For his first three years of life, Izidor lived at the hospital.
The dark-eyed, black-haired boy, born June 20, 1980, had been abandoned when he was a few weeks old. The reason was obvious to anyone who bothered to look: His right leg was a bit deformed. After a bout of illness (probably polio), he had been tossed into a sea of abandoned infants in the Socialist Republic of Romania.
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In films of the period documenting orphan care, you see nurses like assembly-line workers swaddling newborns out of a seemingly endless supply; with muscled arms and casual indifference, they sling each one onto a square of cloth, expertly knot it into a tidy package, and stick it at the end of a row of silent, worried-looking babies. The women don’t coo or sing to them.* You see the small faces trying to fathom what’s happening as their heads whip by during the wrapping maneuvers.
In his hospital, in the Southern Carpathian mountain town of Sighetu Marmaţiei, Izidor would have been fed by a bottle stuck into his mouth and propped against the bars of a crib. Well past the age when children in the outside world began tasting solid food and then feeding themselves, he and his age-mates remained on their backs, sucking from bottles with widened openings to allow the passage of a watery gruel. Without proper care or physical therapy, the baby’s leg muscles wasted. At 3, he was deemed “deficient” and transferred across town to a Cămin Spital Pentru Copii Deficienţi, a Home Hospital for Irrecoverable Children.
The cement fortress emitted no sounds of children playing, though as many as 500 lived inside at one time. It stood mournfully aloof from the cobblestone streets and sparkling river of the town where Elie Wiesel had been born, in 1928, and enjoyed a happy childhood before the Nazi deportations.
The windows on Izidor’s third-floor ward had been fitted with prison bars. In boyhood, he stood there often, gazing down on an empty mud yard enclosed by a barbed-wire fence. Through bare branches in winter, Izidor got a look at another hospital that sat right in front of his own and concealed it from the street. Real children, children wearing shoes and coats, children holding their parents’ hands, came and went from that hospital. No one from Izidor’s Cămin Spital was ever taken there, no matter how sick, not even if they were dying.
Like all the boys and girls who lived in the hospital for “irrecoverables,” Izidor was served nearly inedible, watered-down food at long tables where naked children on benches banged their tin bowls. He grew up in overcrowded rooms where his fellow orphans endlessly rocked, or punched themselves in the face, or shrieked. Out-of-control children were dosed with adult tranquilizers, administered through unsterilized needles, while many who fell ill received transfusions of unscreened blood. Hepatitis B and HIV/AIDS ravaged the Romanian orphanages.