Walk­ing in the foot­steps of a gi­ant, Elie Wiesel


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.

(Moshe Mil­ner)

RO­MA­NI­ANS WEAR­ING tra­di­tional garb march on Sun­day through Sighet, Ro­ma­nia, Elie Wiesel’s home­town.

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