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Survivors of Genocide Bridge Worlds, Generations As They Appear Together

March 21, 2005
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Jacqueline Murekatete, a tall, elegant 20-year-old student at New York University, hopes to study law one day. But when she spoke recently at the law school at Touro College in New York, Murekatete, a survivor of the 1994 Rwandan massacres, wasn’t focusing on her career plans.

And she wasn’t speaking alone.

She was joined by David Gewirtzman. The two come from opposite ends of the world, but speak against genocide together.

Gewirtzman, a 75-year-old Holocaust survivor, and Murekatete, who dressed for the March 16 event in a well-pressed black pantsuit, lecture across the country about their experiences, hoping that the information they provide will motivate others to protest atrocities.

Gewirtzman had been lecturing alone for 10 years, when, four years ago, he visited Murekatete’s high school in Queens, N.Y., after the class read Eli Wiesel’s “Night.”

While he spoke, Murekatete said, “I cried. I saw so many similarities between us — one day we were children with dreams, the next day we saw our whole lives massacred.”

She wrote Gewirtzman a letter of appreciation, and he invited Murekatete and her uncle for dinner. He asked her to speak to groups with him. Murekatete agreed.

“When I go to inner-city talks, kids there can’t relate to what happened to Jews 60 years ago,” Gewirtzman said. “When Jacqueline comes with me, they say, ‘Wait a minute, this hatred didn’t stop 60 years ago.’ She opens up doors that were closed before.”

Despite the years separating them, Gewirtzman’s and Murekatete’s stories are disturbingly similar.

They each grew up in a rural area. Gewirtzman lived in Losice, Poland, 75 miles east of Warsaw. As he spoke at the Touro event, yellowed photographs of the life he lost appeared on the projector screen beside him. Pictures of his brick schoolhouse and his family on a summer vacation, smiling and happy, illustrated the normal life he led.

On Sept. 1, 1939, on the first day of school, Poland was invaded by the Russians and the Nazis. Losice fell under Nazi control. Gewirtzman was forced to leave school and enter the ghetto.

Gewirtzman and his family spent most of the war in hiding. His brother spent two years living in a haystack. Gewirtzman, his parents, his sister, his aunt, his uncle and two cousins spent the last two years of the war living in a hole that was four feet deep, nine feet long and four feet wide.

After liberation by the Russians in 1944, they returned to Losice, discovering that only 16 of its 8,000 citizens had survived. Gewirtzman trembled as he displayed a photograph of the monument to his village’s dead, taken years after the war, on a return visit to Losice. “This is all that was left of us,” he said.

Gewirtzman was smuggled out of postwar Poland and lived in Italy for several years; his family joined him later. Eventually a paternal uncle brought him and his family to the United States.

Murekatete, a Tutsi born in the Gitarama province of Rwanda in 1985, has only her memories to illuminate her past as she speaks. She emphasizes that before violence engulfed her country, she went to school, played with friends and dreamed of the future.

In 1994, as Murekatete’s spring break was drawing to a close, word came that Hutu President Juvenal Habyarimana had been assassinated by Tutsis. Murekatete insisted on returning to her grandmother’s house in a neighboring province, where she boarded to attend school.

It soon became obvious that school would not start. Rumors of mass killings became reality. Murekatete and her grandmother left their home after learning that Hutus were burning Tutsis alive in their houses.

They couldn’t hide for long, she says. The Hutus were approaching their hiding spot.

Murekatete’s grandmother placed her in an orphanage run by an Italian priest. Murekatete survived there. She constantly thought about her family. “I always believed — not my parents. They were OK. They had to be alive,” she said, her voice stumbling for the first time.

But they weren’t. Her grandmother, her parents and six siblings all died, a few of the 800,000 people who died in the violence.

After the killings ended, Murekatete was picked up by relatives. She was adopted by an uncle who lives in Queens.

The audience of at least 50 law students, professors and interested guests clearly were moved by the afternoon’s discussion. As the speeches ended, people lined up, tears in their eyes, to tell Gewirtzman and Murekatete what an impact their stories have had.

Gewirtzman recognizes the personal value of his speaking tour. “As far apart as we are — she is black, I am white, she is Christian, I am Jewish, she is young, I am not so young — we have become like brother and sister, like one person,” he says.

He believes that speaking about their experiences is the only way to stop violence. “Unless everyone becomes aware, and starts doing something, this type of atrocity will go on,” he said.

Murekatete agreed. “My life goal is to make sure what happened to me will never happen to another child,” she said. “Whether through writing, or speaking about my experiences, or any other way, I will accomplish my goal.”

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