The Last Return
Somewhere in Transylvania, in the shadow of the Carpathians, very near the most capricious frontier of Eastern Europe, there is a dusty little town called Sighet. It is a town like many others, and yet it is not like any other. Quiet, withdrawn, resigned, it seems almost petrified in its own forgetfulness; and in the shame that springs from that forgetfulness. It has denied its past; it is condemned to live outside of time; it breathes only in the memory of those who have left it.
This was my town once; it is not my town now. And yet it has scarcely changed at all since I left it twenty years ago. The low, gray houses are still there. The church and the butcher shop are still facing each other. The synagogue, deserted now, still stands at the corner of the little market square.
It is this fidelity to its own image that makes the town seem strange to me. By looking like itself, it has betrayed itself. It has lost the right to its name and to its destiny. Sighet is not Sighet any more.
For a long time I had had a burning desire to go there. For a week, an hour, a minute—just long enough for a single look. To see it one last time and then to depart, never to see it again.
Nowadays, in spite of the Iron Curtain, distances no longer matter. Anyone at all may leave from anywhere at all and arrive at Sighet, by way of Bucharest, Cluj, and Baia-Mare, by airplane, by train, by car, in less than seventy-two hours. But not I. For me the journey was longer. It was to take me back to where everything began, where the world lost its innocence and God lost His mask. It was from Sighet that I started on my journey to Sighet.
For twenty years I had done nothing but prepare for this journey. Not with joy—on the contrary, with anguish. In a dim way I felt where the danger lay: this pilgrimage would be a watershed. From that time on there would be a “before” and an “after.” Or rather, there would no longer be a “before.” What would be waiting for me when I arrived? The dead past or the past revived? Total desolation or a city rebuilt again and a life once more become normal? For me, in either case, there would be despair. One cannot dig up a grave with impunity. The secret of the Maase-B'reshit, the beginning of all things, is guarded by the Angel of Death. One approaches it only at the risk of losing his last tie to the earth, his last illusion, his faith, or his reason.
After the liberation, at Buchenwald, the Americans wanted to repatriate me. I objected. I did not like the idea of living alone in an abandoned place. They insisted: “Do you mean to say you refuse to go home?” I no longer had a home, I said. “And you're not curious to go back and see the place where you were born, where you spent your childhood?” No, I did not know what curiosity was any more. And besides, that town they were talking about no longer existed. It had followed the Jew into deportation.
I preferred to exile myself to France. I began wandering all over the world. To Israel, to America, to the Far East. Far away, as far as possible. Unable to remain in any one place, I ran from one country to another, from one experience to another, never knowing whether it was in order to get away from Sighet, or to find it again. The town haunted me, I saw it everywhere, always the same as it had been. It invaded my dreams, it came between me and the world, between me and other people, between me and myself. By trying to free myself from it, I was becoming its prisoner.
The town fascinated me and frightened me. I wanted and did not want to see it again. Sometimes I told myself: “The war is nothing but a bad dream: soon, when I awake, the moment I return, I shall find the place just as I knew it, with its yeshivot, its stores, its Talmudists, its merchants, its beggars, and its madmen. And I shall feel guilty for having dreamed that they were dead.”
At other times I had the opposite vision: I would be the only one to return, I would walk through the streets, aimless, without seeing a familiar face, an open look. And I would go mad with loneliness.
More than once, I was on the verge of undertaking this journey; at the last moment I would invent some pretext for putting it off. Later. Next month, next year. I did not have the courage, the strength. I sometimes found myself thinking: “Who knows, perhaps I have never left it.” Or else: “Perhaps it never existed outside my own imagination.” Or again: “Perhaps the whole universe is nothing but a phantasmagorical projection of Sighet; perhaps the whole universe is turning into Sighet.”
Then, one day, I decided that twenty years was enough. I set out on my journey. I do not know whether I did right; no doubt I shall never know. I searched in Sighet for those who might have advised me or enlightened me, but I did not find them. They had not come back.
In 1944 Sighet was part of Hungary; today it belongs to Rumania. To get there, I took a plane from Bucharest as far as Baia-Mare. At Baia-Mare, I hired a taxi to cross the mountains. One hundred fifty kilometers: six hours, fifteen dollars. Although the driver was pleased to earn so much money so quickly—it is as much as a laborer makes in one week—he seemed sullen and taciturn. He did not like driving at night across the mountains. The roads were badly lit and in poor condition.
