned to his hometown twice before, but said he wasn’t prepared for the flood of emotions on this occasion, or for the bittersweet memories of those he loved who were no longer there. Of the 12,500 Jews deported from Sighet with him in 1944, only 2,000 returned after the war. Of them, most died, or left Romania during the forty years of Communism.
On the steps of the town hall, Wiesel told the crowd that he had come without bitterness, and that he held none of them responsible for what had happened to his family and friends. Still, he urged the residents of Sighet to remember, and to ask their parents and grandparents about the past.
“Ask them what happened when Sighet, which used to have a vibrant Jewish community, all of a sudden became empty of Jews,” Wiesel said. “Ask them if they shed a tear, if they cried, if they slept well. And then, you children, when you grow up, tell your children that you have seen a Jew in Sighet telling his story.”
If Wiesel’s words stung the Sighet citizens who had turned out to greet him, they didn’t show it. Mayor Eugenia Godja, one of the officials who welcomed Wiesel, said everyone understands he bears a great sorrow.
“He speaks like a man who has suffered enormously,” she said. “He, his three sisters, and his parents were taken and deported. He holds on to that image of the desperate child, because he follows his dad, his mom, and one sister, and they die in the concentration camp. His dad dies one month before the general release in April ‘45, and he’s by himself not knowing anything about the other two sisters [who survived]. So, it’s clear that in his mind as a child, the suffering was enormous.”
For Sighet’s historian, Mihai Dăncuş, opening the new museum was a professional and personal victory. His cluttered office at the Ethnographic Museum holds stacks of documents—requests, rejections, and more requests to city, county, and national authorities, with signatures, stamps, and seals the evidence of his multi-year efforts to get government support.
Why did Dăncuş push so hard and so long?
“I’ll tell you why: Because in Maramureş alone, forty thousand Jews in 1944 disappeared from history,” he said, his voice rising. “All deported! As a historian, as an educated person, I know we will be condemned by history if we don’t speak this truth.”
And Dăncuş knows the feeling of being an underdog: After the Communists took power at the end of World War II, Greek Catholics were persecuted. His grandfather, a founder of the Liberal political party as well as a priest, was jailed. Mihai Dăncuş himself was expelled from high school, along with the daughter of a rabbi.
So he persevered in bringing the museum to life. In 2000, a prime minister under the previous president found funds to repair the Wiesel house, and a year later, Iliescu’s government came up with money to create the museum. In a country where the median income is the equivalent of $125 a month, spending $75,000 for a museum caused a stir. But any debate, Dăncuş said, was over the cost, never over whether the cultural contributions of Jews should be highlighted.
Pressed to respond to the unspoken challenge of Wiesel’s remarks— whether the Gentile citizens of Sighet had been indifferent to the sufferings of their Jewish neighbors—both Dăncuş and Mayor Godja said, no, the people could not have done more.
“The Romanians couldn’t do anything because we were under the Hungarian regime here,” said Mayor Godja. “It can’t be said that the Romanians did not help them. In villages around us, Jews were hidden by Romanians—in garrets, in cellars, in the woods.”
Even Hari Markus, head of the community of about one hundred Jews who now live in Sighet, agreed that a family caught hiding a Jew would have been shot on the spot. Like many of the Jews around him, Markus came from someplace else—in his case, Moldova. He is an engineer by training, retired from running a large clothing factory.
If dedicating the new museum brought mixed emotions to Wiesel and stirred up old memories for Christians in the town, it seemed an unalloyed pleasure to the Romanian whom Wiesel calls his friend, former president Ion Iliescu.
Certainly, this homage to Sighet’s famous son, now an American citizen and the only Romanian-born person to be honored with the Nobel Peace Prize, fit into a larger strategy for the former president. In part, Iliescu may have been trying to respond to Westerners who say that unless Romania acknowledges its role in the Holocaust, it should not expect to be welcome among Western Europeans. But in part, Iliescu, a former Communist himself, may have come to Sighet to acknowledge the complexity of Romania’s past.