Saturday, May 31, 2014

Dispatch: Traveling Back in Sighet

I am steeped in the Holocaust, but most of it comes from my mother’s side of the family. Her father was in hiding in Amsterdam for a few months and escaped because of his blue eyes and light hair. As a child I always imagined that he was sitting at a bus stop and Hitler walked by and didn’t realize he was Jewish.

When I was 8 or 9, I read my mom a book report on the Upstairs Room, a book about a girl in hiding, and she sat on the couch listening and crying. She has read a lot of historical and painful books about World War II and the Holocaust. We joke that she likes to read about trauma, but it is not really funny. I think it is a search for self and a desire to reconnect to past and childhood. The truth is that most of the books she reads are passed on to us and so literature is one way that I have been immersed.

I grew up hearing stories about Papa Henry, my dad’s father. About how he left Hungary in 1928 and didn’t have enough money for passage from Hamburg to New York so he had to stow away in a tiny crowded hold and his cousin had to pay the rest of the fare when he arrived. About the special suit he spent too much money on to look good at a wedding in Brooklyn. We heard about his butcher shop in Harlem, where he was one of a few owners to hire African-American people in the thirties and forties, and the business as it moved to Boston – and my dad, who broke his nose when he slipped pushing meat on racks and clearly didn’t inherit the butcher genes.

But it was when the plans for our trip to Sighet, Romania, the town where my grandfather was born, began to take hold, that the story of the Blank family came together for me, as a descendant and as a filmmaker. I went to Sighet because the town was having a commemoration weekend to honor the 70th anniversary of the deportation of the Jews who lived there, including my family. Over 100 people came from the U.S., Israel, and Canada.

Sighet is located in northern Romania, near the Hungarian and Ukrainian borders. 40 percent of the town was Jewish, and it was a thriving intellectual and cultural community. Several important Talmudic scholars began their studies there.

My journey into the past started before I arrived in Sighet, with a series of emails from my Dad’s first-cousin Freddie in Israel:

Your grandma's last name was Wieder. She went with the transport to Auschwitz on May 18, 1944.

I always knew she died in the Holocaust. But there is something different to learn of her exact journey and the place where she died. It moves her from a group of unknown six million to a person, a picture -- to family. Since my visit to Sighet I have seen the train tracks that took her away in the transport.

And the second email (all of these people are uncles, aunts and cousins):

The following souls were deported on that fateful June 18:

- Sheindel (my great-grandmother)
- Julia + Mendel + Children
- Ethel
- Moishe (my grandfather's brother who I never knew about)
- Simon - Saved and liberated
- Adolph - Saved and liberated
- Jontel + Ester + 2 sons - Jontel gave his last piece of bread to Simon and died one day before the liberation
- Esther was taken earlier from Debrecen and liberated
- Avraham and Itzhak were taken to forced labor work lumber camps in the Ukraine. Both escaped, only Itzhak died immediately thereafter from Typhus]

The story is starting to unfold. We must get as much info as possible from those that remember and can tell.

It’s funny, in my profession you spend a lot of time filming, taking pictures and then you get to the end of something and realize you haven’t taken any photos. The other day, I saw a photo and realized quickly that it captured my entire week.

Taken by my cameraman and friend Felix Seuffert, it is an image of a memorial in the cemetery in Sighet that contains soap made from the bodies of people cremated at Auschwitz. In the photo, the memorial is in the background and in the foreground is Felix’s tripod.

Felix and I have worked together before on my Schools That Work series, traveling to rural and sometimes remote parts of South Africa. But we had never traveled this far together.

The week started in the airport in Munich when Felix met my parents for the first time and ended at the train station, from which thousands of people, including my relatives, were packed into cattle cars and taken away.

The weekend was full of incredible events and charged with the energy and love of those who gathered to remember. As my mom said, it felt as if we were family. I was moved by so much -- praying at synagogue, listening to a klezmer concert, standing with extended family in front of my great-grandfather Aaron’s grave, the way people opened themselves up to me and my camera, and hearing stories of the past and present.

Sitting in the balcony on Shabbat in the only synagogue left in Sighet, my mom and I prayed as well as we could, with a little help from the women on either side. I have conflicting feelings about the separation of men and women at Orthodox synagogues, but sometimes it is special. Over the balcony, we could see my dad, wearing the kepah I bought him in Jerusalem and the tallit my mom’s father used to wear. Friday night was the first time I cried, sitting there, thinking that my grandfather and great grandfather had prayed in this town and in a synagogue that is no more.

Once the weekend ended and my family left, I had two days in Sighet on my own. It was when things got quiet that I could breathe and delve even more deeply. We didn’t have anyone left to interview and we could spend time capturing the space – the space of today, thinking of how to use it to show yesterday.

Johnny Popescu, our guide, told us stories about people being herded into the ghetto and a wall being built in the middle of a street so former neighbors, Jews and Christians were no more. We interviewed two women in their 80s who remember when the Jews were pushed into the ghetto and the gendarmes roughly leading women and children to the train station.