“Do you know Sighet?”—“Yes.”—“What do you think of it?”—“Why, it's just a town, a town like any other.”—“Tell me about it. What does it look like?”—“There's nothing to tell.”—“Are there still Jews living there?”—“Jews? I don't know any.” He was in no mood to chat, only to curse.
For my own part, I have a great deal to tell. It sometimes seems to me that ever since I left it, I have been spending all my time telling about this town which gave me everything and then took it all away. As a boy, I was a devoted Hasid of the Wishnitzer Rebbe, but I frequented the other Rebbes too, listened to their stories, learned their chants, ready always to catch fire wherever the spark might be found. Later, I became the disciple of a Kabbalist. Every night at midnight, he would arise to put a handful of ashes on his brow; in a low voice, seated on the ground, he would lament the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem, as well as the suffering of the Shekhina, which was in exile like us, with us. I was young then and could not imagine that the Temple would soon be destroyed six million times, that the suffering of God could never—never—be compared to that of the Jewish children who were already being sent to the pyre while the world remained silent, as silent as He who is judged to be its creator.
“We're coming near,” said the driver. Where were we? At the foot of the mountain, thank God. The danger was past, we were in the valley. Sighet: 40 kilometers. Sighet: 30 kilometers. A multitude of huts formed a hedge along the road. Villages sprang up before our headlights and were immediately swallowed again by the night. Far away, there were a few blinking lights. Sighet: 20 kilometers. The car, an old Volga, picked up speed. Sighet: 15 kilometers. “We're coming near,” the driver repeated in a heavy voice. His words sounded like a threat. He was taking me to a rendezvous. With whom? With death? With myself? Sighet: 10 kilometers. Sighet: twenty years.
I entered the town as one enters a dream: gliding forward noiselessly, without resistance, accepting in advance the best and the worst. Holding my breath, I exploded in time, which was torn apart into a thousand fragments, a thousand faces. The dead on one side, I on the other. Spring, 1944—autumn, 1964. I had left by train, I was coming back by car. The only difference was that it had been warm on that day with the fragrant promise of summer; now it was cold, it was almost winter, it was night. Yet the beginning and the end came strangely together, tracing a circle of fire which became smaller and smaller: I was caught inside, too late to escape.
“Here we are,” said the driver. His hand open, he asked for his money; he was in a hurry, he had to return to Baia-Mare. I asked him: “Are you sure this is Sighet? The former capital of Maramures?” He said yes, but I did not trust him. The town looked like Sighet, but that did not prove anything. There was the main street, the movie theater, the hotel, the girls' high school. Across from me was the street called the Jews' Street. On the right, the stores; further on, on the left, the courthouse. Nothing had changed? Nothing. Then why did I feel like the victim of a farcical misunderstanding? Someone had deceived me: the driver, for his own amusement, had deposited me in a strange town. And if not he, then it was another driver, more powerful and more cruel, more cunning too, who was laughing at my expense. “Are you really sure? You're not fooling me?” He grinned and reassured me, but I did not believe him, I did not believe myself. His voice was lying, my eyes were lying. This town was lying. It was called Sighet—well, what of it? That meant nothing: a false name, a false identity. Sighet, the real Sighet, was elsewhere, somewhere in Upper Silesia, near a peculiar little railroad station called Birkenau, near a great fire lighting up the sky; the real Sighet formed part of an immense city of ashes.
It was late, the townspeople were all asleep. Suitcase in hand, I stood on the sidewalk, with my back to the hotel, unable to move a step. Then I shook myself: start remembering. You came back here to remember—well, then, look and listen. The main square, do you remember it? When the Jews were taken to the railroad station, to the transports, the line wound all around that square. When the policemen set up the itinerary, they followed the instructions of a certain Adolf Eichmann, who had come in person to supervise the operation. Our neighbors had already descended like hungry vultures on the abandoned dwellings: there was loot free for the taking, enough for everybody, for all tastes. The police were busy elsewhere. The looters had an easy job. Observing a tacit agreement, the rich robbed the rich, while the poor took things only from the poor. After all, the natural order must prevail.
Now, there I was at the very center of the main square, standing alone like a conqueror. They had not known that I would come back, and I had come back. A supreme victory—a unique victory. Why, then, was I unable to feel any pride in this? It was too late. Too late for conquest, and too late for pride.
