Middle age is a majority
The vivid traces of a massacred community
The one who visits Sighetu Marmatiei must avoid letting his imagination fly. It hurts to much to see again with the eyes of the mind the normal, calm life of the Jews that lived for centuries “on the meadows highs, on the threshold of Paradise”, isolated, as suggested its name. “The island”, hidden among the mountains, closes in itself a tragedy that today is regarded by many as a simple history fact. “So were those times!” – they say very often. And still, the times don’t represent an excuse! Surprisingly, maybe, for the ones that say that there were not Jewish peasants, the members of the Judaic community from this area were, in the same time, land workers, tradesmen, big owners of land, but also professors, doctors or having other occupations preferred by the Jews. The place, that became known in the whole world through the work of the Nobel price winner, Elie Wiesel, sits irremediably under the sign of what happened 59 years ago.
A short history
About the existence of the Jewish community in Maramures we can talk starting with the 13th century. Later, in the year of 1691 it is mentioned the prescription of the Jews established in Maramures county, proof of their presence in great number in these places. In 1709 it is attested the presence of the Jews in Borsa. The urban registering in the year of 1728 mentioned nine Jews, six of them at the left and three of them at the right of Tisa. In this period of time, the Jews had no right to own a property. For their stay, they paid the noble who owned the land the so-called tolerance taxes. In 1773, the Jews from Sighet asked the Emperor Iosif II the permission to build a synagogue and they obtain this favour in 1780. The documents of that period mentioned for the year 1787 the existence of 1.214 men, and in the 1904 there were already 2.448 Jews, men, and 682 married women. In 1905, there were in total 4.976 souls.
The Jews didn’t settled just in one locality, they stayed in the urban environment as well in the rural one, so they could be found in great number in all the villages of Maramures, but also in the towns. Between the wars, there was a time when they were the majority population. In 1919, in Sighetu Marmatiei, lived 14,000 Jews. The ones living in the towns were tradesmen and craftsmen. The ones living in the villages, despite the fact they became the only tradesmen, they also dedicated themselves to the Romanian population occupations, thus becoming agriculture workers with some kind of a mixed agrarian-pastoral household. In their great majority, the Jews from Maramures came from Tsarist Russia, fleeing from the pogroms. They passed the territories of Galitia and Bucovina until they reached Maramures, where they have been accepted. The last big migration took place during the First World War, when they run for fear of the Russians. The 1930 census mentioned 34,053 Jews in Maramures, on the left side of Tisa. After the first world war, the profound changes that took place in the European space offered to the newly-formed Romanian state good conditions of development in all the domains. The democracy set up in Romania after 1918 offered a different perspective of life to the communities. (From the Catalogue “Casa Memoriala Elie Wiesel, Muzeul Culturii Evreiesti din Maramures”, co-ordinator Doctor Mihai Dancus)
Due to the Hassidic influence in Maramures, the religious life in this zone was extremely rich. The Sefard Community Rabbi was, in 1906, Doctor Samuel Danzig, killed in the Holocaust, as well as the Orthodox Community Rabbi, Jekuthiel Judah Teitelbaum. The leader of Sefard community was recognised as a promoter of the Zionist movement. In the city functioned a Iesiva where studied 160 pupils, that took advantage of industrial preparation within some wavering mills. In Sighetu Marmatiei there were, among other numerous organisations of the Orthodox Jews, clubs, youth associations, charity activities and Zionist organisations, supporting the rebirth of the State of Israel. We only mention the Football club “Samson”, the Zionist movement “Mizrahi” and the Club for girls “Habonim”, and many other associations of this kind. Many representatives of the Yiddish literature in Transylvania came from Sighetu Marmatiei and its surroundings. Some of the important poets of the Askenad culture was Hers Lieb Gottlieb, whose poetry book “Lieder fun main Leben” was published by his nephews. His literary talent came from his father, Rabbi Mechl Marsalik, who used to write lyrics. The most important Yiddish-language poet from this area of Transylvania, publicist and translator, was Iosif Holder, whose first creation was published in “Jiddisher Zeitung”, from Sighetu Marmatiei. In the musical domain, Szigeti Jozsef was one of the most important violin players of his time. Born in Sighet, the painter Vasile Kazar made himself known through his album with a social theme, titled “Painea de malai” (The maize cake), and later he became university professor of plastic art.
In the memory of the tens of thousand Jews killed
In Elie Wiesel Memorial House, at December 12, 2003, there were minus 3 degrees Celsius. If it weren’t for another unsolved administrative problem, some would have think that this should be the atmosphere. It seems like the warmth of a fire was not in tune with this frozen place, where the organisers tried to recreate the familial space (if not the original, that disappeared God knows where!). The Elie Wiesel Memorial House is the space that resumes the drama of 17.000 Jews from Sighet and of 50.000 Jews that lived in the surroundings, that is the “historic Maramures”, as it is called by the specialists.