Johnny told us that he sees the city in 3-D. When he recalls the history of Sighet, he can see the synagogue and yeshiva buildings. The Jews, he says, are the missing piece of the puzzle that is Sighet. Only about 80 Jews live there now.

We returned to the cemetery where I could leave Felix to film and I could roam. I found one gravestone from someone who died in 1935. Below, his family had added 5 people who had died in Auschwitz. Then I moved on to my great grandfather Aaron’s grave.

Finally, we returned to the train tracks. The first time we went, it was a night vigil. Rows of candles lined the tracks, a survivor told his story in Yiddish, and we sang. This time I was alone. Not literally as Felix was filming and people were waiting for the train. But alone.


Once we raised money, I asked Felix to come and film. I wanted to bring someone who is talented and creative, but also someone who understands my process and could appreciate the complexity of the shoot as it combined the personal, emotional and professional.

Then I paused and asked my dad, “Will it be strange that he is German?” He told me not to over think it. So of course I asked Felix, “How do you feel about coming?” As you know, the answer was yes.

I reread Elie Wiesel’s Night and asked him to as well. Elie Wiesel is the most famous descendant from Sighet, but this film will not tell his story.

So amidst my journey of family history, connections, reunion, sorrow, and work, was Felix’s journey. For some reason, it has been easier to write about his than mine.

In school, Felix was steeped in Holocaust history. What is most interesting to me is that in Stuttgart, where he grew up, he didn’t know any Jews. So the history was there, but not the people. Now he was thrown not only into a Jewish community, but a community who came to honor a painful past that he is connected to, though not responsible for.

I am not Felix and I don’t know exactly how he feels, but based on our conversations and the ones he had with my parents, I know it was an emotional and intellectual journey for him too. But I am not in his head, so what I tell you here are my experiences of having him there.

On our first day, on a bus tour of the region, we pulled people aside for short interviews. 75% of the people there were from Israel so I did a lot of interviews in Hebrew. I only understood some. When we interviewed one woman, she said she was going to tell us what her Abba always said. Then she raised her fist, and said “Revenge, " and continued to speak in Hebrew. As I heard her pain, I also thought of the person behind me.

I wasn’t going to tell him. I felt uncomfortable and at the exact same time he said he didn’t need to know and he didn’t want it to affect his work. A couple hours later, he asked again. “I assumed she was talking about me,” he said. So I told him. Felix and I were not alive during the Holocaust; we are not perpetrators or victims. But it is our inheritance.

On that same bus ride, another woman told me stories and cried. She also asked about Felix. It was only a couple hours into our time in Sighet. I told her that he was a thoughtful person and that if she had questions about his feelings about being here that she should ask him. She told me she wasn’t sure she was ready. I know that many people carry the Holocaust deep inside them, but I hadn’t realized until then how present it is for some people, how continuously painful and sometimes paralyzing. Her pain at that moment prevented her from talking to a young German man. Perhaps her pain simply prevented her from talking in general about this moment and her feelings. But all of our conversations left her on the edge of tears. I would soon get there.

Throughout the week, some people thought Felix was Jewish, some weren’t sure, others knew. Several asked me how he was feeling; others said that they had talked with their family about his experience.

The official head of the Sighet Jewish community, Mr. Marcus, told us that he doesn’t like to speak German because of what they did to the Jews. So when he asked me where Felix was from I said, “So Felix, where are you from?” He easily replied Stuttgart and there was no animosity from Mr. Marcus. Maybe another moment when I worried too much.

After we finished our interview with a Holocaust survivor, he disappeared quickly and I thought it was because he was upset. I cried because of what I had just heard and because I wondered what he had just heard. Then he appeared, fine. Another moment when I worried too much perhaps. Neither of us, at that time, was ready to talk about the interview. Sometimes there is too much and nothing to say.

There were many amazing moments. Felix driving nine members of the Blank family to the cemetery and then filming the story of our past. Felix, with my Dad, at Friday night Shabbat services. Felix sitting at Shabbat dinner with my family. The moment that night at the train tracks where he understood the speech of the Holocaust survivor in Yiddish that I had missed. His connection and talks with my parents, and our conversations about this film and especially about my journey.

And the above photo, which, in one image, defines my time in Sighet.


I got back to Cape Town on Friday afternoon, I tried to write this on Sunday – perhaps I just needed to rest -- but 3 days later I am finally ready. I haven’t watched any of the footage yet, or translated it, and I can guarantee you that more stories will come. Because while the journey to Sighet is done, the journey of telling the story is just beginning.

Thank you to everyone who donated to make this shoot possible. I am very excited about what will come next. The next phase will be editing a trailer to raise additional funds. As the story develops, I hope to do one or two additional shoots as I begin to edit the film.

If you are interested in contributing to the film, checks can be made payable to the Institute for Educational Leadership. In the memo part, please write Sighet Commemoration Project. Please also write this on the outside of the envelope. If you are outside of the U.S., please contact me at

If you have suggestions of people who might be interested in helping to fund the film, please let me know. You can also refer them to my website to view my previous work.

Please mail checks to:

Eileen Fox
Institute for Educational Leadership 
4301 Connecticut Ave, NW
Suite 100
Washington, DC 20008

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