Something in Common: Horror; Survivors Describe the Evils of Genocide
David Gewirtzman and Jacqueline Murekatete stood before a restless group of students at Great Neck North High School, waiting to tell their stories. They seemed to be an unlikely pair speaking on what seemed an unlikely topic — genocide — for a group of teenagers munching on sandwiches and rustling snack wrappers.
By the time they had finished, however, the only sound that could be heard in the room was the faint hum of a radiator.
Mr. Gewirtzman, a 75-year-old retired pharmacist who lives in Great Neck, N.Y., on Long Island, survived the Holocaust by spending almost two years burrowed with other members of his family under a pigsty on a Polish farm.
Now, he visits local schools, hoping that by telling of his experiences, he can educate students and help to prevent a killing like the Holocaust from happening again.
When he spoke at a high school in Queens two years ago, Ms. Murekatete, then a student, was in the audience. She said his story had made her burst into tears. She wrote him a note relating her own horrible story, which took place in Rwanda, in central Africa, in 1994. She narrowly escaped being hacked to death by a rival tribe. Her family — both parents and all six siblings — did not.
”I finally found someone who understood what I went through because he went through the same thing,” said Ms. Murekatete, now 19 and a freshman at the State University at Stony Brook.
Mr. Gewirtzman met the teenager, heard her story and suggested she begin speaking to groups with him.
It would not bring her family back, he said, but it might save other families from potential genocide. It would also help to heal her own pain.
”We are as different as can be,” he told the students.
”She’s black, I’m white; she’s young, I’m old; she’s African and Christian and I’m a Jew from Poland. Yet we’re like brother and sister, because we’re bound by the common trauma of our experience and a common history of pain and suffering and persecution.”
Now they appear regularly together, hoping that they can bring experience and relevance to a harsh subject. But neither expected the impression they would have on each other, and how deep their friendship would grow with the only apparent bond being death.
Elaine Weiss, a history teacher at the high school who directs its social science research center, said she asked them to speak because ”the kids can identify with an 18-year-old girl better than they can with a 75-year-old man.”
She said, ”Our kids read theories about racism and genocide in books. But when they hear similar real-life stories from a white European man and a black African teenager 55 years apart in age, who lived through events 50 years apart in history, it’s not a theory anymore. It’s alive.”
Mr. Gewirtzman grew up in a small village in Poland and in November 1942, the family persuaded a local farmer to hide them and some relatives — eight people in all — for 20 months in a small trench below a pigsty strewn with mud and pig waste.
Day after day in the hole, they would argue whether to surrender to the Nazis, he recalled.
”At times my father would yell at me, ‘Why did you lead us here? We should have gone to Treblinka and gotten it over with,’ ” Mr. Gewirtzman said. ”I’d tell him, ‘You may want to die, but don’t you want your children to live?’ Then he would snap out of it.”
”We thought there wasn’t a Jew in Europe still alive, but for some reason, I never once doubted we would survive,” he said. ”Maybe I was too young and na?ve, but I never lost hope.”
They did not escape until July 31, 1944, when the Nazis retreated.
Mr. Gewirtzman and his family lived in Europe for several years, then came to the United States in 1948. He served in the United States Army in Germany.
He and his wife have two grown sons and he also volunteers at the Nassau Holocaust Memorial Center, in Glen Cove, Long Island.
As Mr. Gewirtzman spoke, the students became spellbound. Some still held back tears as Ms. Murekatete began telling how she grew up as the second oldest of seven children on a family farm in Rwanda. Her family were members of a Tutsi tribe. In April 1994, when she was 9, the news came over the radio that the Hutu president had been killed. Groups of Hutu men and boys wielding guns, machetes and clubs began descending upon villages, killing Tutsis.