The Jewish News of Northern California (August 2, 2002)

ALISON MUTLER Associated Press SIGHET, Romania

Thousands of people lined village streets Monday, chanting "Elie Wiesel" to welcome the Nobel Peace laureate to his native town in northwest Romania, where he urged them not to forget the country's role in the Holocaust.

Women wearing red floral skirts greeted Wiesel with traditional offerings of plum brandy and bread as musicians played violins and blew horns.

In the small town of Sighet, a crowd of about 5,000 clapped and cheered as Wiesel arrived but fell silent as he began delivering a speech from the town hall steps.

Wiesel, who was accompanied by President Ion Iliescu, has visited his home region several times since the 1989 fall of communism, but this visit comes as Romania is still coming to terms with its role in the Nazi Holocaust when about 6 million Jews were killed.

Wiesel urged listeners to always remember what happened here during World War II by asking their parents questions about the region's past. "Ask them what happened when Sighet, which had a vibrant Jewish community, all of a sudden became empty of Jews.

Ask them if they shed a tear, if they cried, if they slept well," said Wiesel, whose family was deported in 1944 to the Auschwitz concentration camp in occupied Poland.

Wiesel's mother and youngest sister were killed at Auschwitz. Wiesel and his father were sent in 1945 to the Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany, where his father died. He did not learn until after the war that his two older sisters had survived.

Wiesel told the crowd Monday to keep the memory of the region's Jews alive and "to tell your children that you have seen a Jew from Sighet telling his story."

There are just over 4,000 Jews, most of them elderly, left in Romania, down from 800,000 before World War II. About half of those died in the Holocaust, and many immigrated to Israel during the communist years.

Wiesel, the 1986 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, has written about 60 books on Judaism, the Holocaust, and the moral responsibility to fight hatred, racism, and genocide.

Besides delivering the speech, Wiesel inaugurated the Elie Wiesel Memorial House, a museum in the building that once was his home.

Wiesel, a 74-year-old New York resident, said he had mixed feelings about the visit.

"I am always sad because I see those who are not there anymore. When I am not there, I want to be there, and when I am there, a wave of anguish hits me, and I feel that I have to get out quickly," he said during a stop en route to Sighet, about 400 miles northwest of Bucharest near the Hungarian and Ukrainian borders. The town was controlled by Hungary during the war.