SEMINOLE — It took Jerry Rawicki 60 years to find the man who saved his life. When he did, his rescuer was already dead.
But Rawicki, now a retired optician living in Seminole, persevered with the rest of his quest. He wanted to properly honor Janusz Rybakiewicz, the Polish Catholic teenager who befriended him and gave him a chance at life denied millions of other European Jews.
The two teenagers met in 1943, a chance encounter unfolding against the backdrop of World War II, its Nazi-fostered anti-Semitism, persecution and slaughter.
At 16, Rawicki had fought in and survived the Warsaw ghetto uprising that ended in the capture and death of thousands of Jewish residents. He escaped the demolished ghetto and decided that with his blond hair and false papers he'd attempt to pass as a non-Jew by day and spend his nights hiding wherever he could: this at a time when those who assisted Jews faced execution.
One day, Rawicki felt so despondent, he went to a riverside beach to try to escape his troubles for a few hours. There, he ran into three other teenage boys, non-Jews playing hooky from school. When the small group started to break up a few hours later, one of his new friends, Janusz Rybakiewicz, remained behind but soon suggested they go home. Rawicki told him the truth.
"I said, 'I'm a Jew,' '' he said.
Janusz' response stunned him.
"He took me home and introduced me to his mother, who was in shock. They decided to put me in the cellar overnight. They kept it from the father, because they didn't know how he would react to it. They brought me food and blankets, then, during the day, I would go out and roam the streets.''
Rawicki remained with the family for more than a week, then escaped from Warsaw into the countryside.
"I never got to talk to Janusz again,'' he said.
Rawicki tried to find his friend at the end of the war, but the family's home had been destroyed.
"Nobody knew where he was, and then I gave up,'' said Rawicki, who moved to the United States in 1949.
"Then one night, I had a dream, and I resumed the search again.''
Three years ago the American Red Cross gave him the news that Janusz was dead. According to a book by a Polish author, he was arrested in May or June of 1943 — weeks after he and Rawicki met — and executed at dawn on Feb. 11, 1944. He was 18 years old.
"I finally knew what happened,'' said Rawicki, who lost his parents and a sister in the Holocaust.
"This word closure is overused, but I knew this chapter was closed.''
He thinks often of Janusz' fate. It's "a morbid coincidence,'' he says, that his rescuer was hanged from a balcony on the same street where Rawicki once lived.
Rawicki wanted Janusz honored by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority, in Israel. The program has recognized more than 22,000 non-Jews — 6,066 from Poland — for risking their lives to rescue Jews during the Holocaust, said Estee Yaari, a Yad Vashem spokesperson.
Last summer, Janusz Rybakiewicz was added to the roll of Yad Vashem's "Righteous Among the Nations.''
"To me, I think he was deserving of it,'' said Rawicki, 81.
"He was a hero to me.''
Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at email@example.com or (727)892-2283.