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Following my mother’s footsteps through Romania

The Kahan house.

The Kahan house. Image by Bernice Lerner

This piece was originally published in the Boston Jewish Advocate.

I hailed a taxi to take me to where I was meeting others—a traditional Romanian village. Driving from Casa Lurca de Calinesti (next to the Elie Wiesel Memorial House) down Strada Tudor Vladimirescu (formerly Kigyó utca) we passed a long yard on the right. “What is here?” I asked my twenty-something driver. “Just some old buildings,” he said. I wanted to scream. Don’t you see? This is where my mother was born! This shabby house on the right was where the Katz family lived; they hid valuables in their dry well. I sat silent. Seventy-five years had passed, and these grounds held meaning only for me.

A gathering in Sighet in traditional Romanian costumes.

A gathering in Sighet in traditional Romanian costumes. Image by Bernice Lerner

Armed with stories about my mother’s childhood, I visited her hometown of Sighet in May 2019—to finally see the place I had long wondered about, to commemorate the deportation of the area’s more than 12,000 Jews to Auschwitz. I tried to imagine streets filled with men and boys walking to synagogue, grandmothers praying for the coming of the messiah, mothers preparing Sabbath meals. I came up short. Jews had once comprised 40% of Sighet’s population; the place was now homogeneous. Young people in traditional Romanian costumes posed for photographs at a street fair. Others congregated at the market or in cafés on the main thoroughfare. The vibrant community that vanished two generations ago was—but for the mayor and some educators, and the offspring of Jews who settled in Sighet after the war—forgotten.

Among the thirty of us on this pilgrimage was Elisha Wiesel. He spoke about the time he came to Sighet with his father—who saw ghosts, who became mute. Elie had then told him that there were two Sighets: the Sighet of today and the Sighet in the heavens.

I yearned to know the Sighet frozen in cosmic space and time. I wanted to see my grandmother stencil the walls of her family’s small apartment—between Kigyó utca and Timar utca—with a border design of blue and green vines. I wanted to taste the fresh rolls my great-grandmother brought for her grandchildren every morning. I wanted to smell the stone ground wheat produced at the neighborhood flour mill. Instead, I consoled myself with what I could take from my visit: the surrounding scenery (the mountains had not moved), the layout of the streets, and distances.

Stars of David in the floor of an alley.

Stars of David in the floor of an alley. Image by Bernice Lerner

Our guide pointed out hidden signs of the existence of the town’s former inhabitants: Jewish stars carved into the floor of an alley off the main street; wrought iron railings with Jewish stars in a hotel; the shadow of a mezuzah on a doorpost. Holding a directory of “before and after” street names (changed in the years after World War II) she helped my sister and me locate the spot of our forebears’ home.

Where my mother had lived for the first fourteen years of her life was now a mostly vacant lot with ramshackle sheds abutting communist-era-style apartments. A gas station across the way was where the Talmud Torah synagogue once stood. The Mahazikei Torah synagogue, where my mother and her family prayed on holidays, had been a few blocks down on the left.

I followed my mother’s steps to the school she attended, about a twenty-minute walk down Rosza utca, or less time when she slid down ice-filled gutters on frigid days. Farther along this street was the great synagogue, the Alte Shul. In its stead is a cenotaph to the deported Jews. When my mother was twelve, she delivered geese to the great rabbi’s house next door. She was proud that he trusted her grandmother, from whom he purchased poultry on credit. His wife gave her a cookie when she went into their kitchen, from which she could peek into the study filled with the rabbi’s disciples, and the bedroom, where the eminent couple conceived their four children.

It was a few short blocks from my mother’s apartment to the cinema, which appears as it did in the 1930s, though it is not in use. Further down the main street is a courtyard—now home to stray dogs—stretching back to the famous Kahan house, which was once elegant and is now dilapidated. I walked, too, down roads leading to Salavan Hill, about thirty minutes from Timar utca. I could not climb the hill my mother hiked as a child.

Memorial at the Alte Shul

Memorial at the Alte Shul Image by Bernice Lerner

On her last day in Sighet, May 17, 1944, my mother and her family and three thousand other Jews—one of four transports—were forced to leave their homes. Their first stop was the Mahazikei Torah synagogue. They found it filled to the rafters with anguished men, women, and children. They then dragged themselves to the Alte Shul, and finally, the next morning, to the train station. Each of the journey’s last legs is about a thirty-minute walk. It took the ensnared—guarded by brutal Hungarian gendarmerie—hours. Carrying small children was hard enough. They dropped prepared food and supplies along the road.

I traced the trek to the train station, wondering whether any of the houses along the wide boulevard were the ones my mother had looked at wistfully. She did not then know that she was on the way to Auschwitz, where she would be forever separated from her mother, father, and four younger siblings.

Bernice Lerner is the author of All the Horrors of War: A Jewish Girl, a British Doctor, and the Liberation of Bergen-Belsen (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2020).

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