In 1994, while 9-year-old Jacqueline Murekatete was waiting to die at the hands of Hutu rebels in a Rwandan orphanage, David Gewirtzman was reading newspaper articles, often buried deep inside the dailies, about the mass murder taking place in Murekatete’s homeland.“Seeing pictures of bodies floating down the river affects me in a different way,” said Gewirtzman, a Holocaust survivor from Losice, Poland, referring to media images of the Rwandan massacre. “I stared at the television for hours, and felt like I was killed all over again.”Seven years later, Gewirtzman recounted the story of his survival, hidden through the war in a lice-infested pigsty, to a 10th grade class at Martin Van Buren High School in Queens. Among the students listening to his account was Murekatete, who immigrated to the United States after surviving the genocide that decimated her family.
“I felt like he was telling my story,” said Murekatete, now 20 and a sophomore at New York University.Stirred by the lecture, Murekatete penned Gewirtzman a note. “At one time I, like you, had a feeling of guilt for being alive,” she wrote. “Now I’m thankful I was left.”Gewirtzman regularly received correspondence from students, which his wife, Lillian, read to him on their way home from the Nassau Holocaust Memorial Center, where he is on the board of directors and she is a volunteer. The couple, equally moved by Murekatete’s letter as the young girl was by Gewirtzman’s harrowing tale, cried as they read how she escaped the grasps of her machete-wielding neighbors who killed her parents, six siblings and grandmother.
The elderly Holocaust survivor and young Rwandan refugee ultimately struck up a friendship that transcends age, race, religion and nationality. “In spite of all our differences,” Gewirtzman told The Jewish Week, “we, in fact, went through the same type of horror, and can understand each other in ways [few others] can.”Recently the two, who for nearly four years have been traveling the country together sharing their life stories with thousands of high school and college students, were awarded the Spirit of Scandinavia Award. The honor, given out by American Jewish Committee-affiliated Thanks To Scandinavia, recognizes the exceptional achievements of ordinary individuals and remains a lasting tribute to the Scandinavian people, who helped rescue Jews during the Holocaust. “In Scandinavia, people had a civil obligation to help those in trouble,” said Richard Netter, who in 1963 founded TTS with Danish-born entertainer Victor Borge. “That’s not the case in America or other countries. For example, during the war years, how many countries helped the Jews? Most sat back and didn’t give a damn.”Gewirtzman, speaking to about 150 people who attended the Spirit of Scandinavia award ceremony held at the home of the Swedish Consul General of New York, said, “Both [Jacqueline and I] met death and evil head on, and both of us came back without letting rancor and bitterness overwhelm us.”
The Spirit of Scandinavia Award comes in the wake of an Anti-Defamation League honor Gewirtzman and Murekatete received in November. Though separated by a continent and two generations, Gewirtzman and Murekatete have endured similar suffering at the hands of their fellow men. Yet they remain ambitious, civic-minded and, above all, determined to build a world that doesn’t remain idle in the face of genocide — be it in European death camps, Rwandan villages or, most recently, in Western Sudan.Gewirtzman was only 11 when World War II broke out; he was forced into a ghetto and, ultimately, into hiding.
After his family was liberated by the Soviet Army, Gewirtzman and his family returned to Losice, where they received an icy reception from their non-Jewish neighbors. Out of the 8,000 Jews who lived in the city prior to the Holocaust, the five Gewirtzmans were among only 18 who survived Nazi extermination. The family immigrated to Italy after the war, and then in 1948 to the United States, settling in Albany. David became a pharmacist, and he and his wife ultimately moved to Long Island with their two children. Now retired, the couple devotes much of their time to Holocaust education.Murekatete was in her grandmother’s nearby village when her nuclear family was taken to a nearby river and hacked to death by their neighbors. “The same neighbors whose kids I played with,” she said.
Her family was among the well over 800,000 Tutsis butchered in only 100 days by Hutu tribesmen. “Like any other children, my brothers and sisters and I, we all had goals,” said Murekatete, who as a youngster dreamed of becoming a doctor. “We thought nothing would ever interfere with those goals.” Murekatete’s grandmother was also murdered, while Murekatete waited inside a grim Italian Catholic orphanage packed with shell-shocked children praying their parents would walk through the doors to take them home. Few did.
When the violence died down, surviving family members located her. One of Murekatete’s uncles, who had been living in the United States since the late-1980s, agreed to adopt the orphaned youngster and bring her to live stateside. She is now attending NYU on a full scholarship from a foundation supported by comedian Jerry Seinfeld, whose sitcom, incidentally, was at its peak the year of the Rwandan genocide. “People say, ‘You deserve [the scholarship] because of what you’ve been through,’ but my situation is not unique,” she said, noting that she has been granted opportunities that thousands of other Rwandan orphans have not.
Murekatete plans to attend law school in the United States, but travel frequently to Rwanda, where she wants to work with women suffering from AIDS. Encouraged by Holocaust survivor and writer Elie Wiesel, whom she met at the United Nations International Day of Peace in 2003, Murekatete is writing a memoir she hopes to publish next year.“Unfortunately many people who speak about the importance of Holocaust remembrance don’t necessarily equate the Holocaust with other tragedies in the world,” said Rebecca Neuwirth, executive director of Thanks to Scandinavia. “The same is true for people who talk about the genocide in Rwanda. Here are these two people, Jacqueline and David, so incredibly different, who have come together without any pressure from the outside. On an emotional level, they recognized the fundamental commonality of their suffering. The both wanted to turn their horrible experiences into something good for this world.”