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Sighet, Romania - Holocaust Survivor Fights Apathy on Final Trip Home

Published on: March 27, 2010 10:17 PM
By:  BBC News
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Hedi Fried was never supposed to return home. Packed into a cattle truck in 1944, she was deported to Auschwitz with the other 17,000 Jews in Sighet, now Sighetu Marmatiei in Romania.Hedi Fried was never supposed to return home. Packed into a cattle truck in 1944, she was deported to Auschwitz with the other 17,000 Jews in Sighet, now Sighetu Marmatiei in Romania.

Sighet, Romania - Hedi Fried was never supposed to return home. Packed into a cattle truck in 1944, she was deported to Auschwitz with the other 17,000 Jews in Sighet, now Sighetu Marmatiei in Romania.

But like her town’s most famous son, the Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, she survived and has often returned to the town to bear witness to what happened with talks and lectures.

Now, aged 85, she’s made an emotional final journey there.

The rain streams down as we draw up outside Sighet’s Jewish cemetery.

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“This is my pilgrimage, the last one,” says Hedi, stepping over a large brown puddle.

“When I come to Sighet I remember my childhood stories, and I see the ghosts. When I walk the streets I see people coming and going. But they’re not here any more, none of them.”

There are rows of gravestones at odd angles in the grass, many engraved with the word Auschwitz and several names. Hedi’s family gravestone contains, among others, her mother and father.

I thought we’d come back soon. We didn’t. My parents didn’t come back.

“They went up in smoke,” she says, “but I had their names put here.”

A prayer for the dead is recited, and Hedi shows me her grandmother’s gravestone nearby. She died long before the Holocaust, when Hedi was a child.

“I remember how she always used to give me sweets,” she says, recalling a bygone age when Sighet was a bustling Jewish city.

As we drive through potholed streets to our next stop, she points at the low-rise houses with crumbling 1920s facades.

“All of these were Jewish houses,” she says, the only person in the town who can remember what it was like.

Her family moved into a new house in 1937. “I was delighted with it. I thought we had invented functionalist architecture!” she says, as we stand outside an elegant but decayed building.

“This was the most modern house in town, the first with a water-closet. So the last thing I did here was to flush the toilet.

“I thought we’d come back soon. We didn’t. My parents didn’t come back. My sister and I survived just by chance.”

After surviving Auschwitz, Hedi and her sister were moved to Bergen-Belsen, later liberated by the British. After the war they moved to Sweden, where Hedi worked as a psychologist.

She has also been a tireless campaigner to keep retelling the story of the Holocaust, travelling the world to give talks and lectures, first returning to Sighet in 1968.

“So many survivors found it impossible to talk about what happened. But for me it’s actually therapy. Even now, coming here, I’m working through it.

“At first I thought I could never return to Auschwitz, but I did and since then my nightmares are not as strong. I still have them but I no longer wake up in a damp sweat.”

They don’t know what their grandparents have done: some have been perpetrators, a few rescuers, the majority bystanders - and that’s what they have to learn: never, ever be a bystander.

But Hedi is also concerned that new generations are not learning the truth about the Holocaust.

“My aim to come to Sighet was that the children understand what their great-grandparents have done, because when I lived here as a child I was a ‘damned Jewess’,’’ she says.

“They don’t know what their grandparents have done: some have been perpetrators, a few rescuers, the majority bystanders. And that’s what they have to learn: never, ever be a bystander.”

At the Elie Wiesel museum in Sighet, schoolchildren perform a folkdance for Hedi. She gives a talk - but the event is disorganised.

While she sits behind a table, teenagers stand huddled in front of her looking embarrassed.

Others are outside in the corridor. They couldn’t hear a word even if they were trying to - which they’re not.

I ask one 17-year-old boy why he is here.

“I don’t know why, we’ve been told to come,” he says, laughing.

“What do you know about the Holocaust?” I ask.

“Nothing, we haven’t done it at school yet.”

A 15-year-old girl who was inside is a little more forthcoming. She says Hedi spoke about her childhood in Sighet and what happened to her family.

“Were you surprised?” I ask.

“Yes,” she replies.

“Have you ever heard what happened here in your town before?”

“No.”

Monosyllabic answers are common to teenagers. But the local schools clearly did not see Hedi’s visit as an opportunity to teach their pupils about this town’s horrific recent history.

Of the 17,000 Jews who lived here before the war, there’s hardly a trace - just a few families and a single surviving synagogue.

After the talk, Hedi joins in the folkdance, drawing on enviable reserves of energy for an 85-year-old.

But back at the hotel afterwards, she’s clearly tired when asked about the lukewarm response that her testimony drew from the local youth.

“People don’t want to talk about it, especially what happened in their own community. The bystanders are ashamed of it,” she says.

“But tomorrow I am going to another school.”


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Read Comments (13)  —  Post Yours »

1

 Mar 28, 2010 at 12:12 AM Anonymous Says:

With all due respect to Mrs. Fried, don't waste your time. Their government never recognized that they were complicit with the nazis in their brutal work and nothing has changed in 2010, they will never admit to their complicity because it would open alot of cans of worms so it's just easier for them to sweep it under the rug. Save your energy.

2

 Mar 28, 2010 at 12:19 AM Anonymous Says:

Kol Hakovod!! It is not an easy thing for Ms. Fried to do. Let us remember to tell all our children so that it is never forgotten. Our parents and grandparents died AL Kiddush Hashem!! Tell them about it. Pesach is the time!! Do not shelter our kids about it.

