"I was completely despondent, not knowing if I was going to survive another hour," Rawicki said. "Outside of the Jewish ghetto I was just a vulnerable animal. It just happened to be that the stars were aligned that day and I was saved."
Rawicki, who turns 87 this week, and nine other Holocaust survivors lit candles in a small ceremony at the
Only this year, the focus was on the untold heroes who risked their own safety to hide Jews in cellars, attics and under loose floorboards.
"Sometimes it's very hard not to make parallels between then and society today, so I think it's important that we remember to be here for each other regardless of the color of your skin, where you're from, who you worship," said executive vice president of the
Strangers like Rawicki, who was 16 years old when he escaped alone from the ghetto in
Adrift without any identification papers or contacts outside the ghetto walls, Rawicki took a streetcar to the beach. There he saw three boys his age that were playing hooky from school, and decided to assimilate into the group. He told them he had skipped school that day too and pretended to be another carefree boy as they spent the morning talking about girls, school and the other everyday topics of consequence to teenagers.
"Maybe I had intuition, maybe I had a death wish that he would call out to the other people on the beach and say 'Hey, there's a Jew here' and then it would all be over. They would call the police and I would be killed," Rawicki said. "I don't know to this moment why I said it, I just blurted it out fully thinking that this was the end."
Rawicki's mother and sister died in Treblinka, and his father was captured while working in a shop outside the city, forced to dig his own grave before being machine gunned to death. Another sister, now 93, survived by posing as a gentile about five blocks away from Rybakiewicz's home and now lives in
After the war, Rawicki found out that Rybakiewicz was arrested and hung from a balcony in one of the last surviving buildings in the
When a rescuer was discovered, their families were tortured for the act as well. On the official list of people hung that day was
Though the history of the Holocaust is mandated to be taught in
The challenge is to get beyond the numbers to tell children the personal stories and show them how generations of children and grandchildren wouldn't exist if it weren't for the rescuers, some just children themselves, Stahl said.
Meanwhile, Rawicki and other survivors will make sure children hear their stories.
"I did all I could to survive and be witness to what happened so maybe if people find out about it, hear stories from people who lived it, the Holocaust will never happen again," Rawicki said. "I don't know if I have the same guts as the one who saved me, but now I'm certainly aware of what human kindness can do. I have seen human depravity at its worst, but I also saw the very height of human nobility."
(c)2014 the Tampa Tribune (Tampa, Fla.)
Visit the Tampa Tribune (Tampa, Fla.) at www.tampatrib.com
Distributed by MCT Information Services