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In survivors' stories, a mission

Three people sat in the corner of the sunny dining room at the Renaissance Vinoy Resort Saturday morning: a movie star, a college student and a retired pharmacist.

The topic of discussion - genocide - didn't match the pleasant surroundings. Over lemon souffle pancakes, the unlikely trio discussed how they would present their message to supporters of the Florida Holocaust Museum that night.

The movie star was Jon Voight, star of Midnight Cowboy and Deliverance, and a longtime member of the museum's board.

Jacqueline Murekatete is a New York University junior whose family was killed during the genocide in Rwanda.

David Gewirtzman, the former pharmacist, survived the Holocaust by spending almost two years huddled under a pig sty on a Polish farm.

They were preparing to appear together Saturday at the Holocaust Museum's annual "To Life" gala, where more than 700 people were expected to listen to their stories at Tampa's A La Carte Event Pavilion.

For Voight, the annual gathering has become a tradition. He has served as emcee for the past five years.

Voight got involved after meeting John Loftus, a former federal prosecutor who is vice chairman of the museum's board of trustees.

"It has become my passion," Voight said. "Our hope is to end racism in our children's lifetime. That's the museum's goal."

Gewirtzman and Murekatete were the evening's guest speakers. They met in 2001 when Gewirtzman spoke at the young woman's high school in Queens.

Gewirtzman, 78, grew up in a small village in Poland to affluent parents. Of the 8,000 Jews in his town, only 16 survived the Holocaust.

In November 1942, Gewirtzman's father paid a local farmer to allow eight family members to huddle in a small trench beneath his pig sty, filled with rats and manure.

Surviving on stale bread, they did not bathe the entire 20 months they spent in the hole.

During the Nazi occupation, a teacher told him they probably wouldn't survive.

"But he said any of us who did survive, we have a mission," Gewirtzman said. "We had to tell the world what happened here."

As she listened to Gewirtzman's story for the first time, Murekatete burst into tears. She later sent him a letter relating her own tragic story.

Murekatete grew up on a farm in Rwanda with her parents and six siblings. They were members of a Tutsi tribe.

In April 1994, when she was 9 years old, roving bands of rival Hutus launched a killing spree, hacking to death whole villages. Murekatete survived because her grandmother took her to an orphanage. The rest of her family wasn't as lucky.

An uncle brought her to New York, adopted her and applied to get her political asylum.

Soon after receiving her letter, Gewirtzman suggested the two of them speak together at schools and other forums.

Despite their different circumstances, their experiences are surprisingly similar.

"Both of these events, people were aware it was happening," said Murekatete, 21.

"But they remained silent and indifferent. We want to let our audience know that indifference is not okay. You have a responsibility to your fellow human beings."

Besides Saturday's fundraiser, the pair will also speak today from 1 to 3 p.m. at Shorecrest Preparatory School, 5101 First St. NE in St. Petersburg. The event is free and open to the public.

Murekatete and Gewirtzman have become close friends in the five years they have known one another. Gewirtzman and his wife, who is also a Holocaust survivor, attended Murekatete's high school graduation. She has visited their home and summer house.

By speaking together, they hope to show that racial hatred isn't confined to one event or location or generation. And the only way to fight it is through education.

"As survivors we have a responsibility to our families who perished to tell the stories of their deaths," Murekatete said. "We also have a responsibility to the people who are living now and to my generation, because what I experienced is something no other child should have to experience."

Carrie Weimar can be reached at (727) 892-2273 or cjohnson@spttmes.com.

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