The holiday season is often filled with reunions and catch-ups; memories are shared with old friends and long-distance families come together to spend time in each other's company.
For Newton Centre resident Mary Katz Erlich, this Thanksgiving included one of those reunions. Her meeting, though, was one that crossed continents, religions and languages.
After more than 60 years apart, Erlich was reunited with the Christian family who hid her for nearly three years during World War II and the Nazi occupation of Lithuania.
"I was thrilled to see them," Erlich says. "It's like reliving again those years, but in a pleasant way."
Like most reunions, Erlich's started at an airport.
Amidst the holiday rush of Thanksgiving, Erlich, 83, traveled to New York's JFK Airport on Nov. 23 where she met up with Egle, 83, and Aurimas Ruzgys, 81, two of the three children who helped hide Erlich and her Jewish family.
Despite decades apart, changed appearances and Erlich's less-than-perfect Lithuanian, the three friends came together like long-lost siblings. Seeing them for the first time since 1945, Erlich says, was "heartwarming."
"We're bound like brother and sister," she says.
Life in hiding
The reunion story starts more than 66 years ago in Giedraiciai, Lithuania, where a Jewish shop owner by the name of Srolis Katz lived with his wife, son and daughter (Erlich).
As the Nazis began to invade Lithuania, Jewish men and boys were gathered by local police and brought out to the woods to be shot. Erlich's father and brother were eventually rounded up into one of those groups.
Srolis escaped the bullet. His son did not.
Miraculously leaving the forest with his life, Erlich's father returned home to his wife and daughter and decided to put his family into hiding. At just 12-years old, Erlich said goodbye to her hometown and, on most days, sunlight.
The family of three traveled to the village of Dudenai, where they met up with Leokadija Ruzgys, a widowed Christian woman who Srolis had met during his time running the shop in Giedraiciai. Although it started with just a request to stay the night, Leokadija and her three children -- Egle, Meile and Aurimas -- took care of the Jewish family for two and a half years.
"We were always afraid and always hiding," Erlich says. "If a female was coming up the hill [toward the house] we would hide in not such a bad place, but when someone we didn't know came, and who was male, we used to crawl down into a little bunker."
Despite the years of fear, these are the times Erlich, Egle and Aurimas reminisced about during their few days together last month.
"We were scared for our lives," Erlich says. "I was never out [of the hiding spot] in the first year. They would take me out to have some fresh air but I was so uncomfortable, so afraid. But they feared for their lives, too."
There were some good times during her hiding period, Erlich recalls, although they were few and far between. Christmas was one of those times.
The three young siblings and Erlich would gather to decorate and eat around the Christmas tree. The festivities, though, were kept quiet and restricted to just the two families, so as to not alert suspicious neighbors.
"We all enjoyed that evening," Erlich says. "It got us away from all the fear."
But suspicious neighbors would eventually bring the end to her family's hiding, Erlich says. After two and a half years, police found out Leokadija was hiding the Jewish family and arrested her along with Erlich and her parents. Egle, Meile and Aurimas were left at home alone.
Erlich, her parents and Leokadija spent six months in prison, during which time Egle, Meile and Aurimas sold goods to corrupt prison officials in order to keep the Jewish family and their mother safe.
Eventually, the Russians freed Lithuania and the prisoners were liberated. After they arrived back at the village, Erlich was reunited with the Egle, Meile and Aurimas. Soon after, her family decided to leave for America. It would be the last time she would see her adopted siblings for more than six decades.
Years gone by
In the years since they've seen each other, Erlich's parents as well as Leokadija and Meile have passed away. Although Erlich says she's though thought about visiting and reuniting with Egle and Aurimas, certain circumstances, such as her husband's health, have held her back.
That's where the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous (JFR) comes in.
The foundation, a non-profit organization, provides financial assistance to non-Jews who helped rescue and save Jewish people during the Holocaust. The foundation, which also works to keep the legacy of these rescuers alive, facilitated last month's reunion.
"I owe it all to the JFR. They did a marvelous job," Erlich says.
Now, after so much time apart and just a few days together, Erlich says saying goodbye again will be especially difficult.
"It’s going to be a hard time saying goodbye to them," she says. "I don’t know if we’ll ever see each other again."
Some information for this article was provided by press release from the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous.