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Elie Wiesel Asks a Haunted Hometown to Face Up

As published in The New York Times

By Daniel Simpson

SIGHET, Romania, July 30 – Elie Wiesel is rarely at a loss for words.

But emotion almost got the better of Mr. Wiesel, the Holocaust survivor, writer and winner of a Nobel Peace Prize for his humanitarian teachings, when he opened a Jewish museum in his boyhood home here. It is a simple house from which his family was deported to Auschwitz, where his mother and youngest sister perished.

Mr. Wiesel, who is 73, has returned to the remote town of Sighet on several occasions, but on those visits he kept a low profile. This time he was accompanied by the Romanian president, Ion Iliescu, whose government is struggling to demonstrate to the world that the country is starting to face up to its troubled history.

“I thought it was going to be just one more visit, especially with the political implications,” Mr. Wiesel said. “But it was impossible to contain the emotions.”

During his two-day trip to this country, Mr. Wiesel was at first subtle with his message, but grew increasingly plain-spoken in appealing to Romanians to acknowledge their country’s role in the crimes of the Holocaust, and to ignore the modern politicians who still make a hero of Marshal Ion Antonescu, the leader who set in motion many of the World War II pogroms.

A crowd of about 5,000 cheering people welcomed Mr. Wiesel on Monday outside Sighet’s town hall, offering him bread and plum brandy. Mr. Wiesel began by wondering aloud whether he should say anything at all. But he went on to speak of the importance of remembering, a recurring theme in the 40-odd books he has written.

More Jews used to live in this one town than all of the 12,000 who remain in Romania today. Mr. Wiesel urged his listeners to find out more about the events of early 1944, when the town was part of Nazi-occupied Hungary. Those too young to recall, he suggested, should consult their parents and grandparents.

“Ask them what happened when Sighet, which used to have a wonderful Jewish community, all of a sudden became empty of Jews,” he said in an almost sepulchral monotone.

“Ask them if they shed a tear, if they cried, if they slept well. And then you children, when you grow up, tell your children that you have seen a Jew in Sighet telling his story.”

Marshal Antonescu, whose troops carried out the mass killings of Romania’s Jews, was executed in 1946, convicted as a war criminal by the Communists who deposed him.

But, as elsewhere in Eastern Europe, the Communists became increasingly brutal themselves, killing and imprisoning thousands of opponents. In Romania, the government increasingly sought a popular prop in nationalism; under the dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, who ruled from 1965 until his ouster in a violent revolution and his swift execution in December 1989, Marshal Antonescu became a figure of public reverence.

Statues across Romania immortalized the marshal because forces under his command once reclaimed territory from the Soviet Union. Mr. Ceausescu, who turned increasingly anti-Soviet – and also increasingly repressive – during his own rule, sought to cast himself in the same mold.

To this day, therefore, there are Romanians who revere Marshal Antonescu as a great patriot.

The most strident of these supporters are found in the ultranationalist Greater Romania Party, whose flamboyant leader, Corneliu Vadim Tudor, polled more than a quarter of the vote in the 2000 presidential election. He openly lionizes the war-time leader.

Mr. Wiesel urged people not to be seduced by the distortions of history promoted by Mr. Tudor’s party, which include denying that Romanians killed Jews.

“I don’t like the anti-Semitic things they say,” he said. “Antonescu is also the past but unfortunately those who glorify him are in the present.” Mr. Wiesel has long quietly urged Romanians to acknowledge that their own people, not just Hungarians and Germans, murdered Jews. He has recalled the mass pogroms in Bucharest, the northern city of Iasi, and the regions of Bukovina and Bessarabia as exceptionally brutal.

The Jewish museum here, which Mr. Wiesel said had been Mr. Iliescu’s idea, does not directly seek to set the record straight on Marshal Antonescu. Instead, it focuses on what happened in the Nazi-occupied region around Sighet.

Mr. Iliescu’s government, responding to warnings that Romania’s effort to be admitted to NATO could be hurt by Antonescu busts and streets named after him, passed legislation banning his image.

But the crackdown has not been popular. One statue in a Bucharest church has merely been covered with a sack, rather than destroyed as the law demands. Mr. Iliescu has, to Mr. Wiesel’s disappointment, declined to come straight out and say exactly what Marshal Antonescu and his troops did.

The government, which has a portrait of Marshal Antonescu hanging in one of its buildings along with other leaders of Romania, says it would be unrealistic to delete him from memory completely.

“You can attack the cult of Antonescu but you can’t rewrite history,” said Adrian Nastase, the prime minister.

However, doctoring facts about the past was a favorite pastime of the authoritarian rulers who governed Romania for much of the 20th century. There has been little public debate about this turbulent period of history, and since Mr. Ceausescu was put to death, many questions remain unanswered about more than 1,000 deaths in the revolution that toppled him.

Mr. Wiesel said it was time for all this to change.

“Do not turn your back on the past,” he advised, when the Prime Minister asked him at dinner on Sunday night if he had any words of wisdom for Romania. “Integrate it into your life and you will flourish. Forget it and you are doomed.”

Correction: August 7, 2002

An article last Wednesday about the return of the author Elie Wiesel to his Romanian hometown, Sighet, to open a Jewish museum referred incorrectly to Marshal Ion Antonescu, whom he cited as a wartime figure not to be glorified. The marshal, whose troops carried out mass killings of Romania’s Jews, was deposed by King Michael I of Romania in 1944, not by the Communists; it was the Communists who convicted him as a war criminal and executed him in 1946.

Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company

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