- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 12, 2004

They make an odd couple. He is an old man from Europe. She is a young woman from Africa. But they consider themselves bound by a common experience. They both are survivors of genocide.

David Gewirtzman, 76, of Great Neck, N.Y., is one of 16 Jews among 8,000 in the small Polish town of Losice who survived the Holocaust. He and other members of his family spent nearly two years burrowed under a pigsty on a farm in Nazi-occupied Poland during World War II.

Now he volunteers at the Holocaust Memorial and Educational Center of Nassau County in Glen Cove on Long Island, and visits schools, hoping that by speaking about his experience, he can educate students and help to prevent future holocausts.

An estimated 6 million Jews were killed throughout Europe during World War II in a Nazi program of extermination.

When Mr. Gewirtzman spoke to 10th-graders at a high school in Queens 3 years ago, Jacqueline Murekatete was in the audience.

After the presentation, she wrote him a note, relating her own story of the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, when she was 9 years old. Miss Murekatete was visiting her grandmother in a nearby village and was able to escape the start of the genocide in the African country.

“It was the most unusual letter that I have ever gotten,” Mr. Gewirtzman said in a recent interview with The Washington Times.

“It was extremely well-written, very emotional, very mature for a young girl of 16,” he went on. “In the letter, she mentioned that … she lost both her parents and all six of her siblings. She was the only survivor of the whole group,” he said.

Miss Murekatete’s family were Tutsis, an ethnic minority in Rwanda that had formerly ruled the Hutu majority.

In April 1994, the news came over the radio that Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana, a Hutu, and the president of neighboring Burundi had been killed in a suspicious plane crash. Groups of Hutu men and boys wielding guns, machetes and clubs began descending upon villages, killing Tutsis.

Between April and June 1994, more than 800,000 Rwandans were killed in 100 days. Most of the dead were Tutsis, and most of the killers were Hutus.

Miss Murekatete said she never expected a response, but Mr. Gewirtzman got in touch with her. “I offered she should come and talk with me, because our stories are so much parallel,” he said.

Now they regularly speak in public together and have received several awards, the latest being the Humanitarian Award of the Holocaust Memorial and Educational Center of Nassau County on Nov. 15.

Miss Murekatete and Mr. Gewirtzman have formed a strong friendship and bring relevance to discussions of hatred, ethnic violence and genocide before high-school audiences and at churches, synagogues and other venues. They have also spoken before groups at Yale, Columbia, Princeton, Brown and Vanderbilt universities.

Miss Murekatete addressed the United Nations at an International Day of Peace ceremony in September 2003, where she met human-rights advocate Elie Wiesel. He offered to help her write a book about her recollections of the Rwanda genocide, which is due to be published in April 2005.

Asked what leads to genocide in a society, Mr. Gewirtzman said: “Usually, many people are frustrated with life, either for personal reasons or the way they have been brought up, and basically it creates hatred.

“If there is no way [for them] to direct that frustration, it is very easy for a person to take advantage of it, by taking away this feeling of guilt or of dissatisfaction, directing it in the form of hatred toward those not able to defend themselves, and blaming them for whatever causes the problem,” he added.

Mr. Gewirtzman and Miss Murekatete feel the only way to avoid future atrocities such as those they went through is to speak about tolerance and acceptance.

“We are so much different. She is female, I am male. She is young and I am not so young. I am white, she is black. She is from Africa, I am from Europe. She is Christian, I am Jewish. But the experiences that we had are so much embedded within us that we feel like brother and sister,” Mr. Gewirtzman said.

Both went through a traumatic experience, but instead of remaining bitter and angry and seeking revenge, they resolved to spend the anger in a positive manner.

“When you see bodies floating down the river, as it happened in Rwanda, you don’t become immune to it. You don’t say they are just having private problems, and we cannot be the police for the rest of the world,” Mr. Gewirtzman said.

“I agree, America cannot be the police for the rest of the world, but every citizen in the world should be aware that these things go on, and if we don’t take care of it, sooner or later it is going to come to us, as it did in 9/11.”

Miss Murekatete, now a 20-year-old student at Stony Brook University in New York, said she and Mr. Gewirtzman want to raise consciousness so that people don’t ignore atrocities just because they are far away.

She said she was particularly concerned about the attitude of the international community during the genocide in Rwanda, because U.N. troops actually withdrew after 10 soldiers were killed. “So many countries had the opportunity to stop the killings and they did not do anything,” she said.

By sharing her experience with young people, she said she hopes they will make different decisions when they are leading countries.

Asked about the unlikely pair she makes with Mr. Gewirtzman, Miss Murekatete said it helps their success, because people realize they are bound by a common trauma and a common history of pain, suffering and persecution.

“Usually, students think that the Holocaust belongs to history, that it happened a long time ago, and one should forget about it. But when they see I am their age, they realize it is something that is still happening,” she said. “You fix them more.”

Miss Murekatete was brought to New York in 1995 by an uncle who adopted her legally and applied for political asylum for her.

Mr. Gewirtzman and his family, for their part, came to the United States in 1948. He said he owes a lot to a country that allowed him for the first time to put down roots. He has two children and six grandchildren.

“I saw a family grow up in normal conditions, and normal circumstances. Nobody has said I am different, or I should be treated in a different manner. I was given all the opportunities that the other citizens were given, and I realized that this is normal life,” he said.

“Normal life is not the way I had it in Poland during the war, but the way I had it here.”

Joining forces with Miss Murekatete to describe their experiences escaping mass killings in Rwanda and Poland, Mr. Gewirtzman said he wants to spread the message: “We all have the right to a normal, peaceful life, and when that is disturbed for no other reason but because of a different color or shape of eyes or religion, we should get involved as if ourselves were being attacked, not just they.

“We all have to unite, and we’ll never re-see something like that,” he added.

“I am my brothers’ keeper. The people in Darfur, in Siberia, in China, and in South Africa are all people who are my brothers and sisters,” he said.

According to Mr. Gewirtzman, people cannot remain indifferent, “because we are hurt while they are being hurt.”

“When a child in Darfur cries, I can hear him and I have tears in my eyes,” he said.



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