Who Will Tell Her Story?



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


Partnerships in Holocaust-based Education

Our Yom HaShoah remembrance event with Martin Silver of the S.S. Mala Holocaust survivor rescue ship has passed, but our efforts to use the Holocaust as a teaching tool continue.

On April 23rd, Board President Norman Berman spoke to 150 students at Killingly High School about his experiences growing up as a child of Holocaust survivors, and all we can learn from this kind of history about how to be more compassionate and work together toward preventing such atrocities.

Next week, TBI Preservation Society will present the last of a pilot series collaboration with Woodstock Academy and the Strassler Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies whereby doctoral candidate students have been speaking on the subject of historical genocide to hundreds of students, teachers, and parents and then working with small groups of students on using those lessons to promote hope and progress in the future.  The first program season closes out with a look at the Rwandan Genocide, with a particular focus on the experience of children witnesses and orphans.

Over the next several months, we’ll be sharing more stories from this unique program and its future plans, including speaker community events at our Temple Beth Israel home.

A Preview of Our Yom HaShoah Speaker

“Martin Silver was a high school kid growing up in Brooklyn, N.Y. when the U.S. entered World War II. In January 1946, he enrolled in the New York State Maritime Academy in the Bronx, with plans to graduate as an ensign and licensed officer in the Merchant Marine. Just two years later, his plans would take a sudden and unexpected turn, as he played a role in getting Holocaust survivors to the besieged Jewish homeland.”

Read about our upcoming April 19th Yom HaShoah event with Martin Silver at The Jewish Ledger

Great Community Seder Article in “The Courant”

Thank you to Denise Coffey for joining our annual Community Seder and for contributing this great article about it to “The Courant.”

When Jews gather to celebrate the Passover Seder on April 3, they will celebrate one of the oldest traditions in the western world. Family and friends will gather to tell stories, sing songs, eat ritual foods and read from the Haggadah, a book that has been translated more widely than any other Jewish book. It recounts the story of the Israelites’ exodus from slavery in Egypt. The story is about freedom, family and faith. On March 22 it was about community as well as. The Temple Beth Israel Preservation Society threw open the doors of its temple in Danielson and welcomed in people of all faiths…

Read the full article here