NEW YORK – Just in time for Thanksgiving, an airport reunion on Wednesday will
be a study in the ultimate definition of gratitude.
Thanks to the Jewish
Foundation for the Righteous, Jewish Holocaust survivor Mary Katz Ehrlich, 83,
will be reunited on Wednesday afternoon – after 66 years apart – with Egle and
Aurimas Ruzgys, two Lithuanian Catholics in their 80s who helped rescue her from
the Nazis as children.
“There are no words that can say how I feel about
this,” Ehrlich told The Jerusalem Post
by phone Monday.
“They were the
most wonderful people, and I owe them my life. If not for them, I don’t know if
myself and my parents would have survived. We owe them a lot, and I’m thrilled
to meet them again.”
Ehrlich was a child in Lithuania during World War
II, and when Germany invaded in 1941, her father, Srolis, and brother were taken
to an execution pit in a forest and shot.
Srolis escaped and asked one of
the customers of his store, a local Catholic farmer named Leokadija Ruzgys, for
help. Ruzgys and her children hid him, his wife and his daughter.
recalls the family’s kindness and the tremendous risk they seemed willing to
take on her own family’s behalf – even the three Ruzgys children (one of whom,
Miele, has since died), who were risking their lives.
“We stayed in their
house, and they had a back room where they used to keep potatoes and all kinds
of vegetables, so we stayed in that little room,” Ehrlich said. “At night, we
were in the house with them, and during the day, too, but we kept watch all the
time through the window and would sometimes go and hide in the
There was also a small bunker, she remembered, where the
family would hide in emergencies.
They hid with the Ruzgys family for
“The kids were very careful,” she recalled. “They even
watched their mother that she shouldn’t let anyone know that we were there. They
were very careful and good. I was like one of them – we were very
She expressed regret that Miele, the oldest, had not survived to
see the upcoming reunion.
“God bless them, they were the most wonderful
kids,” Ehrlich said.
When soldiers came to the house, having found out
the Katz family was in hiding, Ehrlich recalled that Miele Ruzgys had lied to
the soldiers, telling them no Jews were there and that their mother had gone
from the house.
“She said, we don’t know anyone by that name – no one is
here but the three of us,” remembered Ehrlich.
“The soldiers hit her and
said, if you don’t tell us where they are, we will hit you harder. But they
already knew where we were.”
The police caught and sent Leokadija Ruzgys
and the Katz family to prison. However, Egle and Aurimas Ruzgys helped keep
their mother and the Jewish family alive by selling the goods they had to
corrupt prison officials.
The family was liberated by the Russians
shortly afterward. Upon their liberation, they went back to the Ruzgys house,
walking miles, and stayed with them overnight before walking back to their
To show their appreciation, Ehrlich said, her family gave her
grandparents’ house to the Ruzgys family.
“But it was not enough
gratitude, not enough,” she said. “I’m so thrilled.”
Her daughter in New
York will host a Thanksgiving dinner this year, at which the Ruzgys siblings
will be the guests of honor. They will also be honored at a Jewish Foundation
for the Righteous dinner at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria next Tuesday
The foundation, which gives financial assistance to people who
helped save Jews during the Holocaust, has arranged Thanksgiving reunions for
survivors and their rescuers since 1993.
According to Stanlee Stahl, the
foundation’s executive vice president, “Thanksgiving is the quintessential
American holiday. Regardless of someone’s religious belief, it is the right time
for the Jewish family to say thank you to the Christian family for saving a
life. It is a wonderful time for the JFR to welcome the Catholic rescuers and to
introduce them to such a wonderful tradition as Thanksgiving.”
Rabbi Harold Schulweis in 1986, the foundation provides monthly stipends to over
800 aged and needy Righteous Gentiles in 23 countries, the majority of them in
Eastern Europe, including Aurimas and Egle Ruzgys.
Last year, the
organization distributed almost $3 million in support of people who helped
rescue Jews from the Holocaust.