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Arts / Culture

Documentary Chronicles Holocaust Survivor's Return to Warsaw

Jasmine Thomas

Strains of regret mixed with forgiveness are reflected in "Behind the Wall", a documentary by a University of South Florida professor who chronicles the trip of a Holocaust survivor's return to Poland.

In 1941, a 14-year-old Rawicki was expelled by Nazis from his hometown of Plock, Poland and sent to Soldau, East Prussia, along with his mother, two sisters and the rest of the Jewish community. He later escaped with his oldest sister to the Warsaw Ghetto, where their father was. There, he smuggled goods and messages in and out of the ghetto, before the 1944 uprising against the Nazi occupiers took place.

After being captured by German troops, he escaped and left Warsaw posing as a gentile, ending up in nearby Lublin. By the time the destroyed city was liberated by Russian troops, Rawicki and his sister were the only ones of his family who were still alive.

It took seven decades before he returned to his homeland. In the documentary, he stands before a piece of the Warsaw Ghetto's wall of jagged bricks. He tearfully recalls his family's deaths as he reads a commemorative plaque.

"Now the reason I got emotional was because it mentions Treblinka, where my mother and my sister were gassed," Rawicki said. "And Poniatowa was where my father was shot with all the workers of Tobbens factory, which was one of the two big industrial establishments in Warsaw."

Now in his 80's, the St. Petersburg retiree decided to visit Warsaw last summer to see his son Andrew, who relocated there for work. That same summer, the commemoration of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising's 70th anniversary took place.

Credit Jasmine Thomas
Rawicki's mother, Sophie, is pictured here holding him as an infant.

That was when he invited Dr. Carolyn Ellis to join him. Ellis met Rawicki five years ago while interviewing 45 Holocaust survivors. At the time, she worked with the University of South Florida library to collect the series of oral history interviews.

"I said to myself, 'I have to go.' I just have to go and be with him there because I knew it would be very emotional. I wanted to be there to support him," Ellis said. "But I also wanted to be there to videotape and talk with him about how he was remembering things and how it felt to be there. I wanted to be onsite with him, I didn't want to just hear about it afterwards."

After meeting Rawicki, she knew immediately that she wanted to collaborate with survivors more closely.

"And Jerry was just perfect for that. He's very insightful, he's very analytic. What stood out for me about him is he doesn't just tell the story as though 'here's the truth,'" Ellis said. "He tells the story and always asks questions about are there other ways to interpret this."

So upon hearing about Rawicki's trip, Ellis hired a video crew from the University of Warsaw's Institute of Journalism to film his emotional return. Together, she and the crew edited the footage to produce "Behind the Wall".

Credit Jasmine Thomas
Abraham, Rawicki's father, was working at the Tobbens factory when the Nazis sent the workers to their deaths at the Poniatowa concentration camp.

"It is a focus on Jerry and being in Warsaw. So the sights in Warsaw provide the backdrop for him to then talk about what he's remembering," Ellis said.

Rawicki said he was not at all uncomfortable with being filmed during the visit.

"I was proud, I was very touched by her gesture. And I was very anxious to do it because I thought that this would be a very good way of convincing some people of what really did happen," Rawicki said.

The film was shown in February at the Florida Holocaust Museum in St. Petersburg. The humble, bespectacled Rawicki said it was well-received.

"It is exactly what we were hoping for, not of course to have people feel uncomfortable but to convince people," Rawicki said. "And if I could be in this film, if some small measure would accomplish that particular goal, that would be something very rewarding to us."

Despite having visited the site of tragic memories from 70 years ago, Rawicki said he did not feel a sense of closure after the experience.

"In my case and in the mind of every survivor, I think closure is not a word that's in our vocabulary because we could never forget of what happened to us, what happened to our loved ones who got killed," Rawicki said. "So I really don't know what the people mean by closure."

Credit Jasmine Thomas
Rawicki's sister, Stephany, was killed with their mother at the Treblinka concentration camp. Pictured here as an infant, she was 22 years old at the time of her death.

Soft-voiced and stoic, Rawicki hopes to leave a lasting impression on everyone who watches the film.

"[I hope] anybody who sees or listens to me understands how important it is to understand as much as possible about the Holocaust," Rawicki said, "for no other reason than maybe by remembering and seeing the horrors that the Holocaust has spawned, maybe a tragedy like this will never happen again."

"Behind the Wall" will be shown at 6:30 p.m. Thursday in USF's Marshall Student Center. After the film, Rawicki and Ellis will discuss his trip to Poland, including his visit to the Treblinka concentration camp where Rawicki’s mother and sister were killed.