Sighet, Romania - Holocaust Survivor Fights Apathy on Final Trip Home
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.
“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?”
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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