I met a woman named Nomi, and her story has become interwoven with mine in the way only chance encounters and near-misses of opportunities can facilitate. She is from Israel, and her father was born in the Ukrainian town just across the river from Sighetu Marmaţiei. I knew that I wanted to cross the border into the Ukraine, and I figured I might walk around for a bit and then go right back to the Romanian side. Nomi was on her fourth trip to the village of Solotvyno, exploring because her father was born in the town and spent a year there during his adolescence. We crossed the border together and then I walked with her through the town, exploring the old Jewish quarter, the recently collapsed salt mine, and the rather haunting Jewish Cemetery.
This woman told me stories that inspired me and showed me a perspective that was my original motivation when visiting Sighetu Marmaţiei. The reason I wanted to visit this particular place is because this is where the writer and Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Weisel spent his childhood, and where he was deported from in the spring of 1944. Jewish history has always fascinated me, especially the events surrounding the Holocaust and the impact on the people of Eastern Europe. Sighetu Marmaţiei seemed the perfect place to discover such a history, and meeting Nomi brought an element of living history to my journey.
I learned that her father studied under his uncle in Solotvyno, one of the most important Jewish men in the village. He returned to Palestine just years before the deportation of Jews in this region occurred, missing terror by a breath. His uncle was an elderly man, but apparently still held a great deal of influence. During transport to a concentration camp, he organized the group of men to jump off the car all at the same time. It was a suicide mission but an attempt to capture freedom, and a few of the younger men survived the shootings that took place immediately by hiding in the forest. Her connection to Holocaust history and to the village of Solotvyno is touching, and I felt incredibly small as we wandered around the Jewish cemetery together. Gravestones were crumbling and I made some comment regarding how they had been forgotten. Nomi’s reply won’t leave my head: “Not forgotten. All of the people have died. All of the Jews were killed.” Solotvyno has a Jewish population of just seven people now. And it didn’t strike me until I had left the cemetery, left the village, left the country- that some of the women we talked to would have remembered the occupation, the ghettos, and the deportation of an entire community. Where have these memories gone?
Nomi’s mother was German, and her family fled across the border to France when the war started. They were constantly on the move, eventually finding permanent refuge in a convent. Nomi told me that her mother attended 14 different schools during the war. There were times that her family would have the car packed and ready to flee again, just waiting for a school exam to finish. She clung to her education as a sense of stability, and finished her training when the war finished. She later moved to Israel and met Nomi’s father on a kibbutz. And 60 years later, I got to sit and hear these amazing stories.