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Survivors of Rwanda Genocide, Nazi Holocaust Find Common Ground - 2004-02-18

Their stories of survival are terrifying. But a young survivor of the 1994 Rwanda genocide and a Nazi Holocaust survivor are determined to tell youngsters about their painful past in the hopes of preventing such atrocities from happening again. In the process, the two have forged an unlikely friendship based on a bond of suffering.

For years, David Gewiritzman has talked to local students and community groups about his experience as a Jew in Nazi-occupied Poland.

A teenager at the time, Mr. Gewirtzman and his family barely escaped death. They survived after his father paid a Polish farmer to hide eight Jews in a small, filthy hole under a pigsty. They huddled there for close to three years.

"We came out of what we called the grave into one large cemetery," recalled Mr. Gewirtzman. "A cemetery in which six million Jews and five million non-Jews were massacred and buried all over Europe. In the town, my town, out of the 8,000 Jewish people who lived in the ghetto, 16 came back alive."

Mr. Gewirtzman, 75, often receives letters from students he addresses. But two years ago, the retired New York pharmacist received one that touched him deeply. It was from then-16-year-old Jacqueline Murekatete, who had survived the 1994 massacres of minority Tutsis in Rwanda by the majority Hutus. She lost her parents, six siblings and scores of relatives.

Ms. Murekatete wrote: "Maybe I can make a difference in this world, if I try. And maybe I can do my part to make sure that no other human being goes through the same experience I did." Ms. Murekatete thanked Mr. Gewirtzman for sharing his story.

"I saw so many similarities, how he was going to school one day - a child, like myself - then he was dehumanized, called an enemy of the country, having to see people killed and losing relatives," she said. "I felt a bond and I felt that he understood me and that is how the friendship started."

Mr. Gewirtzman wrote back to Ms. Murekatete and they soon began working together.

They approach an auditorium of teenagers who are chewing gum and chatting happily with their friends. But it does not take long for the students to listen quietly.

"We would see people with torches and machetes and they would come towards the county [village] and every night our neighbors, our former Hutu neighbors, started following us and every night they came and killed people," she told the youngsters.

Ms. Murekatete describes her nightmare in detail. She was nine years old and was staying with her grandmother when machete- and gun-wielding Hutu mobs arrived at her parents' village. Ms. Murekatete eventually found refuge in an orphanage, but her grandmother was murdered.

After the killings, which left an estimated 800,000 people dead in 100 days, Ms. Murekatete learned that nearly all of her relatives had been butchered to death and were thrown in the river. "I did not understand, being nine years old," she said, "why they had died, why hundreds of thousands of Tutsis had been killed for no reason other than the fact that they were Tutsis."

She asked how the international community allows genocides to continue, from Cambodia to Rwanda, despite the post-Holocaust pledge to prevent any more mass killings?

"The United Nations and other world leaders always say, 'never again, never again,' but so far it has continued to happen and it is up to each and every one of us to make sure that that phrase 'never again' is not just an empty phrase but a reality," said Ms. Murekatete.

Mr. Gewirtzman says selfish motives compel him to keep speaking - he wants to make the world a better place for his six grandchildren. He says if he can influence one person to stick up for someone in need of help, then he has succeeded.

"When you see a bully in the corridor of your school beating up on somebody and that somebody is not a friend of yours, is not a relative of yours, instead of going away and saying, 'I do not want to get mixed up with that, you do something about it' because if you do not, neither your children nor my children will ever be safe," said Mr. Gewirtzman.

The students, some of them stunned and teary-eyed, ask the survivors questions about their escapes. "Before the genocide," asks one, "did you have friends of other religions or ethnic groups and if so how did the genocide impact those relationships?"

While most of the students go on to their next class, several stay behind to talk to Jacqueline Murekatete. Another student says, "It's upsetting that the world has let something like this occur and it helps you to think about what you can do about it."

During her talk, Ms. Murekatete begins to cry when describing the day she found out that her parents had been murdered.

David Gewirtzman says from the beginning, the two survivors understood each others' tears. "It did not matter whether she was from Africa, Asia, Europe, Jewish, Christian, it did not matter," he said. "All of a sudden, there was a blood bond between us. It was our pain that united us. I felt, my God, is that what it takes in order for her and me to unite. Can we not do it without going through the horror that we went through? She really is my sister. As close as other people are to me, as close as neighbors and friends are, they do not understand me the way she does."

Ms. Murekatete was adopted by an uncle in the United States, but Mr. Gewirtzman and his wife have taken on a role of grandparents. They invite her to their home for dinner and call to see how she is doing in school. Now a college student in New York, Ms. Murekatete is writing a book about her experience.