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99 and counting – Holocaust survivor feted in Danielson

By Cindy Mindell

DANIELSON – It took Ray Gawendo nearly six decades to talk about life as a Jew under the Nazis. But once she started eight years ago – speaking at schools, synagogues and other venues – the Norwich resident never stopped, reaching countless students and teachers in area schools.

At her 99th birthday party, Ray Gawendo (left), Dr. Elsie Fetterman, both Temple  Beth Israel co-founders, and Cantor Mel Etra, show off a 1953 photo picturing them at  Gawendo’s installation as the synagogue’s first Sisterhood president. Etra officiated at the installation.

At her 99th birthday party, Ray Gawendo (left), Dr. Elsie Fetterman, both Temple Beth Israel co-founders, and Cantor Mel Etra, show off a 1953 photo picturing them at Gawendo’s installation as the synagogue’s first Sisterhood president. Etra officiated at the installation.

On August 10, more than 100 members of eastern Connecticut’s Jewish community came together at Temple Beth Israel in Danielson – the synagogue she helped to found – to celebrate Gawendo’s life as she marked her 99th birthday.

Born in 1915 in Minsk, then part of Russia, Raya Axelrod and her family migrated to Vilna, in Poland. During her second year at Vilnius University, she married attorney Fayvush Favusevitch. After the Germans invaded the country in 1939, Axelrod’s husband, parents, and sister were murdered, and she was imprisoned in the Vilna ghetto. In June 1942, she was transferred to the Klooga labor camp in Estonia. For four days before the Soviet army liberated the camp in September 1944, the Nazis liquidated some 2,000 prisoners, leaving only 84 survivors. Axelrod escaped the shootings by hiding with other prisoners in a barracks attic. When she emerged to see what was happening outside, she was accidentally shot and left for dead.

When the Soviets arrived, Axelrod stayed in the camp for another month, recuperating from her wound and then working with German gravediggers and 37 fellow survivors to bury the 2,000 corpses left behind by the Nazis.

She returned to Vilnius to search for her family and there met Jacob Gawendo, whose parents had been customers of her family’s lumber business. The two married a few months later and made their way to Germany, where the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) and United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) helped them get into the Landesberg am Lech DP camp.

Raya Axelrod – now known as Ray Gawendo – placed a notice in The Forward looking for surviving family members, and went to work in the JDC-UNRWA offices. One day, Sidney Axelrod, an American military officer stationed in Paris, came to the office to meet Gawendo. His father, Gawendo’s uncle Ben, had seen the newspaper notice in New York.

In 1947, Ben Axelrod arranged visas for the Gawendos, who first lived in Queens, N.Y., and then settled the following year in Norwich, managing a chicken farm in nearby Colchester, where they raised two sons, Evert and Maurice. Today, Evert lives in Norwich and Maurice in New York. Gawendo also has four grandsons and two granddaughters, as well as a great-granddaughter. The Gawendos retired to Florida in 1973.

Gawendo and her husband were founding members of Temple Beth Israel in Danielson, established in 1953, with Gawendo serving as the new congregation’s first sisterhood president. Long reluctant to speak publicly about her Holocaust experience, she was eventually encouraged – at age 91 – by Jerry Fischer, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Eastern Connecticut, to share her story in area schools and synagogues.  Since then, Gawendo has shared her story throughout the state.

In 2010, she was the keynote speaker at the 32nd annual statewide Holocaust Commemoration Day at the State Capitol in Hartford.  A year later, she received the Yad b’Yad Award from the Jewish Federation of Eastern Connecticut. In April, she was presented with an award from the Connecticut Immigration and Refugee Coalition and the Office of the Secretary of the State of Connecticut, honoring her contributions to her community, state, and nation.

“Ray’s grace and fortitude exemplify how her path to perseverance has enlightened ours, illuminating the betterment of us all,” wrote Debbi Ventresca, a teacher at St. Michael School in Pawcatuck, in a tribute book presented to Gawendo at her August 10 birthday bash. St Michael is one of the many schools at which Gawendo has shared her story with students. The tribute book was filled with birthday wishes and citations from the likes of Pres. Obama, Gov. Dan Malloy, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, state legislators Sen. Donald Williams and Reps. Dan Rovero and Mae Flexer, and several students inspired by her life story.

Perhaps Gawendo’s friends at Temple Beth Israel summed up her life best.

“We honor a lifetime of survival, perseverance, determination and courage in building a new life in a new country, raising a family, running a farm, and building a vibrant community and in the past decade, to teaching a new generation the lessons of the Holocaust, the dangers of prejudice and intolerance, the importance of empathy, consideration, respect and justice,” wrote the Board of Directors and Advisors of the Temple Beth Israel Preservation Society. “You have our sincere gratitude and admiration.”

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