Alice Lutwak never thought she would visit Sighet.
For most of Lutwak’s life, Sighet, in northern Romania, was “a mythical place where my parents’ life was perfect,” she said.
Her mother was the daughter of one of Sighet’s wealthiest families. “It would be like living in Short Hills and being the daughter of a hedge fund guy today,” she said. “They traveled a lot, and my mother was sent to Vienna for finishing school.”
Her mother married her father, from a town in Ukraine, in Sighet in 1941. They settled there, had two children, and had planned to make a life there, until 1944, when the Holocaust came to Sighet.
In April 1944, Sighet’s 12,000 Jews were cordoned off into a four-block area. In May, they were deported to Auschwitz, where the children, who would have been Lutwak’s siblings, were immediately sent to the gas chamber along with Lutwak’s maternal grandmother and the children’s nanny. Her parents both survived and were reunited in 1945 in Sighet. They moved to the Czech Republic, where they had relatives. Lutwak was born in 1946 and her brother in 1949.
“Whatever happened before 1944 was the ultimate. Nothing else ever compared,” said Lutwak. “I eventually got over it,” she said of her parents’ attitude toward their lives after the war.
Lutwak grew up in Prague and moved to Germany with her parents in 1962. She made her way to the United States to attend Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women in 1965 and stayed in the country.
Last fall, a cousin in Israel called with the news that Sighet was scheduled to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the deportation of its Jews. When her cousin suggested that she go, her initial response was “absolutely not,” she recalled, sitting in the board room at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills, where she is the executive director. “But about half an hour later, I changed my mind. I realized it was an opportunity I’d never have again.”
On May 16, Lutwak and a bevy of her cousins, along with other survivors and children of survivors from Sighet from around the world, arrived in the town for a weekend of ceremonies. (Elie Wiesel, perhaps Sighet’s most famous Holocaust survivor, did not attend.)
En route on the two-hour drive from the airport in Budapest, she started recognizing the names of places she’d heard about growing up. And then, the bus came to a stop in front of the Korona Hotel in Sighet.
“I realized, that’s the place where my parents got married. And now it’s over 70 years later and it’s still there. And I’m walking around thinking how my mother would tell us every Friday night about the young people who would walk around the Korso, a kind of park, and flirt with each other. And I realized I was there.”
She knew the town was also the birthplace of the father of the Satmar hasidic dynasty and that most of the town’s Jews were very strict in their observance. (In the early 20th century, the Sighet rabbi had two sons; the elder took over the position at age 14 when his father died; the younger, a prodigy, became the rabbi of nearby Satu Mar, about 30 miles away. After the Holocaust, the younger brought the Satmar sect to the United States and served as its leader.) Lutwak also knew her own family was much less observant than others from the town. Her own father was a Neolog rabbi, ordained in Budapest in a Hungarian reform ideology roughly akin to Conservative Judaism.
“There were [originally] seven synagogues in Sighet,” she said. “If you did not observe all of the commandments, you were not allowed to pray in any of them. Some people started a Neolog synagogue. And my grandfather and his brothers were among its founding fathers,” a fact she said she realized during the trip. The Neolog synagogue is the only one left standing.
On Shabbat, she said, “I davened in my grandparents’ synagogue!”
During the weekend, Lutwak and her cousins decided to find their grandparents’ home — it wasn’t too hard considering it took up a whole block. But when they knocked on the door, the people who answered “were definitely not happy to see us.”
And when they tried to visit one of the lumber yards their family had once owned, and that had given the family its wealth, they were unable to get in. A security guard insisted that he only spoke Romanian. “It’s a great excuse,” she said. “None of us spoke Romanian.”
Still, she said, most people they met were “extremely welcoming.”
The highlight of her weekend occurred after the group celebrated Havdala together in the Korona Hotel, when they walked, together, to the train station where the Jews were gathered before being deported. “It was pitch black. There were 70 yahrtzeit candles there and we were singing El Maleh Rahamim and that sort of thing,” she said. Two surviving brothers, one from Norway and one from Brooklyn, spoke. One of them, speaking in Yiddish, “started describing what was happening on the wagons and trains. It was the first time he spoke publicly in front of his four children.”
For the first time in Lutwak’s life, she said, “When I was asked, ‘Who are you?’ it was not about me but whose family am I representing. It was about my past and our shared history.”
Although the trip was “intense” and “emotionally draining,” Lutwak is already planning to return next May, for the town’s second Holocaust commemoration. This time, she will go with her husband, after they visit Chernovitz and Bucharest to see where he survived the Holocaust as a child. Until now, she said, “He didn’t want to go back. He was afraid of what he would see and remember. But now, he wants to go back.”