3

 Mar 28, 2010 at 01:16 AM Anonymous Says:

Commentor #1 is right. Let her save her energies as comment #2 states, to teach it to our kids, not to them. We have to remember. They will not no matter how hard Ms. Fried tries. They just don't care.

4

 Mar 28, 2010 at 06:40 AM Anonymous Says:

Reply to #3  
Anonymous Says:

Commentor #1 is right. Let her save her energies as comment #2 states, to teach it to our kids, not to them. We have to remember. They will not no matter how hard Ms. Fried tries. They just don't care.

Do they not care in the same way you do not care about West Africans having a genocide? It is interesting how many care for their own blood, and expect other races to care. I think HaShem is disappointed in many of you who did not learn a lesson. For those who do not speak up, dont blame other for not speaking up either.

5

 Mar 28, 2010 at 09:09 AM lets help her Says:

to #1 and ## im sure u mean well but how about we let her continue doing hwat shes doing,if this is what helps her then we shud help her if we can,we didnt go through what she did,we have no idea the horrors she faced,let her do what she feels is rite,if she ends up making a impact on a single person then it was all good,it was all worth it

6

 Mar 28, 2010 at 09:27 AM Ephraim Yurowitz Says:

Interesting. I've been going to the exact same cemetery for the past 5 years because my whole family came from a small village about 16 km south of Sighet called Barsana. First of all, about half the city of Sighet, and for that matter, Satu Mare also, speak Hebrew. Not because they are Jews, but because they all worked in Israel. I stay in a Hotel connected to the Elie Wiesel museum. They are nice to me in that they dont curse or look at me funny like some of the other cities in Europe that I've visited. I'm not choosing between #1 or #2, just giving my opinion of what happens. Also, just as a point of note, the caretaker of the cemetery in Barsana is a Catholic named Ofrim Vassil. I told his wife that it was similar to my name Ephraim. She said that it's because his Grandparents and parents were once Jewish.

7

 Mar 28, 2010 at 09:41 AM Anonymous Says:

I think she is an amazing person. Full of spirit ans spunk. At least shes trying.

8

 Mar 28, 2010 at 02:48 PM Sam Stober Says:

I went back to Sighet in 1989 with my 12 year old son, 25 years after I left Sighet also at the age of 12. I was amazed at how friendly and warm my former neigboors were and the kind words they had to say about my parents and how they recalled details about me as achild growing up. While some of the gentiles living in Sighet may have been happy about the destruction of the former Jewish Community in Sighet the ones I met in 1989 were warm and kind hearted. This is not to say that while attending the public schools in Sighet I did not encounter kids who referred to me as Jidan the equivalnet of Kike in NY.
What most amazed my son that even in 1989 my former house had still no running water . Water came from a well in the courtyard and the toilets were still outdoors as I remember them when I left in 1965.
Were it not for the yoke of the communist oppression that prevented raising children in the path of the Torah, many of Sighet's Jews would still be there today.

9

 Mar 28, 2010 at 05:58 PM SHMIL Says:

Reply to #1  
Anonymous Says:

With all due respect to Mrs. Fried, don't waste your time. Their government never recognized that they were complicit with the nazis in their brutal work and nothing has changed in 2010, they will never admit to their complicity because it would open alot of cans of worms so it's just easier for them to sweep it under the rug. Save your energy.

Dear anonymous, No 1. the present rulers of this region , the Romanians, have nothing to do with this barbaric removal of the Jews to Auschwitz. It was the Hungarians who committed this crime. However, the Romanians did commit genocide on the other side of the Carpathians, East in Moldavia and Bassarabia. My father said if you payed a Hungarian to keep quiet about the presence of Jews, he took the money and turned you in, however if a Romanian took the money he kept quiet. the Hungarians were worse then the Germans.

10

 Mar 28, 2010 at 10:56 PM Anonymous Says:

Reply to #9  
SHMIL Says:

Dear anonymous, No 1. the present rulers of this region , the Romanians, have nothing to do with this barbaric removal of the Jews to Auschwitz. It was the Hungarians who committed this crime. However, the Romanians did commit genocide on the other side of the Carpathians, East in Moldavia and Bassarabia. My father said if you payed a Hungarian to keep quiet about the presence of Jews, he took the money and turned you in, however if a Romanian took the money he kept quiet. the Hungarians were worse then the Germans.

And the miserable Polacken were worse than any Hungarian or Romanian could think about being. They took delight in assisting the nazi bastards. And I shudder when ever I see a frum household employs a Polish goyta or handman. They will bring treif to house, steal your jewelery or any thing else. No frum Yid should ever employ a Polack, Jewish blood still runs from their hands and may they burn in hell for eternity.

11

 Mar 29, 2010 at 12:49 AM Anonymous Says:

i totally agree with u no. 10...and i have a hard time understanding why we frum yidden buy german made clothing, appliances and sometimes cars....

12

 Aug 13, 2010 at 12:19 PM AFrankA Says:

Bringing knowledge is never a waste of time, even if just one seed is planted in the minds of the young.

13

 Feb 27, 2012 at 09:39 AM Gedaliah Says:

The cynicism is sad and shows a loss of hope, when working to educate like Hedi Fried has done is positive and good. Thank you Hedi.

14

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