Jerry Rawicki died on February 22, at age 94. His obituary says that he “left this world peacefully,” a phrase which is often a euphemism, but in his case, has a personal meaning. It is a reminder that many of his friends, neighbors, and schoolmates did not enjoy that luxury. Jerry Rawicki was a Holocaust survivor.
In 1940s Poland, Nazis split up Rawicki’s family. He dug graves, became a resistance messenger in the Warsaw Ghetto, smuggled goods to starving residents, escaped German captivity, and hid for a time in a kindly stranger’s cellar. Rawicki’s mother and one sister were killed in the gas chambers at Treblinka, and his father was shot in a mass execution. Eventually, he was able to reunite with a surviving sister, and the pair pretended to be Christians for the rest of the war.
After liberation, Rawicki moved to the United States, became an optician, invented optical devices, and started a family. He wrote fiction and was a regular speaker at the Florida Holocaust Museum.
This fall, two of his granddaughters are remembering his legacy through beer. Madeline Rawicki and Molly Reynolds are respectively the general manager and creative director of Celestial Beerworks in Dallas’ Medical District. Celestial’s new Polish-style lager is called Jerzy, the original Polish spelling of Rawicki’s name. Cans of Jerzy bear a drawing of Rawicki’s face, in addition to a short biography and a QR code which, when scanned, leads to a YouTube video of him revisiting the streets of Warsaw in 2013.
A mural on Celestial’s patio also honors Rawicki, and he got to see the mural when he visited his granddaughters’ brewery last year.
“We were pretty touched by that,” Reynolds recalls. “Even before he saw [the mural], I went and visited him a couple of years after it was done and showed him pictures of it. It was sweet and wrenching. He said, ‘Oh, are you sure you should mention about me being Jewish? Will that be a problem for you when people see it?’ All these years later, he was still worried about that.”
Although Rawicki didn’t get to try his namesake lager, Celestial feels a strong sense of mission about keeping his memory and message alive. Rawicki waited until late in life to begin speaking about the Holocaust, before the political climate compelled him to keep memories of the atrocities alive and real for audiences across Poland and the United States.
“His biggest mission in life, once he started talking about it, was to never stop talking about it,” Madeline Rawicki says. “In newspaper headlines in Warsaw, he’d see, like, ‘Jews are taking over our banks.’ It was like you were back in the ’30s.”
The video link on each can of Jerzy is a heartbreaking 44-minute journey with Rawicki through the streets of Warsaw. When he talks about the murder of his factory worker father, he explains, “The Germans always used deceit. They didn’t have to, because they could have told them whatever.”
They told factory workers, like Rawicki’s father, that better living and working conditions existed in another city. That promise was an excuse to transport them to already-dug mass graves. “He shared with me this supposedly good news, that living conditions would be better,” Rawicki says in the video.
Later in the war, Rawicki hid in the cellar of a fellow teenager he had met that morning; his protector, Janusz Rybakiewicz, was hanged at age 19, possibly for the aid he gave Rawicki. When the Germans advertised free passage to South America for Jews, Rawicki disbelieved them and escaped.
Still, he would never credit his survival to smarts or his strength as a former gymnast. “We say all this, ‘you’re so sharp, you’re so agile,’ but he attributes it all to luck,” Madeline Rawicki explains. “If he attributes [survival] to anything he did, to his agency, he would be saying that everybody who died, died because of their agency.” He campaigned for two years for Rybakiewicz’s name to be added to the registry of Righteous Among the Nations and succeeded.
“It’s very heavy,” Reynolds adds, referring to the video on each can of Jerzy beer. “But it is important to us to send people back to his face and his voice talking about his experience.”
Initially I wasn’t certain what “Polish-style lager” meant, apart from the sourcing of hops flown in from Poland. Then I tasted my first pint of Jerzy and understood immediately. Classic Eastern European beers have a hop profile with a certain austerity, almost a dryness. Forget trendy hazy IPAs, which come with a parade of adjectives like “floral,” “citrus,” “tropical,” and “juicy.” Instead, classic Czech pilsners and their neighbors have a certain minimalism, particularly the hop bitterness, which is pronounced but not excessive, and which does not hide behind other flavors.
“When we finally found the authentic Polish hops, it was quite the trek getting them here,” Reynolds says. “It took four months, and one of the bags was busted, but it was worth it.”
This is a category of beer that is hard to describe. It’s not light, because the ingredients are so flavorful. It’s not rich, either. It simply tastes like clean, serious beer. It is also a hard style to brew because there are no extraneous flavors to hide behind; one wrong move in the process, and the resulting beer will taste unbalanced. Jerzy, the beer, reminds me of a weekend I once spent in Warsaw. At dinner, I ordered a beer and a schnitzel and got a massive stein of lager not so different from this one. My schnitzel came with three side dishes: red cabbage, white cabbage, and green cabbage.
Jerzy is an accurate reflection of this style, which is still rare in Texas. It also has a small parallel with Rawicki’s own life story.
The real Jerzy had his first job after World War II at a brewery in Wroclaw. According to family lore, Jerzy was responsible for the brewery’s new name. It had already existed for 70 years under the ownership of Germans—Wroclaw was a German-controlled city, spelled Breslau, for hundreds of years—but in 1945, the Poles retook the city and also assumed ownership of its brewery. The factory held a competition to decide on a new, non-Germanic name, and the young Rawicki, an accountant who used an abacus to balance the books, suggested the winner: Piast. Global giant Carlsberg bought Piast in 2001 and shut it down in 2004.
(Historical tangent that might only be interesting to me: Wroclaw was so German for so long that before the Nazi era, the city’s population was only two percent Polish. After the war, the redrawing of Eastern Europe’s borders caused enormous migrations, particularly from Poles fleeing areas that had been annexed by the Soviet Union, and now, not even 80 years later, Wroclaw is only two percent German. Rarely in world history has a city changed so dramatically.)
Rawicki’s own taste in beer tended toward sweeter stuff. He liked Celestial’s imperial stouts best when he visited the brewery, and, like many Europeans, he frequently mixed beers with fruit juices. (Madeline says she remembers her first sight of this custom on the streets of Warsaw: “We saw everyone drinking beer with a straw, and we were like, what is happening?”)
“Once we opened Celestial, he was very excited for us,” Reynolds says. “Any natural history magazine, he would find something about a hop and cut it out and mail it to us.”
Rawicki’s granddaughters remember him not just for his life story but for his warm presence and generous spirit. A constant inventor and tinkerer, Rawicki left a desk full of trinkets he had made to fill various purposes. He kept a woodworking shop, and when guests were over, delighted in presenting a breakfast menu at “Chez Jerry,” said with an ostentatious French accent. When the family gathered to play fishbowl—draw a word on a slip of paper out of the fishbowl, and you have to act out the word, charades-style—Rawicki would prankishly write down impossible-to-act words like “obligation” and “terra firma.”
“He was so focused on giving, and making other people happy and comfortable,” Reynolds says. “A very happy person despite, or maybe because of, all of the things that he went through. Everybody that met him loved him.”
His beer may be here to stay. Celestial has enough of the Polish hop varieties required to brew one more batch, after which their long-term goal is to nail down a sustainable supply chain. The brewery is already in the process of adding a new facility to increase production capacity, and Jerzy gives them a potential flagship beer that could be sold in stores around the Dallas area. As soon as next year, Jerry Rawicki’s face could be smiling down from shelves across our city.