Ray Gawendo, a Holocaust survivor, turned 100 this past year. She arrived with her husband, Jacob in the Danielson area in the early 1950’s with the assistance of the Jewish Agricultural Society. The Gawendos bought a poultry farm and worked hard to build new American lives, having lost everyone and everything prior to their arrival in the US. Ray and Jacob were among the early Jewish settlers who helped to build Temple Beth Israel in Danielson.
For most of her life, Ray had not talked about her experiences during the Holocaust. She encouraged her children to assimilate to American life and spared them the pain and burden of her trauma. About ten years ago, Ray was encouraged for the first time to talk about her experiences during the Holocaust. She remembered her experiences in great detail. So keen and powerful were her memories and her descriptions that she was encouraged to tell her story to local high school students. After some hesitation – she was never a public speaker – she agreed.
Ray had found her calling. She was determined to share her experiences so that students could perhaps begin to understand the evil that occurred just a generation ago. This was her small way of trying to insure that the horror of the Holocaust would not be repeated. “Never again!” she said.
About a year ago, I watched as Ray Gawendo told her story of survival. She described her time in the Vilna Ghetto, followed by her horrific experience in the Klooga forced labor camp in Estonia. 1,800 to 2,000 prisoners were wantonly killed at Klooga. Those who survived were transported to the Stutthof concentration camp ahead of the Soviet advance. Ray described terrible conditions. German SS units and members of the 287th Estonian Police Battalion served as guards. As the Soviet army advanced, a German task force began slaughtering the remaining prisoners – approx 2,000 were shot, their bodies stacked onto wooden pyres and burned. When Soviet troops reached the camp, only 85 of the 2,400 prisoners had managed to survive. Ray had been shot, but survived by hiding under a pile of dead bodies.
Ray told her story in an intense, at times haltingly manner. There were moments of calm description. But other moments were filled with an intense and almost accusatory tone. It was as if all of us in the auditorium had permitted this atrocity to occur and we were now being held to account. It was incredibly riveting. There was no sound in the auditorium. The students were stunned. All eyes were on Ray – many were tearing. After her presentation, students lined up to ask for her autograph and to have photos taken with her.
Ray was not there to teach the Holocaust. That would best be done by historians and teachers. She was there to share an intimate, personal story of survival under the most unimaginable circumstances. She was describing a time when the world went crazy. This was her personal story and she told it with clarity, simplicity and in compelling detail.
I saw Ray a few months ago. She looks good. She smiles and remembers me. But as she enters her 101st year she is beginning to slow down and her age is catching up with her. Her short term memory is failing. I don’t think she’ll be speaking to students any more. And I wonder, who will tell her story?
Contributed by TBI Preservation Society Board President, Norman Berman