The messengers at Schlangengasse

“Did you really live there?” I was just five years old, sitting on my father’s lap and enjoying the rhythms he tapped with two fingers on an electric typewriter.

August 25, 2018 22:03
4 minute read.
Elie Wiesel participates in a discussion on Capitol Hill in Washington, on March 2, 2015

Elie Wiesel participates in a discussion on Capitol Hill in Washington, on March 2, 2015. (photo credit: REUTERS/GARY CAMERON)


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The house stood still, in the darkness and shadow of a post-war photograph.

“Did you really live there?” I was just five years old, sitting on my father’s lap and enjoying the rhythms he tapped with two fingers on an electric typewriter. He had not lived in that home since being deported to Auschwitz in 1944, but the photograph of his childhood home would hang over his desk for the rest of his life.

Earlier this month, Romanian vandals in Sighet assaulted that home, spraying obscene antisemitic slurs in bright pink paint across its front wall.

But there are no angry words or insults that can touch my father’s Sighet, the Sighet of memory he referred to as Sighet l’maalah – the Sighet above.

That was the Sighet that he took with him everywhere, whose darkness was lit by Shabbat candles, whose silence was broken by children studying in their cheders, and whose winter chill was eased by the warmth of homes open to the poor.

I accompanied my father to Sighet l’matah, the Sighet below, in 1995. There, I observed a once thriving Jewish community erased, with strangers now living in my father’s home. I expected them to ask his forgiveness. Instead, they asked him for money.

The ghosts came almost immediately, as if called. The world slowed down and my heartbeat pounded in my ears. I felt the breeze as a 12-year-old boy dashed past me in excitement from the bench where he had just discovered Rabbi Nahman of Breslov. I felt the warmth of a young girl, my aunt Tziporah, sleeping quietly in her bed across the room. Emotional currents from the family I had never met washed through me, supplied or amplified or reflected by my father.

Love, concern, a belief in past and future – all these swirled through the Jewish home my grandparents had created.

And back out on the street, I could feel the aching silence as the worlds of Sighet l’maalah and Sighet l’matah pulled away from each other again.

We are left with much work to do in this troubled world below.

For those of us who are the children and grandchildren of the Jews of Sighet, we must answer a profoundly personal challenge. In this time of assimilation and indifference to millennia of Jewish identity, will we will keep the spark of Judaism alive for the next generation? AND UNIVERSALLY, the story of Sighet imposes an even more pressing question on us all. In this era when European nationalists on the Right compete with Islamic extremists in their attacks on Holocaust and Jewish memory – while on the Left, fashionable antisemitism masks itself as fashionable anti-Zionism – will we learn from this town that sent its Jews to their deaths, whose gentile neighbors plundered the Jews’ property even as their doomed eyes watched from behind the ghetto walls? In the past year alone, vandals desecrated Jewish cemeteries in Lithuania, France and Greece. In Germany, where so much of the last century’s pain began, the government acknowledged a 10% rise in antisemitic incidents in the first half of this year alone. That nations are beginning to announce the growth rates of antisemitism in halves and quarters is, in and of itself, utterly alarming.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who in his doctoral thesis questioned whether six million was an exaggeration, claimed in an official address that Jews were targeted not because of Jewish identity but because of Jewish “usury and banking and such.”

And revelations come almost weekly of a years-long intimacy with antisemitism that is terrifying within the United Kingdom’s Labour Party. Jeremy Corbyn took tea with and praised as an honored guest a preacher who accused European Jews of having mixed in the blood of Christian children into their matzot – a blood libel as evil as it is old. Excuses are given.

Even among those who are not ill-intentioned, confusion reigns. Last week, Facebook finally removed Alex Jones and his InfoWars account, due in large part to his egregious denial of the Sandy Hook shooting. When asked if Facebook would suspend accounts promoting Holocaust-denial, however, CEO Mark Zuckerberg said he would not, since “there are things that different people get wrong.” As The New York Times reported this April, 41% of Americans, and 66% of millennials, do not know what Auschwitz was.

And yet, as my father would say, there is hope.

There are two messengers whose words speak louder than any graffiti ever could.

My father spoke of one righteous Christian, his family’s housekeeper Maria, who 75 years ago begged her Jewish employers to flee with her to the mountains and avoid destruction. Today, a young non-Jew, Alina, works with inspired commitment in my father’s old home, now a bare-bones museum. She tells any who will visit of the Jewish community that once was, of the seasonal calendar that haunts her as it haunts my cousins and me: Ghetto after Pesach, transports during Shavuot.

“Turn back,” one urges the ghosts.

“Turn back,” the other urges the living.

Listen to her.

The writer is the son of Marion and Elie Wiesel.

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