My eyes searched the house-fronts with their indistinct outlines, the sightless windows, the roofs on which tall chimneys rose like specters. I was looking for a reference point, a familiar feature; there was nothing. The town hid from my glance as it hid from the light; it drew away, it shrank back. The meeting would not take place: one of the parties had failed to appear at the rendezvous.
I was no longer sure of anything. I began to doubt myself again. What had I in common with the unsophisticated little boy, in love with religion and with the absolute, who had been driven away from this very spot more than twenty years earlier?
Silence. there had been silence on the day of our departure too. The military police, mad with rage, had run bellowing in all directions and struck at men, women, children, not so much to hurt them as to make them groan. But the crowd had been mute. Not one cry, not one complaint. An old man, wounded in the head, had risen to his feet again and bitten his lip. A woman, her face full of blood, had walked on without slowing her pace. The town had never before known such a silence. Not a sigh, not a sound. Silence: the perfect setting for the last scene of the last act. The Jews were retiring from the scene. Forever.
I remembered that walking with the crowd toward the railroad station, where the sealed trains were already waiting for us, it had come into my mind that the silence would triumph, that it was stronger than we, stronger than they; it was beyond language, beyond lies, beyond time; it drew its strength from the very struggle which pitted life against its negation, brutality against silent prayer. Or was I just imagining that I had thought this? I did not know: I did not even know whether that little boy turning his back on his childhood, his home, his chance for happiness, had really been myself. Somewhere along the way, between the synagogue and the railroad station, between the station and the unknown, he had been killed. It might even be that I had killed him myself.
It was almost midnight now: I had to hurry. I had dawdled too long, I had not accomplished anything yet. There was not another minute to lose. Do something quickly. But just what? Something that will measure up to the return, if not to the departure. Awaken the dead, perhaps. Or else set fire to the town, send it to join those who were gone, and let the army of shadows be victorious. Or, again, simply start singing or laughing. Just like that, in the street, in the cold. Until morning comes.
I crossed over to the hotel. A shabby, dilapidated entrance, a stairway with no railing, a dim light. Could this be the famous Hotel Corona? With my Jewish child's eyes I had seen it—from the outside, from afar—as a palace reserved for princes from distant lands: high officials on inspection trips, General Staff officers on special missions, fabulously rich American women visiting their families. The Hotel Corona had meant unattainable luxury, fulfilled desire, glory, light-heartedness, liberty, vice.
Today the hotel is all “people,” “working class,” “peace,” “socialism.” Like everything else, it had lied to the child I had been; it was without pomp, without comfort.
In his glass-enclosed cage on the second floor, muffled in a thick blanket, the night clerk saw me approaching. His face was ageless and expressionless, his eyes absent and indifferent. I asked for a room. Had I a reservation? No. That was a pity: no reservation, no room. Why not? Was the hotel full, perhaps? Not at all, it was empty. I did not understand, and he explained that it was the rule. I gave him a tip, which took care of the rule. Very well, now I had to fill out the police form, that was the law. Sighet was a frontier town, no one could stay there for four hours without advising the Militia. The clerk took out a large register and began writing. Family name, given name, family status, occupation, place of residence. “New York,” I said. He dropped his pen and stared at me. “You came from New York? To Sighet?” I answered, “Yes, from New York, to Sighet.” His surprise grew when he learned that I had been born in Sighet. Bewildered, he looked me over curiously. What did I want here at Sighet, so late at night, in this lugubrious hotel? Finally, he gave me a room: if I did not like it, I could choose another. I asked for a towel, and again he stared at me. Quite definitely, he did not like my behavior, and he would not forget to mention this detail in his report to the Militia; one never knew, it might be significant. I told him, “All right, don't bother, I'll do without the towel. Anyhow, I'm going right out again.” Convinced that I was making fun of him, he wanted to ask me something, but I did not give him the chance, I was already on my way down the stairs, seeking the outside air, the deserted and silent main square. Once outside, I took a deep breath: and now what? To my house, of course—home at last. Light the candles, set the table for the feast of reunion. The wandering son has returned. Will you find the way in the dark? Nothing simpler, my legs will take me there. My legs have a better memory than my eyes anyway; they never had to look upon those clouds of smoke.
