By: Sheilah Kast
Historian Mihai Dancus, in his cluttered
office at the Ethnographic Museum, reads his father's journal.
visits the remote Romanian hometown of Nobel prizewinner Eli
Wiesel and finds a testament to memory. An eyewitness diary
-- and a newly established museum -- speak to the forced removal
of Jews decades earlier.
to Romania who venture as far north as Maramures County, up
near Romania's border with Ukraine and Hungary, usually describe
the area as untouched by the 20th century. Outsiders are charmed
by the stocky, often toothless, peasant women in short black
pleated skirts and chunky woolen sweaters; the soaring spires
of churches confected of thousands of wooden shingles; the villages
where young women in search of a husband hang their brightly
enameled pots and pans on the trees to signal a rich dowry;
the betasseled horses pulling rustic carts; the traditional
singing and dancing.
the 20th century did not, in fact, pass over Maramures. 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 this place. They whisper in plain
buildings that stand today as museums to the people who lived
and died here.
Dancus, a historian, is director of the Ethnographic Museum
in Sighet, the regional capital, and of its newest addition,
the Museum of Jewish Culture in Maramures. A vigorous man of
60 with penetrating eyes, he has labored for three decades to
uncover his town's complicated history. "If you don't know your
past, you can't face the present," Dancus says. "You can't count
on anything from the future, except maybe worse things to come."
In the spring of 1944, more Jews than Gentiles lived in Maramures,
a remote part of Romania then under Hungarian control. Some
of their families had lived there for 200 years. Most had come
in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, fleeing the pogroms
of Russia. Some worked the farms; some lived in villages and
towns, working as traders and craftsmen. There were synagogues
in most villages, and in Sighet, Jews worshiped at the elaborate
synagogue on Nagykoz Utca Street.
remembers hearing stories of the time. The historian grew up
in a nearby village, the son and grandson of Greek Catholic
priests. Dancus says that between the world wars, relations
were warm between the Jewish and Gentile communities, and their
children played together. "They were together, they were very
good friends, the poor with the poor, the rich with the rich.
It was a normal life."
Pictures of the deportation of the Sighet
Jews, May 1944
According to Dancus, one Jewish trader was especially popular
with Romanian peasants from surrounding villages: The first
Monday of each month was market day, and they needed to arrive
the night before to have their produce in place. Slomo Wiesel
allowed the farmers to park their horse-drawn carts in the yard
of his house at the corner of the Street of Snakes and Dragos
Pictures of the deportation of the Sighet
Jews, May 1944
the late 1930s, reports of anti-Semitic attacks in eastern Romania
seemed distant. But after the Vienna Diktat of August 1940 made
Maramures County part of Nazi-occupied Hungary, Jews began to
be barred from some jobs and their children were not welcome
in local schools. Then, in March 1944, came the order from Hungarian
authorities that all Jews in the area were to wear a yellow
star made of cloth on the left side of their coats.
A few weeks later, early on Easter morning, Father Grigore Dancus
from the Greek Catholic parish in Botiza, near Sighet, watched
police and town authorities go door to door in the Jewish neighborhood.
went from house to house evacuating every Jew and sealing their
homes," the priest wrote in orderly script packed tight into
the narrow lines of a cloth-bound ledger. Mihai Dancus, only
a toddler when his father wrote these words, discovered the
journal decades later and shared
it with FRONTLINE/World.
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, and they could take with them only linens, bed
sheets, two pair of undergarments and food for fourteen days
... . There was great sorrow during all this time. No Christian
was glad for the Jews' fate, on the contrary they sympathized
with them very much ... . The Christians never stopped bringing
them at the Synagogue all kinds of food."
But three days later, the priest wrote, the deportations started.
the 22d of May 1944, as I write these lines, all the Jews already
are gone from Dragomiresti, and nobody knows where they'll stop.
They were transported from Dragomiresti to the Viseul de Jos
train station with carts and on foot. As this happened, some
of them died walking and some of them, because they resisted
leaving, were shot. At the Viseul de Jos train station, special
German wagons were waiting for them, which did not have windows
except a single opening in the ceiling for air. In 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."
thousand five hundred Jews were deported from Sighet. Among
them were the Weisels of Dragos Voda Street, including their
15-year-old son Elie. Elie's mother Sara and younger sister
Tipuca were killed at Auschwitz in Poland; the father, Slomo,
and son were sent in 1945 to the Buchenwald death camp in Germany,
where Slomo died. Elie Wiesel survived, and went on to write
about his experience, becoming a voice for all Holocaust victims.
In 1986, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
July 2002, the simple house where Wiesel was born was dedicated
as a memorial to his family and opened as the Museum of Jewish
Culture. Wiesel, his wife, son and older sister Hilda, and Romanian
president Ion Iliescu were greeted by 5,000 cheering residents.
To the jubilant vibration of fiddles and voices, they were offered
bread and plum brandy, the traditional gifts of welcome.
Exterior of the Wiesel house
was an extraordinary moment," Dancus says of Wiesel's visit.
