ST. PETERSBURG – There was often a point in telling his story where Jerry Rawicki stopped.
It wasn’t the horrors of the Holocaust in Poland, the loss of his family at the Treblinka extermination camp, or years without speaking that caused the hiatus.
It hurts to talk about Janusz Rybakiewicz.
But it was important.
Rawicki, of St. Petersburg, died of natural causes on February 22 at age 94.
The story of the boy who saved his life was to be remembered and shared. And when he couldn’t go on, Rawicki depended on his friends and family to share what happened.
This is the story they told.
Nowhere to go
“My father escaped from the Warsaw ghetto, shot himself through a ridiculously small hole,” says his son Andrew Rawicki.
“He had nowhere to go and went to the riverside in Warsaw, to the riverside beach,” said Ursula Szczepinska, director of education and research at the Florida Holocaust Museum. “During the day there were young boys sitting on the beach.”
“One by one, as the day grew late, the boys left to go home to their families,” Andrew Rawicki said. “And there was only Janusz left.”
“Janusz looked at Jerry and said ‘why don’t you get up?'” Szczepinska said. “‘It’s time to go home.'”
“Something made my father trust him enough to say, ‘I have nowhere to go. I’m Jewish.’ »
“I was afraid to look him in the face when I said that,” Rawicki told the Saint-Petersburg timetable in 1997. “It was like committing suicide.”
“And Janusz said, ‘Come with me, I think I have a place to put you up,'” said Carolyn Ellis, distinguished university professor emeritus at the University of South Florida.
“And this young man took it home and hid it in his basement,” said Erin Blankenship, acting executive director of the Florida Holocaust Museum.
“And he put him up in his basement,” Andrew Rawicki said, “locked him up, made sure he had food, he could come out when it was safe.”
Rawicki hid there, venturing out to see his sister, who had fake IDs and worked as a waitress. When the Germans offered the Jews passage to South America, Rawicki realized it was a ruse.
“He told him he felt like he had to go,” Andrew Rawicki said. “He just took off and never got a chance to thank Janusz, never got a chance to tell him why he was leaving. And he was gone.
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The years have passed. The war has ended. Rawicki moved to Pittsburgh, married Helene, had Andrew and Susan, ran an optical business.
“He never, ever talked about the war growing up,” Andrew Rawicki said.
But his father continued to search for Janusz. In 2005, Rawicki learned that the young man keeping him safe had been hanged shortly after Rawicki fled. Someone reported him. Rawicki worked for two years to have Janusz’s name added to the Righteous Among the Nations, a tribute at Yad Vashem in Israel to people who put their own lives on the line to help Jews.
In 2007, Janusz’s name was added to the list. A tree grows there in his honor.
When Rawicki moved to Florida, he became involved with the Florida Holocaust Museum and eventually began telling his story. He spoke to thousands of people, wrote books, filmed a documentary, entertained his family with his huge vocabulary and returned to Poland for the first time after his son was based there for work.
He was no hero, Rawicki kept repeating. But he spent his life remembering someone who was.
And every day, Rawicki recited the Lord’s Prayer in Polish for Janusz, who was Catholic. Ojcze nasz, Our Father.
“Like many Holocaust survivors, he wasn’t sure there was a God, based on the horrors he saw,” Andrew Rawicki said. “Even though he wasn’t sure there was a God, he still prayed this prayer.”
Poynter news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story.
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