I stepped forward slowly, cautiously. The fire-house, where was the firehouse? It should be at the corner of the main street. Swallowed up. And the booth on the corner, at the entrance to the Jews' Street? Old Semel used to sell his fruit there, summer and winter; now there was no booth, no fruit, no Semel. Further on, the church. That was still there, thank God. And the house, my house? I tried to calm myself, but I was afraid—of seeing it again, of not seeing it again. Don't run, don't run, neither forward nor back: what is the point of running anymore? But my legs refused to obey. They ran, they flew. And I flew—above the roofs, above the memories. Houses, trees, chimneys, clouds, windows, all flew with me toward a vanished town, toward a stolen house. As my legs were seized with flight, my throat was seized with an irresistible desire to shout, to tear the night apart, to make the earth tremble once and for all, to make the heavens fall. But I no longer had any control over my body. I shouted, but no sound came out. The town went on sleeping, with no fear of the silence.
I ran, as a convict runs toward freedom, as a madman runs toward his madness; I ran even while I knew that no one and nothing was waiting for me over there, at the end of the run, over there in the building at the intersection of the two streets, facing the police station. If my house had survived the flames of madness, if it was still standing, a curse be upon it: strangers were living in it.
Here it was.
All at once, I had only one desire, to stretch out on the sidewalk, to rest, to catch my breath, no longer to run, no longer to think, no longer to play the phantom among men, no longer to play the man among men, The play was over. Curtain. The player was tired; the spectator was exhausted; go home to bed, we are closing, save your strength, tomorrow will be another day. But I remained on my feet, stretched tight like a bow with arrows pointed at myself. I looked and listened as I had never looked and listened in my life. The imperceptible noises, the wavering shadows, the secret vibrations—I captured them, I interrogated them, I imprisoned them, I made them mine.
The street, the house: there they were, mine again. More than before, better than ever. Total, irrevocable possession: more than when I had lived there. My walls, my neighbors, my garden, my trees, my witnesses, my murderers, my playmates, classmates. For a long moment I wandered around the building with its drawn curtains. I asked myself whether I should not simply knock on the window and wake up the residents: “Let me in, I'll go away tomorrow.” I knew that I would not do it, and I felt humiliated and defeated.
Like a blind man, I let my fingers wander over the fence that surrounded the garden, over the walls of the house, over the windows; I was waiting for them to return to me the things that had strayed, the images that had dissolved. I felt vulnerable and invincible at the same time: I could do everything, I could do nothing. I could evoke the past, I could not bring it to life again. Nothing had changed. The house was the same, the street was the same, the world was the same, God was the same. Only the Jews had disappeared.
I told myself that I should open the gate, go across the yard, walk up to the porch, go into the kitchen. Who could tell, perhaps someone was waiting for me near the stove, someone who would not ask me any questions but would invite me to sit down at the table, offer me a glass of milk and a piece of bread and say: “You are exhausted, the bed is ready, go and rest, you have traveled a long way.”
But I knew that the one who was sleeping in my bed would not forgive me for having come back. Perhaps he was not even asleep; perhaps he had been watching for my return for twenty years. Better to go away, leave the town, the country. What more had I to see here?
Strange: I had come from very far away to take one more look at the house, the yard, the well near the cellar, the garden—and I could not manage to step through the gate. From far away the yard had never seemed so inaccessible to me. Stiffening, holding my breath, I forced my hand onto the iron door-handle, caressing it ever so gently before turning it. My shoulder pushed the gate, which gave a familiar little squeak as it opened up just wide enough for me to slip inside. Then, closing the gate again, I leaned on it with my full weight, my heart beating violently, my head bursting with delirium. The yard—our yard. Nothing had been moved out of place. The empty barrel at the entrance to the cellar, the empty bucket hanging above the well, the tree with its withered arms turned toward the garden: I could see them all through seven layers of darkness. The only thing that remained for me to do was to go into the kitchen, from there to the living room, and then into the bedroom.
But I did not do it. It was the sharp, nervous bark of a dog that stopped me. I had expected everything but that. There had never been any dog at the house. We Jewish children had been taught to fear dogs; they were friends of the enemy, all demoniacal, all anti-Semitic. Invaded by the absurd old terror, I bolted through the gate and onto the sidewalk: driven out a second time. By a dog, the true victor in this war. I took to flight, as I had long ago. I ran to the main street, to the main square; for lack of any other refuge, I collapsed on a bench and dropped my head onto my hands, blinded by pain, by rage, by shame—especially by shame. As I sat there, a new day began to dawn on the summit of the mountain.