The director of the Ethnographic Museum of Maramures, Doctor Mihai Dancus, joined us in the visit of this house that is considering his child, born in quite difficult conditions, because the attempts started in 1987, when the lobby reached even through Nicolae Ceausescu. The motif of the project rejection, as its initiator found out from Tamara Dobrin, the person responsible with the museums in that period, was that the “comrade” would have heard that Elie Wiesel had said that he was born in Hungary. Professor Dancus didn’t give up, and his efforts continued even after the Revolution. Finally, the person who openly supported the project was the present minister of Culture and Cult, academician Razvan Theodorescu, who presented the project before the president Ion Iliescu. Having this highest level support, the works for restoring the house have started. Going through the rooms, Professor Mihai Dancus shows us a testimony written in his diary by a local priest, just a few days after the deportation of the Jews. With smouldering pain and objectivity, he presented the chronological trail of the tragic events. “There was a certain relationship between me and this priest...” tells us the director. We look at him with curiosity. “He was my father”. We pass by room by room. There are a few cult objects, recovered with great effort. The belongings (not just a few!) of the Jews from Maramures are gone. One candlestick for Sabbath, a table, a chair, a not so valuable painting appeared after long research. Professor Dancus keeps telling us the story: “Madame Hedi Fried, deported, also from Sighet, told us when she entered this room: this little cupboard was ours! We knew there were many similar in those times, in the Jewish houses. She told us the cupboard had a lateral sign. Indeed, this was the cupboard of her family!” Over one thousand visitors, especially foreigners, passed the threshold of this house-museum. And the images they’ve seen here, even if it represents a little part of what the deportation of the Jews from Maramures meant, are explanatory for the stetl of Maramures, an extinct world whose Yiddish songs still can be discreetly be heard from centuries.
The synagogue of the memories
In Sighet there were eight synagogues, and in the area of the historic Maramures there were 43. The ones that have not been destroyed by the Nazis have been demolished within the Ceausescu’s plan of systematisation of the cities. Still, the Great Synagogue from Sighet continues to exist. It was restored with the help of a Dutch evangelic bishop, who supported for years this community. Summing up to his effort was a Swiss foundation that supported the community with a heating system for the frozen synagogue. Built in 1885, the synagogue represents a remarkable combination of styles, with baroque and Moresque influences with Roman elements. The cult officer is Mister Leichner Simion, and usually for the Sabbath days there is a Minian. Still, the great synagogue is almost always empty, only visited sometimes by some people, in great number, or by the classes of pupils that want to know the history of these places. During the great celebrations, almost the entire community comes together, along with the constant participation of the local authorities, including the city mayor, Professor Eugenia Godja. In a corner, carefully put, are a few praying books. As a poster tells us, those books belonged to those deported to Auschwitz. From the dried up covers, it is as if one still can hear even today that abrupt murmur of the prayer. But for too many the gates of pity never opened.
A quarter of a century without events
If you go to Sighet – almost all the people in the community will tell you, at some point, of a fairy-tale wedding. They will tell you about the bride and the bridegroom, about the parents of the daughter-in-law, and especially about the First Rabbi Doctor Ernest Neumann who, as all will tell you, “spoke so beautiful”. Indeed, when I arrived in the community, the first question was “how is the Rabbi?”, because there is a very special link between the Maramures community and this Rabbi from Timisoara. Except the inauguration of Wiesel House, this event was the most important in the last quarter of the century, this is the time passed by from the last religious matrimony. Does anyone remember a Bar Mitva? Maybe somewhere, in the darkness of time, or maybe not...
Living for the history
According with those said by the president of the community, Mister Hari Marcus, between the community and the Ethnography Museum of Maramures there is a very close co-operation. The president of the community was a very gracious guide during our visit to Sighet. He knew the history of all the places and the way it was preserved during the years. He told us, with “local patriotism”, about the president of the Conservator Party from Great Britain, born in Ruscova, just near Sighet. The itinerary of the offspring who come to see the birth place of their ancestors passes almost always the synagogue, the Elie Wiesel Memorial House, the great monument in the Jewish cemetery built up in the memory of the deportees and the Ethnography Museum where there are two traditional houses belonging to some Jewish families in the area. The community also keeps a close connection with the Israelite Association from Sighet that has a site in the Internet. The Jewish community in Sighet pretty much lived today from memories.
Elie Wiesel, very important world personality, author of dozens of books, “Doctor Honoris Causa” of 52 universities and owner of the most wanted international distinction, seems to dominate the Jewish life still existing in Sighetu Marmatiei. The imposing fighter for justice and peace is here and only here, no one else in the whole world, that scared child trying to understand an incomprehensible world. And also here and only here, Elie Wiesel is not just a simple person, but the brand name beard by the dozens of thousand of Jews sent to the gas chambers.
Middle age is a majority
In the moment I’ve arrived in Sighet, the Jewish community in the city numbered 108 members. Just a day after my leaving, I found out by a telephone call that in Sighet there are only 107, because one of the female parishioners had left us... The Jewish community from Sighetu Marmatiei keeps living on. As it can. Surprisingly, according to the community documents, the majority is formed of middle-age people, between 35 and 65 years old. Along them, there is also a group of some 20 young people. Disregarding of age, for the entire community the choir represents an important opportunity to meet, this being the only activity constantly held in Sighet. The merit for that is due to Professor Lucretia Herscovici that succeeds in transmitting to those who come to her classes the pleasure of singing. The elderly ones, that is to say the very little of them left in Sighet among the 2.000 Jews that came back in the city from the Nazi concentration camps, can be counted with the fingers of a hand. Receiving help from “Claims Conference”, they live in good conditions. They live among the living but especially among the dead.
Special thanks to all those from Sighetu Marmatiei that received us with great warmth, among them mister Hajdu, community member and owner of the exceptional motel I’ve stayed in. LUCIANA FRIEDMANN
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