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Sighet and the Mittel Ages

Though the German thinker Wilhelm Marr came up with “anti-Semitism,” and we have Raphael Lemkin to thank for “genocide,” Elie Wiesel’s “Holocaust” is the most original term in this horrid neo-lexicon. Holocaust (noun): complete consumption by fire.

Our next stop in this travel-writing series was Sighetu Marmatiei, Romania — Wiesel’s hometown — where we ventured to sift through the ashes.

Driving from Prague, passing kilometer after dead kilometer of service stations and roadside whorehouses, we stopped first in Hungary, at my mother’s hometown, Sárospatak — population more storks than people — and then headed east for the border. Marcel, veteran of an Austrian displaced persons camp and the best bartender in Prague (a city full of bartenders), told me that Romania was “Marlboro Country”; but we were advised by Georgie, a Romanian friend into “export/import,” to buy Kents — the smoke of choice for Romania’s border guards, who routinely leave their ethics in their other uniforms. With the amount of camera equipment in our car, my friend and photographer Ahron Weiner and I figured we’d probably have to bribe our way in.

The border at Petea didn’t live up to the hype, and we made it through easy — a few stolen Austrian Mercedes-Benzes being pushed across hogged all the official attention. We changed money legally (we were millionaires, in Romanian lei at least, which wasn’t saying much) and soon we were headed through Satu Mare, old stomping grounds of the Satmar chasidim and now one of the ugliest industrial sprawls on the planet.

It was snowing hard. When we slowed to 60 kilometers per hour, we could make out people standing in the darkness holding glasses and shoes, hoping to sell them, to sell anything, to passers-by. We almost ran over a drunk man standing in the middle of the road after a hairpin turn; we swerved just in time and found ourselves in a snowbank. Deciding to stop driving for the night, we fell asleep on a shoulder somewhere on Route 19, waking only when a few oxen knocked themselves against the trunk.

By the next day, we arrived in Sighet, first the countryside and then the capital of Sighetu Marmatiei (the capital, confusingly, is usually referred to as Sighet, also the name of the region), an area with one of the richest Jewish heritages in Romania. In addition to its status as Wiesel’s hometown, Sighet also gave the world Toby Stern, one of the greatest cooks on Long Island and Ahron’s grandmother. We went out in search of the ancestral home of Ahron’s family: Mittel Vishva and Rosavlea, small towns that we originally thought were two pieces of sweater lint stuck on the map in the middle of the Viseu region.

Within the Viseu region, we were told to look specifically for Viseu de Miloc. According to Bubbe Stern, Viseu-land — aka Viseu de Mischlag, aka Mittel Vishva — was once divided into three parts: Jos, meaning upper; Sus, meaning lower, and Mischlag or Mittel, Yiddish words meaning “middle”; though we soon learned that both terms were incomprehensible to the Romanians.

“You have to understand,” we said, “the Jews lived in the middle.” And a shepherd said, “You have to understand: There’s no middle anymore.”

The town, or three towns (far from the Five Towns, where Ahron was born), goes from Jos to Sus so quickly that there’s no more Mischlag. People in Jos said, “This is Mischlag,” and people in Sus said, “This is Mischlag.” We had walked into a Marx Brothers routine, and the map Bubbe Stern had drawn up contradicted everyone.

Finally an old man with serious vodka on his breath offered us a tour of what was left of Mittel Vishva in exchange for a ride from Jos to Sus. He explained that the Jos-people didn’t want the Jews, neither did the Sus-people, and so the Jews settled somewhere in the middle. (We saw photos of a shul in Sus, but we couldn’t find it, and nobody knew it; one woman said it was probably destroyed in a fire a few years ago, and her dog nodded in assent.)

Our drunk tour guide was to show us the cemetery, and show us he did — he even apologized for its complete disrepair. The guy didn’t want any money, didn’t want anything — hell, he even helped us look for Ahron’s family’s stones and gave us Russian cigarettes. “These are the kind Gorbachev smokes,” he said.