I had lived through my return to Sighet long before it actually took place. I had described it in my novel The Town Beyond the Wall. Retrospectively, the novel became a report. Except for the events of the night, nothing was missing. In the morning I picked up the thread of the book: I used it as a guide. Seen in daylight the town appeared to me exactly as I had dreamed it: bare, without any vigor, without any mystery.
As in the novel, it was an autumn morning. The weather was fine. A yellow sun was advancing across the grayish-blue sky. Yellow, too, was the foliage; yellow the walls of the buildings; yellow the dead leaves; yellow, sad, discouraged were the men and women going to work, to market, to church, the children going to school.
I looked into the eyes of the people I met—would I recognize anyone? A friend? An enemy? A neighbor? No, I had never seen any of them before. I did not know them, they did not know me. Some of them looked at me without seeing me, fleetingly; others saw me without looking at me, their thoughts elsewhere. No one approached me, no one turned his head. Not one gesture of astonishment or complicity. Nothing. They showed neither pleasure nor disappointment: my return was of no consequence to them. I had survived, that was my affair, not theirs. If I had spoken to them, they would have continued on their way; if I had started yelling “Scandal!” or “Fraud!” they would not even have shrugged their shoulders. As if I did not exist. Or rather, as if I had never existed.
I scrutinized the passers-by with fascination. Former classmates? Formers friends of my friends? Former customers of my father? To which of them had we entrusted our Sabbath candelabra, our winter clothes, our valuable papers? An old housewife was returning from market: wasn't that Mrs. Stark, who had agreed to keep our sewing machine in her house? An energetic-looking official was coming out of the courthouse: wasn't that the generous lawyer to whom we had “sold” some of our pieces of property? A man about my age was talking to his son, showing him some object in the window of the old pastry shop that had belonged to the Stein family: wasn't that Pishta the Swaggerer, the very same one who used to go about dressed up as a demon on Christmas week, a whip in his hand, punishing any Jew he found for having killed his God? Ready to catch the slightest sign, the slightest blink of an eye, I mingled with the people in the street, in the stores, in the market. I brushed against them, I bumped into them: no one paid any attention.
They should have inspired anger and bitterness in me, moved me to contempt. But I felt nothing of the sort. I was surprised to find myself sharing their indifference. Passing my house again, I saw the man who was living in it come out, a young engineer of Hungarian origin, with a lively glance, full of vigor: I said nothing to him. He would have replied: “I'm sorry.” No, not even that. He would have said nothing. He would not have remembered me. No more than the others would.
And yet I was not angry with them. Not really. Neither for having driven out their neighbors of yesterday nor for having denied them. If I was angry with them at all, it was rather for having forgotten them.
So quickly, so completely.
Long ago, in this typical shtetl, Israel had been king. Although a minority in a town of twenty-five thousand, Sighet's ten thousand Jews had set the tone in everything. As everywhere else in central Europe, the Jews served as a measure, a barometer. The rich Jews were richer than the others, the poor Jews were poorer. In good and in bad, they lived in a constant state of excess.
In the 30's, my father had turned down an American visa, saying: “Why look for America in America, when it is right here?”
During the first years of the war certain rumors reached us concerning what was happening in Poland; among the Jews of Sighet these rumors roused very little anxiety—and even that was quickly forgotten. The rabbis said: “Nothing will happen to us, for God needs us.” The merchants said: “The country needs us.” The doctors said: “The town needs us.” They all considered themselves indispensable and irreplaceable.
In 1943 it was possible to obtain “certificates” for Palestine: nobody wanted any. No, that is not true: one single Jew decided to go there. The others smiled: “Why leave? We are all right here, the people are friendly, they cannot do without us and they know it.”
In Poland, in the Ukraine, in Germany, earth and sky had been burning for a long time, there were almost no Jews left there, but to us the world looked stable. The danger had not forced its way into our consciousness or disturbed our sleep. In the yeshivot, the young boys studied the Talmud; in the cheder the children were learning the aleph-beis; in the stores people were buying, selling, competing for customers; on the Jews' Street, during the idle hours, people were discussing politics, finance, marriage, strategy, Hasidism, and if anyone had dared to suggest that the day was coming when the town would get rid of the Jews as though they were a pack of lepers, they would have laughed in his face.
Everyone had faith in the future. They were sure that life would go on that way eternally. A teacher explained to his pupils: “Do you know what the eternity of God is? It is we. By dancing on fire, by facing suffering and death, man creates the eternity of his Creator—he offers it to Him and justifies it.”
