Over 100 people, survivors and their descendants came from all over the world to spend May 16-20, 2014 weekend in Sighet-Marmatiei, Romania.

You might ask yourself why take off a weekend in mid- May and travel to the most northern part of Romania at the hills of the Carpathian Mountains along the two rivers, the Iza and the Tisa?

We are all members of families who were deported to Auschwitz 70 years ago. Among us were only three survivors who felt, experienced and wondered when they were teenagers why were they deported to the most horrifying camp ever. The rest of us were mainly second, third and even fourth generation participants related to the Sighet Jewish Community members pre-1944.

I am the daughter of a Sighet survivor Sary Walter. I first went to Sighet in 1998 and since then have regularly visited my mothers’ cousin who is among the 20 members of the present Jewish Community. As a Jewish Educator living for many years in the Diaspora and former Director of the Toronto Holocaust Museum, last summer I felt that all Sighet children and grandchildren should come to commemorate the 70th year to the Deportations of the Jews from Sighet.

The Municipality of Sighet-Marmatiei and its mayor, Ovidiu Nemes, were extremely supportive of the idea, assisting the organizers at all levels making this event such a success.

“History obligates us never to forget the horrible crimes humanity was faced with, to teach the young generation about the need to stand up all together against the policies of hatred and intolerance,” said Mayor Nemes in his welcoming speech at the City Hall on Sunday, May 18, following the memorial service we held in the Council House. What a powerful feeling it was to be able to read the names of our family members who were murdered during the Holocaust and light 6 Yizkor candles – this was triumph for all of us.

The mayor apologized on behalf of the people of Sighet for what was done many years ago to its Jewish inhabitants and presented the three survivors with “an honorary certificate “on behalf of the city. Later on we unveiled the “Jewish Families of Sighet” exhibit mounted on the wall next to the Council Room, serving as a memory to the citizens of Sighet.

Sighet has a rich hassidic and cultural Jewish past, which can be still found in the local Jewish cemetery which is over 500 years old, former Jewish buildings, the one and only synagogue, Elie Wiesel’s house which serves as a Holocaust Museum, local homes which still have a mark where a mezuza was mounted and in some places the houses railings which still have their Magen David decorations.

The Jewish community did leave a mark on the city. After 70 years, it almost started to look like the days when the Jews lived in Sighet. You could see many men with Kippot, some with their Tzitziot out, walking on the main street, or coming out of the morning Minyan.

Our Commemoration Weekend started by welcoming the Shabbat – all kosher food was prepared via Israel and Hungary.

Mayor Nemes was honored with a Sabbath dinner experience, listening to Sabbath Zmirot and speaking with many of us about their families who lived in Sighet.

One of the highlights of the event was on Motzei Shabbat – Lag Ba’omer – where a memorial service was held at the Train Station from where over 14,000 Jews were deported directly to Auschwitz over the period of a week, May 16-22, 1944.

Every participant came with their own wish list. One survivor said: “I came to see my grandfathers’ matzeva; I saw it, and now I feel at peace” a second generation participant was happy as “she closed a cycle” others now felt that they have a better idea of where their parents and/or grandparents lived. Many found family tombstones that they wish to repair and restore in the cemetery.

Some had addresses where their family lived, but instead of their family’s houses was a store, a parking lot or a ruined house for sale.

Prior to the weekend, I had the opportunity to visit all seven of Sighet’s high schools and presented my mother’s story of survival while at the same time I addressed present issues of racism, prejudice and anti-Semitism. I feel very fortunate to be among the few second generations who speak fluent Romanian and am greatly appreciative to parents and grandparents for teaching me Romanian in order to relate to the citizens of Sighet and other Romanians in their native language.

The municipality, under the leadership of Alina Marincean, a former coordinator of the Elie Wiesel Museum and currently responsible for international delegations to Sighet, encouraged students to participate in an “Essay Writing Contest” on the Holocaust following in class seminars, reading resource materials and second generation presentations.

There were about 35 entries - which is considered a great success - as it was the first time the contest was held.

All winners were presented by Mayor Ovidiu Nemes with a certificate, books and the top three winners will be visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau, where most of the Jewish deportees from the region met their deadly fate.

This event marks a milestone for second-generation activities to restore and document the highly cultural life that Sighet was known for.

Please visit our wite www.sighet.org, or for further information please contact Peninah Zilberman, peninah118@gmail.com.

Peninah Walter-Zilberman is a producer of Jewish cultural events and Jewish education, specializing in Holocaust and second-generation issues.ebs

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