This beer's not for drinking, but for remembering

Jerry Rawicki gave Piast beer its name, after helping defeat the Nazis in Poland.

Published April 9, 2007


He was searching for anchovies.

A friend had told Jerry Rawicki about a market that carries dried, headless anchovies called sprats, a delicacy when he was a boy in prewar Poland.

But when he got to the market that day, Rawicki saw something that eclipsed even anchovies.

In a cooler beside the cash register, the retired optician spied a brown beer bottle that took him back 60 years.

He pulled one out. The oval label was red, rimmed in gold, just like he remembered. A man who looked like the king of spades was peering from a shield-shaped crest.

Rawicki, 79, bought four pints and hurried home.

"He was so excited. And Jerry seldom gets excited about anything," said his wife, Helene. "He doesn't drink beer. But he brought in those bottles and called our kids and started telling everyone his story."

* * *

Rawicki was 12 in the summer of 1939. He lived with his parents and two older sisters in Plock, Poland. He spent his days sneaking into Garbo movies, attending classes at his synagogue.

Two days before he was supposed to start high school, German planes bombed his town.

His family struggled to live under the Nazis. Within months, Rawicki's father was forced to flee, leaving his wife and children behind.

In 1940, when Hitler ordered all Jews out of Plock, Rawicki, his mother and sisters landed in a 1,000-year-old enclave that had been the seat of the first Polish dynasty, led by kings called Piast.

Rawicki's family squeezed into a storefront room with four other families. After months of starving and watching German guards gun down their neighbors, he and his oldest sister, Felicia, fled.

The next day, soldiers sent their mother and sister to a gas chamber.

Jerry and Felicia somehow found their father in the Warsaw ghetto, working in a factory, making Nazi uniforms. In February 1943, the Nazis killed him.

Rawicki joined the Polish underground army two months later, at 16. When German troops retreated, he moved east through Poland, to towns that had been liberated by the Russians.

In 1945, he landed in a place the Germans had called Breslau. Poland renamed the town Wroclaw.

It had a big brewery.

* * *

Rawicki, now 18, moved into an abandoned apartment and got his first real job: using an abacus in the accounting office of the local brewery.

One afternoon, he says, his boss told him about a contest. As part of Germany, the brewery had been called Schultheiss. Now that it was Polish, the brewery - and the beer - needed a new name. Anyone who worked at the brewery could submit one.

Rawicki thought and thought. He was no longer proud of his heritage. The Poland he'd grown up in was a graveyard, he said.

Finally, he wrote a single word on a slip of paper. The most regal Polish word he could come up with. The name of the first Polish dynasty: Piast.

Of 30-plus entries, the boss picked Rawicki's name. He won some money and a case of beer - which he sold.

Rawicki came to the United States in 1949. He became an optometrist, got married, had a son and a daughter.

He seldom talked about the Holocaust. He didn't tell his children about the concentration camps, the Warsaw ghetto, the fear. In 1979, he retired and moved to Seminole.

For 60 years, he didn't think about the beer.

* * *

"Have you ever even tried it?" his wife asked the afternoon he brought home the bottles.

Rawicki couldn't remember. So he opened one, took a sip, and decided he still didn't like beer.

He gave each of his children a bottle and explained the name.

The last beer stands on his patio bar, a reminder of the prize that bought him a little bit of freedom so many years ago.

Lane DeGregory can be reached at 727 893-8825 or degregory@sptimes.com.


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Encounters is dedicated to small but meaningful stories. Sometimes they will play out far from the tumult of the daily news; sometimes they may be part of the news. To comment or suggest an idea for a story, please contact editor Mike Wilson at mike@sptimes.com or (727)892-2924.