SIGHET, Romania – In several hours, the street in front of Elie Wiesel’s childhood home would be filled by roughly 1,000 locals holding memorial candles and dressed in brightly colored peasant clothes. But for the moment, other than the occasional crowing of a rooster, the road was quiet.
Sighet isn’t a particularly small city – its population is just over 37,000 – but like many other Romanian towns, the poverty it suffers as a result of Nicolae Ceaușescu’s despotic regime leaves it feeling like a backwater.
It’s hard to imagine the 13,000 Jews crammed into the city’s ghetto before it was liquidated in May of 1944, when a young Elie Wiesel and his family were among those marched through the streets and put on trains to Auschwitz. Upon arrival, 90 percent of those Jews were immediately killed.
The Holocaust devastated Romanian Jewry, reducing its population from 850,000 before the war to a mere 7,000 today, according to the president of the Romanian Jewish community, Dr. Auriel Wiener.
Now, a little over a year after his death at 87, Limmud FSU, the March of the Living, the Claims Conference, and the Romanian Jewish community have come together to honor Wiesel, who was a Nobel Laureate and author of 57 books, including his famous “Night.”
Under a banner reading “Anti-Semitism led to Auschwitz,” throngs of people wound their way through cordoned off streets Sunday night, following the same path walked by Wiesel and the rest of Sighet’s Jews as they were marched to the trains which would send them to Auschwitz. In addition to the marchers, people stood somberly outside their homes watching and photographing the procession.
Limmud FSU founder Chaim Chessler told The Times of Israel that it is exactly what Wiesel would have wanted.
“We are fulfilling Elie’s dream by repeating this march between his house and the train station,” Chessler said.
“What was important for me was the participation of the 1,500 people citizens of Sighet. In addition to the admiration of all of Elie’s supporters and admirers, this recognition by the locals was a vision of Elie’s for a long time, and I’m very proud, along with Rabbi Menachem HaCohen, to help fulfill this,” he said.
The event began Friday in the city of Oradea with a Shabbat program in memory of Wiesel attended by academics and dignitaries from around the world, many of them close friends of his.
Among the attendees were Israeli Minister for Social Equality Gila Gamliel, Israeli MK Yair Lapid, president of the Romanian Jewish community Dr. Auriel Wiener, Greg Schneider, executive director of the Claims Conference, and Matthew Bronfman, chair of Limmud FSU and the American Jewish Committee.
The program, whose themes were “Never Again,” and “Anti-Semitism led to Auschwitz,” was focused on addressing not only the genocide of the past, but also the present.
“Seven decades ago we promised ‘Never Again,’” said Gamliel. “Never again would we look the other way. Never again would we be silent. Never again would we be indifferent. In the powerful and time-enduring words of Elie Wiesel: ‘We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressors, never the victims. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere.’”
On the way to the train station, the procession stopped at the city’s Holocaust memorial, which Wiesel helped establish in 2014. As the locals watched through the black spired gate, the Oradea Jewish choir sang the “Avinu Malkeinu” prayer, and a kaddish was recited. And a survivor spoke, referencing the genocides in Rwanda and to the Yazidi in Syria, as well as racism and violence in the United States today.
“One of the remarkable things when you listen to Elie, was to hear him talk about hope, the future, obligations to support our fellow man wherever he exists, wherever he is deprived, wherever he is shunned… he supported the downtrodden across the globe,” said Bronfman.
“I’m very sad to speak about the Holcoaust in Romania, but also very happy to remember the great Jew and the great human being Elie Wiesel,” said Wiener.
“He taught us… if we forget we are guilty or we are accomplices. And the opposite of life isn’t death – it’s the indifference to life or death. The society where we lived was comprised of three kinds of people: the killers, the victims, and the indifferent,” he said.
The route to the station took marchers past a small patio bar, where a mostly young crowd looked on while smoking cigarettes and drinking wine. Some of them laughed and joked, but none seemed to resent the dredging up of the town’s troubling history.
“It’s a remembrance for something that happened in the past,” said 19-year-old Bodo Danud. “I think they’re doing this for a reason. This thing that happened in the past means something for them, and it shouldn’t be forgotten.”