Mary Katz Erlich, a Holocaust survivor, is reunited with family w members
SCARSDALE — There may not be sufficient words for Cheryl Rosen to convey the depth of her gratitude to the Lithuanian guests at her Thanksgiving table.
But she will begin by simply gathering three generations of her family members — and reflecting on the fact that none of them would be alive without the bravery and kindness shown by these visitors as children during World War II.
Rosen's mother, Mary Katz Erlich, is an 83-year-old Jewish Holocaust survivor. She was 11 when her family was forced to flee its home in the Lithuanian village of Giedraiciai and seek refuge in the countryside after the invasion by Nazi Germany.
The family was taken in by one of her father's store customers, Leokadija Ruzgys, a Catholic widow who lived on a farm with her three children. Risking the lives of herself and her children, Ruzgys allowed the Katz family to hide in her home — often inside a storage room or a bunker below — for the next three years.
Two of the Ruzgys children, brother Aurimas and sister Egle, reunited with Erlich on Wednesday through the sponsorship of the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous. The two families are sharing nine days together, starting with Thanksgiving at Rosen's Scarsdale home.
Erlich lives in Massachusetts with her husband. They have three children and nine grandchildren.
"I owe my life and my parents' life to them," Erlich said.
The foundation observes each Thanksgiving by reuniting Holocaust survivors with their rescuers. The Katz and Ruzgys families were nervous before coming together in a room at John F. Kennedy Airport on Wednesday. Erlich said she had lost the means to express herself in the Lithuanian language.
But after embracing in front of the cameras, the former childhood friends sat with hands clasped, speaking quietly in Lithuanian.
"Forget that they're all like 85 years old," Rosen, 51, said as she watched. "It's three children, finding each other again."
Rosen had grown up hearing the story from her mother. Erlich's brother and father were seized, taken to the woods to be executed by Lithuanians who were targeting Jews. Her brother was killed, but her father survived and escaped.
After hiding for three years at the Ruzgys home, the Katz family was discovered and arrested by Lithuanian police. Leokadija Ruzgys was jailed, as well, leaving the children to fend for themselves. The children, together with their uncle, managed to bribe prison officials to keep the Katz family alive until liberation by the Soviets.
"They were just as scared as my bubbe was," said Ilana Rosen, Erlich's 25-year-old granddaughter, using a Yiddish word for grandmother. "After all these years, they still look like family.