SIGHET, ROMANIA – Eli Yitzhaki is a legend in his own right: A man who, with his own hands, opened the gates of Aliyah via one of the most important way-stations of emigration from Eastern Europe, as the Iron Curtain fell, through Budapest, and who has devoted his life, modestly, to working on behalf of Jewish refugees from Eastern Europe.
For the past year, Yitzhaki has worked tirelessly to turn a crumbling basement in Sighet, Romania, into a Holocaust museum. During the war years, this basement was a storage place for Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel and his family. “Chaim Chesler approached me about this project, in conjunction with Limmud FSU and the Claims Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany’s Ben Helfgott, and I didn’t hesitate for a moment, because for me, this is the closing of a circle: here, from this very place, my two brothers were deported to a death camp. I do this in their memory.”
Yitzhaki’s voice chokes as he speaks. “The photographs of Eli’s brothers hangs in our house,” Eli’s wife tells me. “They are with us with every step, every moment.”
This moment offers closure that is both historic and persona for Yitzhaki.
After being released from the army as a colonel for 21 years Yitzhaki was offered the position of an ambassador to Romania. In August 1989, the year before the fall of the Berlin Wall, Yitzhaki was stationed in the Israeli embassy in Budapest, where he facilitated the Aliyah of 1,500 Romanian Jews over the course of a year, in addition to the Jews who arrived in Romania from Ukraine, Moldova and Russia during Soviet times.
In December 1989, the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu was overthrown, and Aliyah began to increase in the end of 1990. The Jewish Agency, with the help of the State of Israel, maintained its transfer station in Bucharest. Eli Yitzhaki began to oversee the way-station. “I worked nonstop day and night. My family and I remember well that time. But there were amazing times, too. One of the Romanian military pilots was a great help to me, he helped me reach all corners of the country.”
The peak in Aliyah through this Bucharest station surged in December 1992, with a record-breaking 10,000 Jews passing through, from the former Soviet Union heading to Israel.
And throughout, Yitzhaki never forgot where he came from.
The family of Eli Yitzhaki made Aliyah in the 1960’s to Israel, from a small town in northern Romania. Yitzhaki’s father owned vineyards, a successful businessman who provided the best education for his children. Traveling back to his hometown, Yitzhaki took me to see his childhood home. Everywhere he went in his town, people knew him; he was greeted with embraces and bottles of Țuică, the local preferred drink.
For Eli, it was important to visit his hometown. He stops in a place on the road outside his town and says, “Here I was with my father and sister in a car, and some Romanian thugs came close to attacking us…my father saw them from afar, and he grabbed a nearby electric pole from nearby and fought them off.”
After working in diplomacy, Yitzhaki served in The Jewish Agency as Director of Aliyah from the Former Soviet Union.
Today, when standing at a Holocaust memorial in his hometown, he stands quietly. Under his breath, he is whispering his brother’s names.