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Remembering the Past

April 9, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT
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DAVID GEWIRTZMAN: This is a picture of my grandfather and grandmother, my father’s father and his wife. She died in the ghetto, and he was taken away and perished with his four sons and family in the Holocaust.

JEFFREY BROWN: David Gewirtzman, now 75 and living in Great Neck, New York, was one of just 16 out of 8,000 Jews to survive the Holocaust from the small polish town of Losice. Throughout Europe, some six million Jews were killed.

JACQUELINE MUREKATETE: In 1994 there was genocide in my country, Rwanda. I myself ended up losing my family.

JEFFREY BROWN: Jacqueline Murekatete, 19 and a freshman at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, survived the Rwandan genocide of the mid-’90s. Her parents and all six of her siblings were among the 800,000 killed.

JACQUELINE MUREKATETE: And I remember looking up and seeing these men with machetes and clubs, bloody machetes and clubs, and knowing that just a few hours before, they had probably killed somebody, probably not far from where I was.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, these two — different in age, race, and religion — have come together to tell their stories to young people in the hopes of preventing future horrors. On the day we visited, they spoke to middle and high school students at the Nassau County Holocaust Memorial Center, in Glen Cove, New York.

DAVID GEWIRTZMAN: You’re going to go back 60 or so many years ago, and I’m going to invite you to come along with me and see what happened to a young boy.

JEFFREY BROWN: Under German occupation during World War II, David Gewirtzman and his family lost their home and livelihood, and barely escaped arrest and execution. A Polish farmer hid them for two years beneath this pigsty, in a rat-infested pit.

DAVID GEWIRTZMAN: We were squeezed together, we slept as, I said, head to toe. In other words the length of it was probably a foot per person because it was about eight, nine feet, and there was eight people. So when we slept, we were like sardines. If one of us had to turn over, all eight of us had to turn over.

JEFFREY BROWN: After the war, the family made its way to the U.S. David served in the Army, ran a pharmacy while he and his wife Lillian raised a family, and after retiring, began to speak to students of his experience.

DAVID GEWIRTZMAN: Usually in every city, they make all the Jews come down into the square, like I mentioned before in our town. They load them up into cattle cars, they were all killed, then their bodies are put into these ovens and they are burned.

JEFFREY BROWN: In Rwanda ten years ago, members of the majority Hutu tribe slaughtered hundreds of thousands of men, women and children from the Tutsi tribe, as well as moderate Hutus. Often, it was neighbor killing neighbor.

Jacqueline Murekatete, a 9-year-old Tutsi, was away from her family staying with her grandmother when the killing began. Along with thousands of other children, she was placed in an orphanage for safety. When the killing came to an end, Jacqueline was told by an uncle that her family had been taken from their homes and slaughtered with machetes and clubs.

JACQUELINE MUREKATETE: Hearing this I really didn’t know, it didn’t make sense to me, I didn’t understand. The whole thing really felt like a huge nightmare.

JEFFREY BROWN: She was granted political asylum in the U.S. in 1995, and quickly learned English when placed in American public schools. One day David Gewirtzman came to her school to speak.

JACQUELINE MUREKATETE: Listening to him, of course, I was one of the kids who ended up crying and weeping as he described his experience. But I also saw so many similarities between what had happened to him and what had happened to me in Rwanda.

JEFFREY BROWN: So you sent David a letter. Could you read some of it for us?

JACQUELINE MUREKATETE: Yeah, sure. “At one time I, too, like you, had a feeling of guilty for being alive. ‘Why was I left?’ I asked myself. I never really got an answer to that, but now I’m thankful that I was left because maybe I can make a difference in this world if I try, and maybe I can do my part in making sure that no other human being goes through the same experience as I did.”

JEFFREY BROWN: You felt a responsibility just to be alive.

JACQUELINE MUREKATETE: To be alive, yes. As a survivor, I felt I have to keep going and have to speak for those people who can no longer speak for themselves, my family included.

DAVID GEWIRTZMAN: When I read that letter, it’s something that I would have written to her. It was like she was there with me while I was going through the horror, and as if I was there with her when she was going through it. I saw a person, a child, that was me going through it. And I wanted to embrace her. I said, “I want to hug you. I want to protect you.”

JEFFREY BROWN: I was struck listening to you talking to the young people and talking to you now by how utterly vivid these memories are. You remember everything in great detail. It’s very much alive for you.

JACQUELINE MUREKATETE: When I speak about a friend, I see my friend. When I speak about my grandfather, I see his face standing there, whether he smiles or he’s sad and he’s talking to me. I see the people going to the direction of the railway station. All the people that I’m referring to are still alive and I see them. I can almost touch them. I’m very much — I feel like I am the bridge between them and here.

JEFFREY BROWN: Some 60 years later.

DAVID GEWIRTZMAN: Sixty years later.

JEFFREY BROWN: When you were talking to the young people earlier today, you said that when your uncle told you what had happened to your family, first it felt like a dream. And then you realized it was reality.

JACQUELINE MUREKATETE: Even to this day, I still find it hard sometimes to comprehend how my neighbors lifted up, you know, machetes and went and butchered my family. Actually, one of the kids today, she asked me “if when I go back to Rwanda, you know, what would I ask my — the people who killed my family.” And I guess one of the questions would be, how? You know, “how did you proceed to butcher my family?” Because it’s something that I still, myself, I can’t comprehend. I don’t see how people do that.

JEFFREY BROWN: The young Americans listening had a hard time comprehending as well.

YOUNG BOY: How did you know, like, the people to ask to hide you? How do you know that if they just wouldn’t kill you.

JACQUELINE MUREKATETE: It was a risk of chance, but I was sometimes, like, what other choices do we have? They find it shocking, you know, that he went through it, and they find me a teenager who’s telling them this happened again, a few years ago. It kind of lets them know that these things are still happening. It didn’t end with the Holocaust, and that it can easily happen again.

JEFFREY BROWN: Jacqueline Murekatete has not yet returned to Rwanda.

DAVID GEWIRTZMAN: This is the way it looks today.

JEFFREY BROWN: But in 1998, David Gewirtzman visited his hometown, and the Treblinka concentration camp where most of his neighbors perished.

DAVID GEWIRTZMAN: When I did finally come back, I realized that what I wanted to come back to is what it was, and not what it is. What I wanted to do — is find back my friends. Find back my relatives, my teachers, my town. In the back of my mind, that’s what I saw. And when I came there, I didn’t find it. I wasn’t disappointed. In the back of my mind, I knew what it was. And finally, in Treblinka, what I call the Matseva, the monument to the dead, I finally realized this is not a living town. It is a cemetery. And like in a cemetery, you say good-bye to the departed, and it was easier after that when I came back.

JEFFREY BROWN: Are you bitter after all that you’ve been through?

JACQUELINE MUREKATETE: What I’m angry about is the fact that the genocide in my country and a lot of other genocides could have been stopped. I mean, you know, warnings were sent out, and people knew, the world knew, and nobody did anything to stop it.

But at the same time, I don’t go through my life every day being hateful or being bitter, because I know that that’s going to destroy only me. And that’s — the people who killed my family, that’s probably what they want to see: Me bitter and being angry. They don’t want me to see me happy and successful. So in a way, I think being bitter and being hateful is kind of giving them that satisfaction. So I’m more concerned with growing up and, I mean, I’m grown, but you know, being successful and having a family and accomplishing my goals.

JEFFREY BROWN: Jacqueline Murekatete is writing a book about her experience, and plans to continue her college studies, with a focus on international affairs. David Gewirtzman says the two will continue what has become a mission for them both — remembering the past, speaking out in the present.