Then came the German occupation. It happened at the beginning of 1944, a few days before Passover. Faces grew dark. Suddenly the Christian population dropped its mask—and declared its thirst for Jewish blood. But still the Jews assured one another: “It will pass, we must be patient and not despair.”
The festival of freedom was celebrated while we waited for an event that nobody was able or willing to foresee.
Eternity ended one month later.
But not for Sighet. The town has twenty-five thousand inhabitants again. They lead a normal existence. With no Jewish doctors, no Jewish merchants, no Jewish shoemakers. People get along without them, they are not missed. The gap was quickly filled. All the apartments are occupied, the schools are full, the stores have been taken over by the State. The Jewish community numbers less than fifty families, and most of them come from other places.
There is even talk of progress. Several large buildings have gone up recently. An elementary school, a cooperative, a textile plant—the pride of the town. One more proof that people do not need Jews at all in order to march with the times, to conquer the future.
If I had been a simple tourist, I would have had to admire the achievements of the new regime. But I was not. More than the night before, I felt myself a stranger, if not an intruder, in this sinister town which was stripped of all vigor, of any life of its own. I searched for the people out of my past, I searched for my past, and I did not find them. Why was everything so calm in front of the Talmud-Torah Synagogue and the Machzikei-Torah Synagogue and the Wishnitzer shtibel? I looked for Kalman the Kabbalist, Moshe the Madman, Shmukler the Prince, Leizer the Fat: vanished without a trace as though carried off by one of the “anti-personnel” neutron bombs that destroys people and spares the stones they call their property.
Incredulously, I visited all the places which had once filled my landscape: unchanged, anonymous. I stopped in front of my grandmother's house; I stopped in front of the store once owned by my uncle, a learned Talmudist and a wretched merchant; I stopped in front of my teacher's house. A thousand adventures, all with the same end.
I walked from one synagogue to another; the biggest and oldest of them no longer existed: it had been destroyed by the retreating Germans, and a commemorative stone had been erected above its ruins. The others were empty, abandoned, cluttered with sacred books piled up helter-skelter and covered with dust. One single synagogue, too spacious for the fifty Jews who assemble there on Rosh ha-Shana, remained open.
The Jews' Street, once so lively and noisy, is now deserted. Its name has been changed. It is called the Street of the Deported. Who deported whom? A question devoid of interest or importance. No one asks it. The past is buried. People must live. And above all, they must forget. I met my old elementary-school teacher: my name meant nothing to him. I spoke to a neighbor who used to come to us every day of the week: she did not remember me. Some day some worthy citizen will glance at the name of the business street and say quite innocently: “The Street of Deported? I seem to recall that they were Jews.” He will not be sure. Even today he is not sure. The Jews deported from Sighet did not belong to Sighet. They belonged to some other place, some other planet. They were strangers. If the Jews were to come back, they would be driven away again.
Had it not ever been thus? No doubt it had, but I had been too young at the time to understand it. The population had always thought that Jews did not become strangers, they were born that way. Only, these peaceful inhabitants go further than that. Today, for them, I am not even a stranger robbed of his childhood, not even a phantom in search of memories. Have they forgotten everything? No. Rather, they give the impression of having nothing to forget. There never were any Jews in Sighet, the former capital of the celebrated region of Maramures.
Thus, the Jews have been driven not only out of the town but out of time as well.
The only place where I felt at home, on familiar ground, was the Jewish cemetery. And yet I had never set foot in it before. Children had been forbidden to enter. Why? Because. When you grow up, you'll understand. I would imagine the dead conversing with God, or I would be among them, brushing against the walls, keeping my ears open; I wanted to listen, but there had always been someone to send me back to school or back home. Now I was free to enter. There was no longer anyone to tell me what was permitted and what was not. I had grown up.
This was the only place in Sighet that reminded me of Sighet, the only thing that remained of Sighet. Outside, I was on foreign soil; here I was in the bosom of a great and powerful family ready to welcome me, to protect me.
Perhaps it was simply because the dead who were here had been luckier than the others. They had not been deported. Remaining where they were, they had not had to undergo any humiliation. They had been let alone, left in peace. Perhaps that was why I had come to them: not so much to bid them farewell as to entrust them with the town, with the town's Jewish past.
I wandered from one grave to another. I had bought some candles. I lit them, placing one wherever I found a familiar name. The wind blew them out. I struggled against it, in vain.
