TAMPA — For many years after the Holocaust ended, Jerry Rawicki remained silent.
A survivor of Poland's Warsaw Ghetto, Rawicki didn't want to relive the difficult experience or burden his children with the memories.
Now, he takes the opposite approach.
As the subject of a documentary produced by University of South Florida professor Carolyn Ellis, Rawicki returns to Poland for the first time since he escaped as a teenager and shares the memories the trip evokes.
"Behind the Wall" debuted Thursday night in the Marshall Student Center at USF.
"I realized how many years I wasted by being silent," Rawicki said during a question and answer session at the end of the screening. "I regret the fact I wasted all this time. Now, I know how important it is for people like me to share their experiences."
Ellis and Rawicki, 86, connected five years ago when Ellis first began interviewing Holocaust survivors for a project in partnership with the Florida Holocaust Museum and USF Library. The two immediately hit it off and Ellis chose Rawicki as her first in-depth subject.
When Rawicki's son was transferred to a job in Warsaw, Rawicki invited Ellis to accompany him on his first visit back to Poland in 70 years.
"I couldn't resist," Ellis said. "I wanted to participate in it first hand with him."
As a teenager, Rawicki spent several years living in the Warsaw Ghetto where he witnessed starvation and death on a daily basis. He escaped in the aftermath of the Ghetto Uprising in 1943 and passed as a Roman Catholic for the remainder of the war. He immigrated to New York, married and became an optician. He now lives in St. Petersburg.
Throughout the 45-minute film, Rawicki and Ellis visited monuments and historic locations in Warsaw.
At the original wall, Rawicki was overcome with emotion when he read a plaque that mentioned the concentration camp where his mother and sister were sent to the gas chambers and the place where his father was killed.
"I don't think about it every day because I couldn't live," Rawicki said through tears. "But seeing what I see now, I couldn't help but think about it."
Rawicki also reflected on the kindness of those who saved him, including the man who helped hide him near the end of the war and a woman who spared him from the wrath of a Nazi guard.
Rawicki had approached the trip to Poland with apprehension, unsure of what to expect from a country that had treated him so poorly.
"My memories I have of Poland were all negative," Rawicki said. "But, I was very much surprised by the thinking of people right now. It is almost like they were trying to make up for the terrible things that happened to Jews. It makes me hopeful. Maybe there is some hope people will change their minds, people will be more open and accepting."
Together, Rawicki and Ellis have produced more than 400 pages of audio transcripts and 50 hours of video. They have co-authored four articles. The pair, along with filmmaker Steven Schoen, are currently working on a second documentary focusing on Rawicki's life after the Holocaust.
Ellis, a professor and chair of the Department of Communication at USF, said she hopes those who view the documentaries will have a greater level of understanding.
"I want them to have to reflect on the Holocaust and the things that happened and not forget it," Ellis said. "But at the same time, I want them to be inspired by Jerry."
Rawicki said he deals with the traumatic events of his past by remembering he is survivor, but not a victim.
"My own mother was put in a gas chamber," Rawicki said. "How can I think I'm a victim?"
Shelley Rossetter can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3401.