JTA’s new “Seeking Kin” column aims to help reunite long-lost friends and relatives.
BALTIMORE (JTA) — When Dahlia Jakutiene of Giedraicai, Lithuania, developed a brain tumor in early November, Cheryl Rosen offered to fly the woman she has never met to the United States for treatment.
“I was heartbroken when I heard she was sick,” said Rosen, who lives in suburban New York. “Of course we would have brought her here. Whatever was necessary: If she had required financial assistance with [treatment], of course we’d help.”
Jakutiene’s tumor proved benign, and she is recuperating nicely. She didn’t need to fly to New York for treatment, but coming through in an emergency is what family members do for one another, and here the matter was personal: Jakutiene’s grandmother, the late Leokadija Ruzgys, and the latter’s three children saved Rosen’s mother, Mira “Mary” Erlich, during the Holocaust.
On Nov. 23, at New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport, Erlich, now 82, got a good look at Ruzgys’ daughter, Egle Bimbirine, 83, and son, Aurimas Ruzgys, 81, for the first time since World War II ended. (Their sister, Meile, Jakutiene ‘s mother, passed away in 1988.) The siblings embraced their hosts, posed for news cameras and drove off to Rosen’s home in Scarsdale, N.Y., to spend nine days together.
On Thanksgiving night, with the dishes washed and the day’s last football telecast attracting the household’s 20-somethings, Bimbirine and Erlich relaxed in the dining room, nursing dessert with their respective daughters, Ida Juraitieme and Rosen. Ruzgys had retired for the night, fatigued by the long flight.
“This is my rescuer,” Erlich said, introducing a visitor to Bimbirine.
The older women scarcely comprehended the reality of the other’s presence after 66 years. Erlich’s left hand grasped Bimbirine’s right for nearly an hour, continuing to hold on for dear life.
“I feel like we’re one family,” Bimbirine said, her daughter interpreting.
“I feel as close to them as [to] family because if not for them, I wouldn’t be here today,” Erlich said. “This is what we’ve been talking about all day. You don’t do something like this for someone you don’t care about, only for someone you love.”
The two clans were reunited by the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous, a New York-based organization that honors non-Jews who rescued Jews during the Shoah. At a Manhattan hotel last week, Ruzgys and Bimbirine, along with their late mother and late sister, officially received the Righteous Among the Nations designation from Yad Vashem, Israel’s national Holocaust commemoration institution.
Seventy years ago, Israel Katz, a bakery shop owner in Giedraicai, rapped at the window of Leokadija Ruzgys in Dudenai four miles away, seeking refuge. His son, Leibel, had been killed by schoolmates following the German invasion, and Israel survived a mass execution. Ruzgys, a widow, had been Katz’s steady customer. Her three children frequently had frolicked with his daughter, Mira, while Ruzgys shopped or attended church.
“We played hopscotch or whatever it is that kids do,” Erlich recalled.
Ruzgys hid the three Katzes, including Mira’s mother, Berta. Concerned over the family’s food supply and the consequences of harboring Jews, Ruzgys tried limiting their stay to three days. Meile, Egle and Aurimas wailed in support of the Katzes, and their mother relented in a scene that played out periodically under the new living arrangements.
When a female approached the family’s remote home from the valley, the Katzes buried themselves in a narrow pit beneath the pantry, with one of the hosts replacing the floor and topping it with a bushel of potatoes. A man’s arrival could mean he’d been tipped off and was coming to arrest them, so the Katzes squeezed into the smokehouse out back.
The families dwelled together for three years until an informant blew their cover. Leokadija Ruzgys and the Katzes were jailed, but bribes kept them alive. They were released at war’s end. After four years in a displaced persons’ camp in Germany, Katz moved his family to the United States in 1950. Until his death in 1984, Katz corresponded with the Ruzgyses.
“I never got them out of my heart. They were always there,” Erlich said of her rescuers. “It’s very emotional just seeing them again. About three or four years ago, we almost went there for a visit, but my husband got sick. If not for [the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous], I don’t know if we’d have been together for this holiday.”
“It is a very special day,” Bimbirine said. “I was so nervous about meeting. I wondered whether we’d recognize each other. Mira and I thought that it’s a pity that my mother and sister, and Mira’s parents, are not with us. … I was so glad I met Mira and that she and I are still alive and can talk about the time we spent together.”
The next generations take the sentiment to heart. After Bimbirine and Juraitieme climbed the stairs to the bedrooms they’d call home for nine nights, Rosen’s children replaced them at the table beside their grandmother.
“I’m not the biggest fan of the term ‘rescuers.’ It doesn’t do justice to what they’ve done for the family,” said Ilana Rosen, 25. “The balance of the universe is so delicate, and everything happens for a reason.”
“[Mira] had three children and nine grandchildren,” said Adam Rosen, 23. “You keep going further and further down the line, and [the Ruzgyses] ultimately will have saved thousands of people.”
Daniel Rosen, 21, said, “To see them embrace after 66 years, you can still see the love.”
At last week’s dinner, Israel’s consul general presented the Lithuanian rescuers with Yad Vashem’s award. A 13-minute documentary of their heroism was screened. A three-generation photograph of Mira Katz Erlich and the descendants whose existence the Ruzgyses enabled was presented.
By then, Dahlia Jakutiene, her husband and three children were likely fast asleep back in Giedraicai. The Jakutienes will continue to live for many more years, many thousands of multiples of three days, in the modest house they’ve renovated, a dwelling whose doorposts the executive vice president of the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous, Stanlee Stahl, swears bear old indentations for mezuzot. Dahlia has owned the house since 1988, when her mother died. Meile had lived there since 1964, when Meile’s mother, Leokadija, died. Leokadija had lived there since the late 1940s.
That was when Israel Katz signed the deed over to her. It was the least Katz could do to express his gratitude. And it ensured that the home remained in the family.
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