By Bernard Starr
If you saw David Gewirtzman and Jacqueline Murekatete standing together it would be hard to imagine that they had anything in common. David, 83, is white and Jewish, a retired pharmacist who owned a large suburban drugstore. He and his wife, Lillian, lived in the peaceful community of Great Neck, N.Y., for 35 years, where they raised their two children, Steven, a physician, and Rena, a psychologist.
Jacqueline Murekatete, 25, is black, Christian, and an émigré from Africa. She grew up in a small village in Rwanda, where her family owned a cattle farm and her father also worked as a teacher.
For the last 10 years David and Jacqueline have been speaking jointly before high school and college students and other community groups. They are true soul mates; their riveting stories merge into one. David’s harrowing memories from Eastern Europe at the hands of the Nazis and Jacqueline’s genocide experiences in Rwanda, although more than half a century apart, are hauntingly similar. Both Jacqueline and David were witnesses to ethnic hatred and unspeakable atrocities.
David, his sister, and brother, mother and father, and a few other relatives miraculously survived the Nazi Holocaust by hiding for two years under a pigsty. The rest of his family and most of the residents of his town of Losice, Poland, were killed in the gas chambers; only 16 of the town’s 8,000 Jews survived.
In Rwanda, Jacqueline’s Tutsi family — her parents, six siblings, and other relatives — were hacked to death with machetes by their Hutu neighbors. Eight hundred thousand Tutsis were eventually slaughtered. Jacqueline, like David, miraculously escaped.
David and his family left their comfortable life in Losice when it became clear that they would be exterminated if they remained. The German army invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, and a few days later, Losice was bombed and then occupied by the Germans. The town became a ghetto. Jews were relentlessly harassed, deprived, and persecuted.
David’s family built a hiding place in the attic of their building. Three years later, in August 1942, German and Polish police surrounded the ghetto, and most of the 8,000 Jews were rounded up and shipped to an extermination camp. David and his family remained behind in the attic. Soon after, David and his sister tried to escape and were captured and taken to the town jail. That evening two Polish teenagers who were in the jail for minor theft were shot by German police who didn’t speak Polish. David believes the bullets were intended for him and his sister. They were soon released but were placed in a labor camp. A bribe got them out. David’s sister was taken in by a Polish family, while his younger brother hid in a haystack for 22 months.
Fourteen-year-old David, the rest of his immediate family, and a few relatives — eventually eight in all — were hidden by a Polish farmer under a pigsty that was about 8 feet long, 5 feet wide and 5 feet deep. Above it were boards covered with manure that was the pen for pigs and sheep. The farmer brought them bread and potatoes every three days and a small amount of meat twice a month. They spent two years squeezed together head to toe, coming out only twice over the two years. No wonder that his father, Jacob, despaired and even once suggested that they just surrender and “get it over with.”
But David’s indomitable optimism that they would survive sustained the family through their ordeal. In the summer of 1944 they emerged from the pigsty when the advancing Russian army drove out the Germans. Eventually they made their way to Italy, where David completed a degree in pharmacy at the University of Rome. Later they emigrated to the United States. His father died a peaceful death at age 102 after eating fresh-picked strawberries and then lying down to rest.
Jacqueline was 9 years old in 1994 when the genocide in Rwanda began. She fortunately happened to be staying with her grandmother in a neighboring village when news arrived about violence in her parent’s village. With the slaughter spreading, she and her grandmother moved into the Town Hall with other Tutsis. When that too was deemed dangerous, Jacqueline’s physician uncle disguised them as patients and drove them in an ambulance to the home of a Hutu man in another village who was willing to hide them. After his neighbors discovered that he was hiding “cockroaches” and threatened to kill all of them, her grandmother quickly placed Jacqueline in a nearby orphanage for protection. When the massacres ended, Jacqueline learned from her uncle that her entire family had been butchered. In 1995 she was granted political asylum in the United States. Another uncle, who was completing a residency in psychiatry in Virginia, brought Jacqueline there and legally adopted her. Two years later they moved to Queens, New York, where her uncle obtained a hospital position.
How did the unlikely duo of David and Jacqueline come about?
After retiring in 1995, David started a new career of keeping the memory of the Holocaust alive by speaking to schoolchildren and community groups. One day in the Spring of 2001 he came to Jacqueline’s high school class in Queens. Jacqueline wept when she heard David’s story — she felt it was her story as well. She wrote him a moving letter, saying,
At one time I, too, like you, had a feeling of guilt for being alive. ‘Why was I left?’ I asked myself. I never really got an answer to that, but now I’m thankful that I was left, because maybe I can make a difference in this world if I try, and maybe I can do my part in making sure that no other human being goes through the same experience as I did.
David invited Jacqueline to join him in speaking engagements. She agreed. Together they formed a dynamic team. Jacqueline’s presence and gripping story was particularly effective with young people. Children and teenagers can sympathize with David’s retelling of the brutal inhumanity of the Holocaust, but for many young people it’s a distant event that could just as well have happened in ancient Rome. That was not the same as a person of their own generation describing genocidal horrors that took place while they were absorbed in their comfortable lifestyles and unaware of ghastly world events. Jacqueline’s suffering hits home and registers. Many young people in their audiences are inspired to initiate Holocaust and tolerance projects that can have a lasting impact.
The powerful message that David and Jacqueline deliver has taken root. Many have listened and have honored them. David notes:
We have spoken at several of the Ivy League schools, Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, many of the high schools and universities in the New York area, at temples and churches in Washington, D.C., and numerous other places. In May of 2005 I spoke to the students and faculty of the University of Bologna, in Italian, and on a separate occasion to several hundred Italian high school students.
In November 2004 they were honored by the ADL (Anti Defamation League) with a dinner and concert by the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. Then in December of that year they received The Global Peace and Tolerance Award from the United Nations.” The same year, Jacqueline was given the opportunity to speak on the floor of the United Nations to more than 180 delegates from all over the world during the commemoration of the 10th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide. Several years later Jacqueline participated in a conference in Israel on the integration of African émigrés to Israel who had been victims of persecution and violence — and she also met with many high official in the Israeli government.
After graduating from New York University with a degree in International Relations in 2008, Jacqueline took a year off to work with Miracle Corners of the World, where she established Jacqueline’s Corner to raise funds to assist victims of the Rwanda genocide. More recently, she raised money from the Rwandan government for a facility to train victims of the genocide.
Today, Jacqueline is married and will soon graduate from the Cardozo Law School of Yeshiva
University in New York City. Her husband, Jean Baptiste, also a Rwandan émigré, whom she met while giving a talk at the Los Angeles Holocaust Center, will also graduate from Law School (Hofstra University) in June.
David and Jacqueline continue to give presentations as a team. On January 6, 2012, they will talk to students at the East Harlem School in New York City.
Shakespeare said, “The evil that men do lives after them. The good is oft interred with their bones.”
Mr. Shakespeare: We love you but you got that one wrong. David and Jacqueline are powerful living examples proclaiming that ultimately the good, the noble and the transcendent spirit survive. They are beacons of light that will shine and inspire, perhaps, for eternity.