Rae Gawendo’s crown of white hair was combed back from her forehead as she sat at the dining room table in the home of her son Evert in Griswold. Her eyes narrowed when she was asked what it was like to live in the Vilna Ghetto in Lithuania in 1941 where the Nazis forced 40,000 Jews into the space of a several blocks.
“Miserable,” she said.
Gawendo is 102. She was 91 when she first spoke of the nightmare she lived through as a Jew in Europe when Hitler came to power.
She lost everything. Her husband, parents, grandparents and sister were shot and killed by the Nazis and local militia. She survived the Vilna ghetto only to be sent to the Klooga work camp in 1942. She worked in a sawmill there, processing logs for funeral pyres to burn Jews. She survived a liquidation effort by the Nazis as the Russian army approached the camp in September 1944. She was shot, pretended to be dead and lived to tell about it.
Jerry Fischer, the executive director of the Jewish Federation of Eastern Connecticut, was instrumental in getting her to finally talk about her experiences. Fischer knew many of the 40 refugee families who arrived in northeastern Connecticut after the war and established chicken farms with the help of the Jewish Agricultural Society. Rae, her husband, Jacob, and their sons Maurice and Evert were one such family, with a farm in Moosup.
“I told Rae it was necessary because the Holocaust was being denied and obscured,” Fischer said. “It was important for survivors to tell their stories because their stories were true.”
Fischer began an “Encountering Survivors” program that went to area schools and churches. Holocaust survivors and children of survivors spoke to high school students about their lives before, during and after the war.
Gawendo finally agreed to speak. On a stage marking a Holocaust commemoration, with Evert at her side, Gawendo spoke about what she lived through.
Fischer will never forget that night. Neither will Evert Gawendo.
“My knees were shaking,” he said. It was the first time he had ever heard his mother talk about her wartime experiences. His father never spoke of it either. “That’s the way it was with first-generation kids,” he said. “None of us heard our parents talk about the war.”
“That night we were standing side by side, holding each other up,” he said.
But it was in the intimate settings of Fischer’s program that Gawendo did even more compelling work with the students. Between five and eight students would meet at her home for three evenings. The first session was about life before the war. During the second session, Gawendo spoke of her life during the war. The last session focused on her life after liberation when she and her second husband came to America.
Tessa Roy was a junior at Wheeler High School when she decided to participate in the program. “It changed my life,” she said. “I knew I wanted to write. Rae helped me realize the kinds of stories I want to tell.” Roy is now a journalist with WPRO in Providence.
Shannon Saglio was teaching Modern World History at Wheeler High School in North Stonington when she got involved in the program. “I told my students that they’d be the last generation to look into the eyes of survivors and hear their stories firsthand,” she said.
Gawendo’s story had a deep impact on Saglio. “To hear a woman talk about the nightmare that happened in a society that was civilized, with highly educated people, to think of the atrocities that happened to her in that setting was so disconcerting,” she said. She called it the normalization of hate.
But it was Gawendo’s strength and tenacity that Saglio remembers. When Gawendo visited the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum as part of the Encountering Survivors program, Saglio, Evert and several students accompanied her. Gawendo became visibly upset as they moved past the exhibits. “There are no pictures of Klooga,” she told her son.
A museum staff member apologized to Gawendo, telling her they didn’t have much information on the camp where she had lived for two years. Gawendo pulled out 72 pictures from her purse and gave them to her.
The pictures are stark records of the truth. A man lies dead, sprawled on the grass after being shot. There is a funeral pyre made of timbers and bodies, five layers high. The dead on the edges lay with their arms and heads hanging down. In some pictures the corpses were laid out side by side after being burned. Some partially burned bodies show arms sticking up, mouths wide open, trunks without legs because they’d been consumed by fire.
“It happened,” Gawendo said. “It happened.”
Those pictures are now in the archives in Washington. In one photograph Gawendo stands with 14 other prisoners. She was one of 85 survivors of a camp that had housed more than 3,000 people. Her witnessing — and her life — are testimonies to the resilience of the human spirit.