Holocaust Eyewitness, Subject of Documentary, to Speak Next Week

Free screening and discussion April 3 with Warsaw Ghetto Uprising survivor and USF professor who filmed his return to Poland after 70 years.

Professor Carolyn Ellis with Jerry Rawicki, the subject of her documentary, "Behind the Wall," about his return to Poland after a 70-year absence, a visit that changed his life.

By Barbara Melendez

      USF News

TAMPA, Fla. (March 25, 2014) – At 87 years old, Warsaw Ghetto and Holocaust survivor Jerry Rawicki demonstrates the remarkable power of eyewitness testimony in a documentary to be shown at USF.

His return in 2013 to the scene of that horrific chapter in history – and in his own life – is the subject of a 45-minute film “Behind the Wall” produced by USF Professor Carolyn Ellis. It will be shown April 3 at 6:30 p.m. in the USF Marshall Student Center Oval Theatre.

After the screening, Rawicki and Ellis will discuss their five-year collaborative witnessing project on personal testimony about the Holocaust, with special attention to his trip to Poland. This event is free and open to the public.

Born in Ptock, Poland, Rawicki at age 14, and his family left when the Jewish population was expelled in 1941. They landed in Warsaw by 1942 where he spent a fateful period joining various work groups to get in and out of the Ghetto, smuggling and running errands. He ended up escaping at the beginning of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943. His mother and sister were taken to the Treblinka extermination camp where they were killed. On his trip to Poland in 2013 Rawicki visited there as well.

The audience can expect to be mesmerized.

“We showed the documentary in (Distinguished University Professor) Art Bochner’s Honor’s class last semester,” said Ellis, a noted ethnographer. “The students responded to the film with comments and questions for Jerry about both his trip to Poland and his experiences in the Holocaust, as well as comparing his experiences to other genocides. They told him how appreciative they were to meet him in person and have him come and speak to them. You could hear a pin drop as they all sat in rapt attention.”

Walking through the places that are still familiar to him, Ellis saw the impact on Rawicki as each day unfolded.

“I was struck by how being there stimulated him to remember what happened,” she said.“He constantly looked for markers he could remember. At first he was dismayed that there were so few — since Warsaw was burned down during the War. But soon he felt that seeing all the new buildings gave him some perspective on this part of his life. That was then, this was now, and then didn’t really exist anymore as he had known it. That was freeing to him. He said that this trip and this realization helped him to see his life in more of a historical perspective.”

Rawicki’s life is taking a new direction.

“This experience made him feel even more dedicated to telling his story and doing what he could to try to prevent this kind of tragedy from happening again. A result of this experience is that Jerry now feels, in his words, that he has a ‘larger view’ and ‘can see more fully’ this piece of history, ‘put some of his personal feelings to bed,’ and ‘contribute now in ways that might make a difference,’” she explained.

Now, in the kind of coincidence that can’t be made up, Rawicki’s son was sent on a multi-year work assignment by his company to live in Warsaw where father and son can now visit and both can spend time with members of their extended family, including visits to Rawicki’s older sister who settled in Israel.

“Jerry’s family has been very welcoming to me, both in St. Petersburg and during my visit in Poland,” Ellis said. “They treat me as family. Extremely supportive this project, they visited places of memory with us and then invited me to dinner, where I interviewed Jerry’s son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren around the dinner table.”

Ellis, Rawicki and videographer Steven Schoen are currently shooting footage for another film “to show Jerry’s life after the Holocaust and how the Holocaust intersects and affects his life now,” Ellis said. “A second storyline will be a focus on our collaborative and relational approach to testimony, and the ways this approach inspires storytelling, conversation, memory and healing.”

Continuing to write articles with Rawicki, Ellis hopes to turn her attention to “two books, one on collaborative witnessing with trauma survivors and one that tells the story of several first and second generation survivors with whom I have done interviews during the last five years.”

Chair of the Department of Communication at USF, Ellis’s current research focuses on interactive interviews and collaborative witnessing with Holocaust survivors. She teaches courses on communicating emotions, illness, loss and grief as well as race and emotions, writing lives and personal storytelling and also focuses on qualitative research methods and autoethnography.

Learn about Jerry Rawicki’s experiences in the USF Libraries Holocaust and Genocide Studies Center’s Portraying Courage Exhibition: http://exhibits.lib.usf.edu/exhibits/show/portraying-courage/jerry-rawicki.

Barbara Melendez can be reached at 813-974-4563