The second day of our road trip was much warmer (still like, ten degrees below freezing, but I’ll take what I can get), and we were excited to drive to Sighet and see Elie Wiesel’s childhood home. Elie Wiesel is a holocaust survivor and author. He also won the Nobel Peace prize in 1986 for his human rights work. As a former literature teacher, I’ve had the pleasure of sharing his novel Night with my classes, and getting to actually see the places I’ve read about is a real treat.
I’m not going to lie, I was surprised when I found out Elie Wiesel was Romanian. It never occurred to me what country he was actually born in – I guess because European countries were changing so much back then? Or maybe I should have paid more attention in world history class. At any rate, I’m glad I learned that Mr. Wiesel was Romanian because it makes me happy that two of my favorite things are so closely connected.
We arrived at the Elie Wiesel memorial house, and we were shocked to discover that it was closed. The hours on the door indicated that it was supposed to be open, so we were pretty confused. Thankfully, Claudiu called the number on the door to see if he could find out why, and he was able to get in touch with the man who worked at the museum. The guy was at the dentist – and he apologized profusely and said he’d be back in about thirty minutes.
So we went to Lidl, which isn’t usually very remarkable, but it took us the entire thirty minutes – even though it was only a short distance away. The traffic in Sighet was insane. I don’t even know why it was so backed up, but no one could go anywhere. We probably could have walked there faster. Lidl was completely packed. I think this was one of the first days after the holidays, and maybe everyone was out of food? Thankfully, we only needed a few things (road trip snacks, holla), and so we got in and out in a timely manner.
We headed back to the Elie Wiesel house and finally, it was open. The man who was working there was so incredibly nice. He apologized again and offered us free admission and gave us a wonderful tour.
It goes without saying that the Holocaust is an incredibly sad part of our human history. However, hearing about how the gentiles of Sighet treated their Jewish neighbors added an entirely new layer of terror for me. In Sighet, they had two ghettos where they made thousands of Maramures Jews live. After they were taken by train out of the city, their gentile neighbors went into their houses and stole everything. In fact, the furniture in the Elie Wiesel memorial house isn’t original to the house. It’s furniture collected from the area that had previously been stolen from Jewish households.
I think back to a book I read by Lois Lowry called Number the Stars. In the book, the family of the protagonist regularly maintains the apartment of their Jewish neighbors. The Danish people helped almost all of their Jews escape to Sweden, despite being occupied by Nazi Germany. In Number the Stars, they were certain their friends would be returning after the war. I don’t think the gentiles of Sighet were as confident about their neighbors returning.
In the museum, there are pictures of a beautiful synagogue that used to stand in Sighet. After the Jews were deported, citizens of the town razed the building. I think the destruction of this religious building shows either the contempt the locals had for the Jews in the area or the influence of the Nazi regime on the citizens. I’m not sure which. Neither option brings me comfort. Instead of repurposing this building for something else – a government building, a church, apartments for living – they chose to raze it to the ground. They erased the presence of the Jews. Out of the 30,000 Jews that lived in Maramures, only about 3,000 returned. Most were murdered in concentration camps (Wiesel’s family died in Auschwitz). The rest immigrated to other places.
After the visit to the Memorial house, the town of Sighet had an entirely different feeling to me. It was much darker, disquieting – these old buildings had stood witness to so much. It wasn’t hard to use my imagination to think what it must’ve looked like back then. The train tracks are not very far away from the location of the ghetto.
After a solemn morning, we started down the road that would take us back to Brasov. On the way, Claudiu pointed out the Ukrainian border to me. It was another incredible moment for me because I didn’t think I would ever see Ukraine, and there it was just on the other side of the river. You could also see the border line through the mountains. We drove back to Brasov on the bumpy roads of Maramures. It took longer to get home because near Sighisoara it started snowing heavily. Hardly any cars were on the road (with good reason). Thankfully, we made it back safely.
I loved Maramures. I hope to return this summer to ride the Mocanita and to see more of Baia Mare area (including lacul albastru/the blue lake). I’m sure it’s just as beautiful in the summer.