NEW YORK — It’s been 66 years since Mary Katz Erlich last saw the boy and girl who saved her life.
Egle and Aurimas Ruzgys were teens in Lithuania when Nazis began to hunt Jews to send to concentration camps. As Catholics, they were safe, except for a big secret they kept for three years: their Jewish friends, Erlich and her parents, were hidden inside their home in a small space accessed through a hole in a kitchen cabinet.
The three friends last saw each other in 1945, after the liberation of Nazi-ruled lands at the end of World War II. Erlich’s parents soon moved to the United States as part of a wave of Holocaust survivors who immigrated. But Erlich, who is now 83 and lives in suburban Boston, quickly lost touch with her friends. It did not help that what she gained in fluent English, she lost in her native language, the only language that those who saved her spoke.
Each went on to have lives full of happiness and families of their own, but each also felt a longing for the past friendships that had gone missing — until now.
On Wednesday, the threesome hugged and cried at an emotional reunion at John F. Kennedy International Airport. Erlich and the Ruzgys will spend Thanksgiving with Erlich’s daughter in the New York suburbs. The siblings, who had never been outside Lithuania until Wednesday, will also tour New York during the weekend.
“I cannot fully express how grateful I am to Egle and Aurimas, and to their family that is no longer with us…They opened their hearts and home to my family, knowing that if they were caught, they would be killed as well,” said Erlich.
Before the Holocaust, life was pleasant for Erlich, who lived with her parents, Israel and Berta Katz, and her brother Leibel in a small Lithuanian village where her father was a shopowner. But when Germany invaded the country in June 1941, life changed. Leibel was taken from the home and killed. Israel almost suffered the same fate, but managed to escape.
In mid-July 1941, they left in the middle of the night and walked to the farm of Leokadija Ruzgys, a loyal customer and friend from a nearby village. They asked Leokadija if they could stay for the night. It turned into three years.
The Ruzgys children were not allowed to play outside or have friends come over in order to not risk exposing their Jewish friends. Nonetheless, the Ruzgys’ secret was eventually exposed by disapproving neighbors. The Lithuanian police arrested Leokadija, Mary, and her parents. They were imprisoned while the Ruzgys children were left with an uncle who watched over them. Leokadija and the Katz family were in prison for six months before the Soviets liberated the area.
“The generosity and bravery that people like the Ruzgys displayed during the Holocaust is what has allowed me to live and build a wonderful family of my own,” said Erlich.
Wednesday’s reunion was orchestrated by The Jewish Foundation for the Righteous, a New York-based organization whose mission is to financially support non-Jews who risked their lives to rescue Jews during the Holocaust. The foundation currently supports 800 aged and needy rescuers in 23 countries and runs Holocaust education programs.
“In the many years we have worked with survivors and their rescuers, I remain awestruck by the heroism of the thousands of Christian rescuers who risked their lives to save Jews. By holding true to their values, these individuals saved Jews from certain death,” said Stanlee Stahl, the foundation’s Executive Vice President. “We owe a great debt of gratitude to these men and women, and through our work, hope to improve their lives and preserve their stories.”
PHOTOS: A slideshow of old Katz and Ruzgys family pictures, plus photos from Wednesday’s reunion.