Frontline World

Romania - My Old Haunts, October, 2002

Synopsis of "My Old Haunts"

On the Road in Romania

Exclusive Article and Archival Diary

House of Tudor

Examination, Interview and Quiz

Facts and FAQs about Romania

The Revolution, "Gypsies," Background




Witness to History
By: Sheilah Kast

Dancus reads his father's journal
Historian Mihai Dancus, in his cluttered office at the Ethnographic Museum, reads his father's journal.

FRONTLINE/World 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.

Visitors 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.

But 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.

Mihai 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.

Deportation of Jews, May 1944
Pictures of the deportation of the Sighet Jews, May 1944
Dancus 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."

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 Voda Street.

Deportation of Jews, May 1944
Pictures of the deportation of the Sighet Jews, May 1944

In 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.

Read Father Dancus's actual journal"They 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.

"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, 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.

"Today, 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."

Fifteen 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.

Exterior of Wiesel house
Exterior of the Wiesel house

In 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.

"It 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.

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 happened to his family and friends. Still, he urged the residents of Sighet to remember, 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 sudden became empty of Jews," Wiesel said.

President Iliescu and Wiesel
President Ion Iliescu and professor Elie Wiesel greeting the people of the town of Sighetu Marmatiei.
"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, says everyone understood that he bears a great sorrow.

"He 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."

Photo of Tipuca
Close-up of photo of Tipuca
For 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.

Why did Dancus push so hard?

"I'll 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.

Wiesel speaking to the Jewish community
Professor Elie Wiesel in the town synagogue speaking to the Jewish community of Sighet.
Pressed 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.

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.

"The 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."

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, 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.

Wiesel and President Iliescu dancing
Professor 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)
Four 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.

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.

"They 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.

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