Wiesel had been back 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 15,500 Jews deported from Sighet with him
in 1944, only 2,000 returned after the war. Of those, many have
died and many others left Romania during the 40 years of communism.
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 happened to his family and friends. Still, he urged
the residents of Sighet to remember, to ask their parents and
grandparents about the past.
them what happened when Sighet, which used to have a vibrant Jewish
community, all of sudden became empty of Jews," Wiesel said.
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."
Ion Iliescu and professor Elie Wiesel greeting the people
of the town of Sighetu Marmatiei.
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, says everyone understood
that he bears a great sorrow.
speaks like a man who has suffered enormously," she says. "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 release in April '45,
and he's by himself not knowing anything about the other two
sisters [who survived]. So, it's clear that for his mind as
a child, the suffering was enormous."
Sighet's historian, Mihai Dancus, opening the new museum was
a personal as well as professional 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 -- showing years of his efforts
to get government support.
Close-up of photo of Tipuca
Why did Dancus push so hard?
tell you why: Because in Maramures alone, 40,000 Jews in 1944
disappeared from history," he says, his voice rising. "All deported!
As a historian, as an educated person, I know that we will be
condemned by history if we don't speak this truth."
And Dancus knows the feeling of being an underdog in Romania:
After the Communists took power at the end of World War II,
Greek Catholics were persecuted. His grandfather, a priest,
was a founder of the Liberal political party. He was jailed.
And Mihai Dancus himself was expelled from high school, along
with the daughter of a rabbi.
So he persevered in his search to recognize the past. 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 more money for the museum. In a country where many people earn less than $100 a month, spending $75,000
for a museum caused a stir. But any debate, Dancus said, was
over the cost, never over whether the cultural contributions
of Jews should be highlighted.
about the unspoken challenge of Wiesel's remarks -- whether
the Gentile citizens of Sighet were indifferent to the sufferings
of their Jewish neighbors -- both Dancus and Mayor Godja still
say they could not have done more.
Elie Wiesel in the town synagogue speaking to the Jewish
community of Sighet.
Even Hary Marcus, head of the community of the hundred or so
Jews who now live in Sighet, agrees that a family caught hiding
a Jew in 1944 would have been shot on the spot.
Romanians couldn't do anything because here we were under the
Hungarian regime," explains Mayor Godja. "It can't be said that
the Romanians did not help them. There were villages around
us where the Jews were hidden by the Romanians -- in the garret,
in the cellar, in the woods."
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, President Ion Iliescu.
Certainly this homage to Sighet's famous son, now an American
citizen and the only person born in Romania to be honored with
the Nobel Peace Prize, fit into a larger strategy for the 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 join Western alliances like NATO and
the European Union. But in part, Iliescu, a former communist
himself, may have come to Sighet to acknowledge the complexity
of Romania's past.
blocks from the plain house where Elie Wiesel grew up stands
a large severe yellow building, its hard lines unbroken by trees
or flowers. What it stands for says something about why Romanians
tend to see themselves as victims, not perpetrators, of the
great tragedies that swept across their territory.
Elie Wiesel and President Ion Iliescu dancing the hora at
the Maramures Village Museum, in the garden of the Drimer
house (19th-century house of Jewish family originating in
the village of Barsana)
This is Sighet Prison. By 1948, only four years after the Jews
were deported from Maramures County, the tides had changed.
The Nazi-directed Hungarian occupiers had been replaced by Russian
soldiers and communists loyal to Moscow.
Very quickly after they seized power, the new communist rulers
made Sighet Prison the main incarceration point for Romania's
prewar academic and government elite. This prison, built in
the last years of the 19th century, was chosen in part because
it was so close to Ukraine: In case of attack from the West,
it would have taken just minutes to spirit the political prisoners
into the Soviet Union.
One hundred eighty prisoners were held in 72 small cells with
very little heat and inadequate food, and there were frequent
beatings. About 50 died here before the communists shut the
prison down in 1977. These prisoners especially the communists
did not want to escape. They were the idea leaders -- the politicians
who believed in democracy, the academics with credibility to
challenge collectivization, the religious leaders who could
speak of faith. The inmates included four former prime ministers
and seven bishops of the Roman and Greek Catholic churches.
Because of its distinguished inmates, this came to be known
as the Ministers Prison.
Today, the prison stands as an indictment of a cruel system.
Since 1997, the yellow building has been a museum and International
Study Center, offering seminars and research focused on the
importance of remembering and of memory as a tool of justice.
Nearby, the little museum dedicated by Wiesel and Iliescu offers
itself as a celebration of the contributions Jews made to the
life of Maramures County. It, too, speaks of the importance
of memory. Both museums were inspired by the same drive: to
bear witness so those who died will not be forgotten.
lived here," Dancus reflected. "They lived among us, and then
they disappeared. We cannot make an abstraction out of this."
Sheilah Kast, a former ABC News correspondent and former host of the PBS show "This Week in
Business," lived in Romania when her husband Jim Rosapepe was U.S. ambassador there, 1998-2001.