One Tragedy, Two Lives
updated 03/29/2004 AT 01:00 AM EST
•originally published 03/29/2004 AT 01:00 AM EST
Soon after that 2001 talk, she wrote Gewirtzman to tell him why: Murekatete, now 19, had survived the bloody 1994 genocide in Rwanda in which the ruling Hutus murdered more than 500,000 ethnic Tutsis, including all of her immediate family. "I too, like you, had a feeling of [guilt] for being alive," she wrote. The letter so moved Gewirtzman, 75, a retired pharmacist in Great Neck, N.Y., that he told himself, "I have to meet that girl."
Three years on, the pair have forged a friendship that leaps generations and cultures. Gewirtzman phones regularly to check on Murekatete's grades and urges her to socialize more at Stony Brook University in New York, where she is a freshman. She calls weekly for advice and to chat and has spent time with Gewirtzman and his wife, Lillian, at their vacation home in the Hamptons. Most important, they get together about 10 times a year to give talks at schools and colleges, drawing strength from each other as they tell of the nightmares they have witnessed. "She feels that this is the one person who understands her without words," says Lillian, 69. "And he feels very tenderly toward her."
Born in a small Polish town, Gewirtzman was 11 when Nazis invaded in 1939, seized his father's grain company and began persecuting Jews. At first the family hid in an attic, where Gewirtzman watched as German soldiers shot many on the spot and herded hundreds of others toward trains bound for the Treblinka death camp. They fled to a farm, where Gewirtzman and seven others hid for two years in a muddy pit under a pigsty, surviving on bread and potatoes left by the farmer they paid to hide them. "I believed I was going to survive," he says. "I wanted to live."
In the end Gewirtzman says, only 16 of his town's 8,000 Jews survived. Afterward, he emigrated to New York and got a job at a carpet-padding factory. In 1954 he married fellow survivor Lillian and raised two children. In 1996 he began speaking to groups like the one at Murekatete's Queens school. Hearing him, she was reminded of how her own happy youth—as one of seven children of farmers in Rwanda—ended in 1994, when the slaughter of Tutsis began.
Murekatete left her parents' farm to live with a grandmother; when the violence reached their village, they hid in a government building, listening as Hutus came each night, using machetes to murder men, women and children. The pair escaped the violence but later separated when Murekatete went into an orphanage. There she learned of her family's fate. "Everyone was dead—even my little infant brother," she says. In 1995 she went to live with an uncle then in Roanoke, Va., and learned that the world had largely ignored the massacre. "I became very angry," she says. "I lost faith in man."
Her optimism was restored in part by her friendship with the Gewirtzmans. "From every point of view we are completely different," Gewirtzman says, "yet when we talk, my feeling for her is, we came from the same family." And then there is the mission they share. As difficult as it can be to retell her story, says Murekatete, "it helps to know that I'm doing my part in preventing what happened to me from happening to someone else."
Thomas Fields-Meyer. Eve Heyn in New York City