Rosavlea and its neighbor, Bogdan Voda, from which a few of Ahron’s more distant relations hail, are different stories, far stranger stories. Here was shtetl life at last — it could have been 1904, 1804, 1704, whenever. What we weren’t prepared for was the excrement — the horse excrement, the cow excrement, the pig excrement, the human excrement — houses insulated with waste, roads paved with waste.

Four Jews survive here, according to an old woman who tried to write her name down for us — so that Ahron could send her a picture — but once she had pen in hand, she remembered she was illiterate. Her final address read, roughly: “Noramures #13,” placing serious faith in the Romanian postal service.

“You’re Jewish?” we asked an old man in Rosavlea, and he nodded. “What’s your name?” we asked in Yiddish, and he smiled — he hadn’t spoken Yiddish in nearly 50 years. His name might have been Yoshe, and his friend, away visiting family in Bucharest, slaughters chickens for him, kosher, a few times a week.

A Gypsy Orthodox priest named Goto was our point man for local sites of Jewish interest in southwestern Sighet. (It’s politically correct to call them Roma, but he referred to himself as Gypsy, almost as a point of pride.) Father Goto pointed out some shuls and a spot where a genizah had been found. The word for Jew in his dialect — which has something, but not much, to do with Romanian, a kind of Romance language — is Biboldo, derived from the same Latin root as biblio, meaning library, and liber, meaning book. So we were the “People of the Book” and, “in honor of [our] return,” his wife gave us a bag of apples, which did a lot to settle the slivovitz (brandy) and mamaliga (polenta) in our stomachs. Father Goto showed me the register for his town, Dângu Mare: Orthodox: 497. Baptist: 0. Seventh-day Adventist: 0. Jews: 0. “This is because of the Holocaust,” he said. “Have you found Elie Wiesel’s house?”

Four hours later, we stood in front of a freshly-reconstructed blue-and-white house: Wiesel’s house, where he was born, the house from which he and his family were deported to Auschwitz.

Was this house always blue and white, or is that a conceit, a nod to the state of Israel, one of the few countries that maintains a decent tourism trade with Romania? Wiesel’s house, boarded up and open by appointment only, is the nicest house in town, surrounded by buildings condemned (by nature rather than by any government) and crumbling. Gosh, we mused, you’d think a Nobel Peace Prize would do something for property values.

In the courtyard of Wiesel’s house, construction was going on: the yard inside, and the back of the house, is a wreck, a pile of industrial-sized sacks of fertilizer and steel struts. One block away and around the corner is the main shul in Sighet, a large, freshly-renovated structure, also closed. But if you ask around and get let in, the interior is gorgeous.

Wiesel’s house and the Sighet shul are ironic landmarks in the Jewish Europe renovation folly. Here’s the trope throughout Eastern Europe: All the American Jewish charities fix up the outsides, the facades of these historically and culturally important structures, but forget that there are no people here who want to get in — these are buildings most locals ignore (or vandalize) and most tourists never get to. Philanthropists shell out enormous sums painting these buildings — usually getting all-out robbed on the price of the work by local businesses and workers — and then no one works behind the desk. Plus, the whole idea of a museum to shtetl life seems absurd when the real thing’s just a dirt road away.

After we paid homage to Wiesel, we headed across the main square to the famous, dreaded Sighet Prison when, suddenly, a two-cart gypsy caravan roared through the main street, horses at full gallop. The gypsies were drinking hooch from jugs, two had violins, one had a drum, and another was singing. The back of their caravan was loaded with bags of bread and nails and cartons of Kent cigarettes — they’d come into town to do their shopping, and were now departing, probably to one of the gypsy encampments ringing the concrete outskirts.

We were heading that way ourselves, toward Bukovina. We were leaving Wiesel’s town, the birthplace of the “Holocaust,” for the home of Paul Celan, a poet who took Wiesel’s word and, despite himself, wove art through it.

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