SIGHET, Romania – As we march through the dark streets of the northern Romanian town of Sighet, I spot an elderly lady pulling aside her curtains to peer through her windows at the spectacle. It is hard not to imagine locals doing the very same thing 73 years ago, when 14,000 Jews, including renowned Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel and his family, were paraded through their hometown to the train station and deported to Auschwitz, where most were gassed upon arrival.
“From behind their windows, from behind their shutters, our fellow citizens watched as we passed,” Nobel Peace Prize winner Wiesel wrote in his autobiographical account Night.
The sounds of dogs barking took on a more sinister ring when one’s imagination transported them back to the Holocaust-era scene.
“Can you hear it?” Greg Schneider, executive vice president of the Claims Conference – a cosponsor of the event – asks the hundreds of marchers in a speech delivered at their final stop, the fateful train station. “If you close your eyes and you’re very quiet, you can hear the whispers, the soft muted whispers of the thousands of people who were in this very place. Each one with a dream, with a hope, an aspiration for their own lives. But for me, my struggle is that the soft whisper is drowned out by the loud screaming of despair, of pain, hunger and beatings; a torture which is incomprehensible to all of us.”
But this time, on September 10, 2017, the procession looks vastly distinct. “Seventy-three years later, what’s the difference? We marched together with the community,” Schneider remarks.
Instead of being forced, this march was much-desired on the part of Wiesel and the Jewish community. This was a march of triumph – “this is our never again,” as Social Equality Minister Gila Gamliel describes it.
This time, the marchers’ hold torches lighting the way and banners reading “Antisemitism led to Auschwitz.” Spirits are high, and most notably, most of those marching are non-Jews, Romanians and Hungarians – for Sighet was part of the latter country at the time of the deportation – displaying their solidarity with their Jewish countrymen.
“This commemorative march is the fulfilling of one of Elie Wiesel’s personal wishes, and we see it as part of his will that he left for us all,” says Chaim Chesler, founder of Limmud FSU and the initiator of the event. “His idea was to have the non-Jewish inhabitants of Sighet to be the majority of the event, and to march together with all the Jewish organizations and the communities, united for one universal cause – never again.
We hope that this march will serve for the years to come as a powerful reminder that we’re not alone as we used to be, and the horrors of the past will not happen again.”
Many of the locals are wearing traditional garb – their way of emphasizing that Wiesel was as much part of their heritage as of any other aspect.
While some of the participants may not have known much about Wiesel before the start of the event. By the end of the night, after the countless speeches, a film about him and the unveiling of a plaque renaming the train station after him, they are sure to return home somewhat wiser. While the youths naturally become restless as speaker after speaker takes the platform, if they absorb just one of the messages delivered tonight, the effort will not have been in vain.
But a protégé of Wiesel, Dr. Elana Heideman, who earned her PHD under his mentorship, will not stop there.
Heideman, the executive director of the Israel Forever Foundation, has already set to work planning with members of the Romanian and Hungarian Jewish communities, ways to ensure that the lessons transmitted on Sunday reverberate.
She intends to produce materials about Wiesel, Holocaust history and experience, and their relevance today in the face of growing antisemitism across the world. She aims to have the information packs distributed to participants of the march in advance of the anniversary of Kristallnacht, November 9.
“The violence of the Night of Broken Glass took place far away from the small towns of Hungary and Romania, but its significance was certainly felt five years later as the Jews were taken from their homes and deported to their deaths in Auschwitz. Because it didn’t happen there, it may be easier for them to approach such a sensitive topic,” she tells The Jerusalem Post, referring to the silence of Sighet residents, then bystanders to the atrocities perpetrated against their Jewish neighbors in 1944.
She is also working on a booklet to commemorate Wiesel’s birthday, “to say we carry on his memory not only after his death, but in honor of his birth and what he’s contributed.”
In addition, Heideman seeks to capture the essence of the commemorative event by documenting the memories and messages of the VIP participants – most of whom had personal connections to Wiesel – and others in attendance whose personal reflections can shed light on the significance of Wiesel’s contribution to memory today and onward.
“Everyone inherited something from Elie, and if we can document what that inheritance was, we can attempt to fulfill the wishes of this great Jewish leader and to truly become witnesses to the past and messengers for the future,” she says.