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 not talking that caused the pause.
It hurt to talk about Janusz Rybakiewicz.
But it mattered.
Rawicki, of St. Petersburg, died of natural causes Feb. 22 at 94.
The story of the boy who saved his life was his to remember and his to share. And when he couldn’t carry on, Rawicki depended on his friends and family to help share what happened.
This is the story they told.
Nowhere to go
“My dad escaped from the Warsaw ghetto, pulled himself through a ridiculously small hole,” says son Andrew Rawicki.
“He had nowhere to go, and went to the river bank in Warsaw, to the beach by the river,” said Ursula Szczepinska, director of education and research at the Florida Holocaust Museum. “During the day there were some young boys sitting on the beach.”
“One by one as the day got late, the boys peeled off to go home to their families,” Andrew Rawicki said. “And he was left with just Janusz.”
“Janusz looked at Jerry and said ‘why aren’t you getting up?’” Szczepinska said. ”’It’s time to go home.’”
“Something caused my dad to trust him enough to say, ‘I have nowhere to go. I am a Jew.’”
“I was afraid to look in his face when I said that,” Rawicki told the St. Petersburg Times in 1997. “This was just like committing suicide.”
“And Janusz said, ‘Come with me, I think I have a place for you to stay,’” said Carolyn Ellis, a distinguished university professor emeritus at the University of South Florida.
“And this young man took him home and hid him in his basement,” said Erin Blankenship, interim executive director at the Florida Holocaust Museum.
“And he harbored him in his basement,” said Andrew Rawicki, “locked him in, made sure had food, could get out when it was safe.”
Rawicki hid there, venturing out to see his sister, who had false identification and was working as a waitress. When the Germans offered Jews passage to South America, Rawicki realized it was a trick.
“He told her he felt like he had to leave,” said Andrew Rawicki. “He just took off and never had the chance to thank Janusz, never had the chance to tell him why he was leaving. And he was gone.”
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Years passed. The war 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 dad kept looking for Janusz. In 2005, Rawicki learned that the young man who kept him safe had been hanged shortly after Rawicki fled. Someone turned him in. Rawicki worked for two years to have Janusz’ name added to the Righteous Among the Nations, a tribute at Yad Vashem in Israel to people who put their own lives in danger to help Jews.
In 2007, Janusz’ name was added to the list. A tree grows there in his honor.
When Rawicki moved to Florida, he got involved with the Florida Holocaust Museum and finally started telling his story. He spoke to thousands, wrote books, filmed a documentary, amused his family with his huge vocabulary, and went back to Poland for the first time after his son was based there for work.
He was not a hero, Rawicki told people again and again. 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 horrors he saw,” Andrew Rawicki said. “Even though he wasn’t sure there was a God, he still prayed that prayer.”
Poynter news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story.
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