In the old days people had come here from far and near, especially between Rosh ha-Shana and Yom Kippur, to lie down on the graves of the Tzadikim and implore them to intercede with the heavenly power to stop pursuing the people who had been too much chosen for too much suffering. Useless prayers, useless tears. The intercession had done no good. God had closed His ears and let it all happen.
Finally, I stopped in front of a monument to the memory of a generation that had died elsewhere. A slanting block of stone, with a few words engraved on it. A tomb with no corpses. A gravestone with no graves instead of innumerable graves. I held a match to the last candle. To my great surprise, the wick caught at the first attempt and flamed upward. Was it a miracle? Would the flame rise to the seventh heaven and still higher to the tenth sphere, and still higher, to the celestial throne, and still higher than that?
Suddenly I was aware of a presence—an old Jew was standing at my side. Without greeting me, without saying a word, he took a Siddur from his. pocket and began to recite the funeral chant: El mole rachamim shokhen bimromim. Where had this apparition come from? How had he found out I was there? I do not know. Perhaps he came to the cemetery day after day for the sole purpose of praying that all the Jews of Sighet, swallowed up by the night, might at last rest in peace. As he prayed I closed my eyes and shame came over me again.
The last candle burned for a long time. Sometimes I tell myself that it is still burning.
I met a second Jew in front of the Sephardic synagogue. The very sight of this extraordinary person, this bearded man dressed like a Hasid, took me back twenty years. I accosted him in Yiddish. Surprised, he shook my hand and looked at me lingeringly. Sholem aleichern, aleichem sholem: Peace be with you, my companion. A bond was established at once. Simple answers to harmless questions. No, he was not from Sighet. No, he had never known my father. What was he doing in this de-Judaized town? He was attending to the living. A rabbi? No. A shamash—a. sexton? No. Was he teaching children the sacred language? No, not that either. Besides, there were no longer any children who would be willing to learn it. “I am the shochet,” he said—the ritual slaughterer. Incredible but true; in Sighet and the surrounding villages there were still Jews who ate kosher food. No many. Ten here, ten there. At Borshe, a mountain town, there were not more than five. Three at Stremtere, another three at Dragmerest. It was for their sake that he had decided to stay, after sending his wife and children abroad; he would go to join them only when nobody here needed his services. For the moment he did not consider himself free. Going from village to village, from house to house, he did his work without complaint—on the contrary, he said he was happy, for he was more useful here than he could be anywhere else.
I gazed at him in silence. I felt like giving him everything I possessed, but he had no need of anything. In the face of such generosity, a man feels poor; in the face of such humility, he feels humble. “I could not make up my mind to go,” he told me, smiling. “After all, I could not abandon an entire Jewish community that way, without a shochet.” He did not realize how much cruelty was contained in his words. Fifty families, a community. And to think that long ago this community had been a center of learning, a wellspring of life and wealth.
If the legend of the Thirty-six Just Men is true, this slaughterer is one of them.
Twenty-four hours after arriving in the town, I hastened to leave. One dawn, one dusk: that was enough. Already, remorse was coming over me: I had been wrong to come. Of the four wise men who, the Talmud tells us, made their way into the fields of knowledge, only one emerged unscathed; and even he did not dare go in again.
The car was waiting for me, the driver was impatient. “Are we leaving?” Yes, we were leaving. Was it fatigue that I found it so hard to lift my little suitcase, put it on the front seat and then dump myself into the back? The slightest movement required a painful effort. A part of me wanted to remain. From here on it would be a one-way trip; every step would take me further away from this place. “Are we leaving?” Yes, we were leaving. He let in the clutch, and the car started off. “Don't go so fast,” I said in a low voice. Not so fast. I had seen everything, I wanted to see more. The little girl holding on to her mother's arm. The couple stopping in front of a store window. The policeman on duty in front of the courthouse. The passers-by who had not seen me arrive and now did not see me leaving.
Here was the main street, the main square, the movie theater, the pastry shop, the girls' high school. A last glance toward my own street: the belfry of the church, the new school building, and further on, at the intersection of two streets, my house.
Sighet had long sunk below the horizon, and I still kept my head turned toward it, as though it were possible for me to carry it away in my gaze. And then I understood that I could not do so, and that in my heart I did not wish to do so. I had brought no part of it away with me, nothing but the feeling of emptiness. My journey to the source of all events had been merely a journey to nothingness.
For it had never existed—this town that had once been mine.