ST. PETERSBURG — It’s been 71 years since Jerry Rawicki’s life was saved by a stranger he met on the beach, yet he can still remember the way he felt as he ambled through the sand in Warsaw, Poland that day in May.
“I was completely despondent, not knowing if I was going to survive another hour,” Rawicki said. “Outside of the Jewish ghetto I was just a vulnerable animal. It just happened to be that the stars were aligned that day and I was saved.”
Rawicki, who turns 87 this week, and nine other Holocaust survivors lit candles in a small ceremony at the Florida Holocaust Museum on Sunday to mark Yom HaShoah, Israel’s national Holocaust Remembrance Day for the 6 million Jews and countless others murdered at the hands of Nazi Germany.
Only this year, the focus was on the untold heroes who risked their own safety to hide Jews in cellars, attics and under loose floorboards.
“Sometimes it’s very hard not to make parallels between then and society today, so I think it’s important that we remember to be here for each other regardless of the color of your skin, where you’re from, who you worship,” said executive vice president of the Jewish Foundation for Righteousness Stanlee Stahl, Sunday’s keynote speaker. “Look at what we’re doing to each other in Darfur, the Congo, Ukraine and Crimea, the homeless dying on the streets. We all care, we’re not sociopaths, but do we all have the courage to act? What if it meant risking your children or your family to help a stranger?”
Strangers like Rawicki, who was 16 years old when he escaped alone from the ghetto in Warsaw, days after Jews were decimated in an uprising against Germany’s final effort to ship the remaining residents to Treblinka concentration camp. Rawicki hid for several weeks in a cellar inside the ghetto until one day, disoriented from living off rotten potatoes, he left his hiding spot in the middle of the day and was captured by German police. He was being led to a railroad station when he said he managed to escape through a few bricks missing in the ghetto wall.
Adrift without any identification papers or contacts outside the ghetto walls, Rawicki took a streetcar to the beach. There he saw three boys his age that were playing hooky from school, and decided to assimilate into the group. He told them he had skipped school that day too and pretended to be another carefree boy as they spent the morning talking about girls, school and the other everyday topics of consequence to teenagers.
By about 2 p.m. two of the boys had to go home, though one lingered with Rawicki. After about another half hour of talking, he told Rawicki that he wanted to go home. Then he told him again, and a third time before he said in agitation, “What are you, deaf?” Without thinking, Rawicki told the boy, “I don’t have a home, I’m a Jew.”
“Maybe I had intuition, maybe I had a death wish that he would call out to the other people on the beach and say ‘Hey, there’s a Jew here’ and then it would all be over. They would call the police and I would be killed,” Rawicki said. “I don’t know to this moment why I said it, I just blurted it out fully thinking that this was the end.”
The boy, Janusz Rybakiewicz, quietly knelt down next to Rawicki in the sand and whispered in his ear, “Mother of God, what are you doing here?” He took him to his home, telling him he couldn’t mention anything to his father but perhaps his mother could help. Then he hid him in a coal cellar as days turned into multiple weeks, sneaking him food whenever he could and padlocking the doors at night.
Rawicki’s mother and sister died in Treblinka, and his father was captured while working in a shop outside the city, forced to dig his own grave before being machine gunned to death. Another sister, now 93, survived by posing as a gentile about five blocks away from Rybakiewicz’s home and now lives in Israel. Rawicki came to St. Petersburg, became and optician for 50 years, and in his retirement is working on a memoirs and spending time with his daughter, son, seven grand children and great grandson.
After the war, Rawicki found out that Rybakiewicz was arrested and hung from a balcony in one of the last surviving buildings in the Warsaw ghetto. Rawicki doesn’t know for sure what led to his savior’s death, but can’t help but think the symbolic, public hanging was because of those nights he spent in the coal cellar.
When a rescuer was discovered, their families were tortured for the act as well. On the official list of people hung that day was Janusz Rybakiewicz and another name with the same last name. Though he and his family may have paid the ultimate price for their kindness, he was recognized by the State of Israel as one of the Righteous Among the Nations. The certificate hangs in the Florida Holocaust Museum.
Though the history of the Holocaust is mandated to be taught in Florida schools, the job becomes more challenging as the murders grow older and stranger to children in a world where athletes earn $6 million contracts and cellphones contain 6 million megabytes, Stahl said.
The challenge is to get beyond the numbers to tell children the personal stories and show them how generations of children and grandchildren wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the rescuers, some just children themselves, Stahl said. The Jewish Foundation for Righteousness’ traveling exhibit “Whoever Saves a Single Life: Rescuers of Jews During the Holocaust,” will be at the museum through June.
Meanwhile, Rawicki and other survivors will make sure children hear their stories.
“I did all I could to survive and be witness to what happened so maybe if people find out about it, hear stories from people who lived it, the Holocaust will never happen again,” Rawicki said. “I don’t know if I have the same guts as the one who saved me, but now I’m certainly aware of what human kindness can do. I have seen human depravity at its worst, but I also saw the very height of human nobility.”