NEW YORK – As Lea Ingel waited at John F. Kennedy International Airport, she was not sure what she would say when she was reunited with the Catholic woman whose family sheltered her on its Lithuania farm during the Holocaust.
The women had not seen each other in 61 years, and both knew their long-delayed reunion Friday might be their last.
Awaiting Giedrute Ramanauskiene's flight, Ingel wondered how she would greet her rescuer.
"I'm not so good with the talking, with the language, because I haven't been there for so long," she said.
When they finally met, Ingel, 84, and Ramanauskiene, 77, embraced and cried.
"They had wanted her to do this for the last five years," said Marshall Ingel, 54, who accompanied his mother from Tamarac, Fla. "She kept saying `No, it was too emotional.'"
With the help of Ramanauskiene's family, Ingel became part of a small percentage of Lithuanian Jews who survived the Holocaust. When the Soviet army ousted the Germans from Lithuania in August 1944, about 9,000 Jews remained from a prewar population of about 235,000, according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Ingel left in 1945 and never returned. Ramanauskiene still lives on the same farm in Simnas, Lithuania. The Jewish Foundation for the Righteous brought the two together on Friday.
Ingel and Ramanauskiene remained in contact over the years, but Ingel said communicating had become increasingly difficult because Ramanauskiene struggles to read their correspondences.
"Her vision is very bad," Ingel said, her voice tinged with the lilt of her Eastern European roots. "I would like somebody here to see her, an eye doctor."
During World War II, Ingel, then Lea Port, and her future husband, Samuel Ingel, were living in the Kovno Ghetto in Lithuania. Both had joined a Jewish group that resisted the Germans.
They fled Kovno separately in 1943. After ten days of wandering in the forest miles from home, they realized they were the only members of the group who were still alive.
They were near the village of Simnas, and a communist man in hiding brought Lea Ingel to his sister, Elena Ivanauskai, who agreed to care for her because she could pass as a gentile. Samuel Ingel could not, so at first he remained living in the forest.
Lea Ingel stayed with Ivanauskai and her husband, Petras, on their farm. After she pleaded with the family, Samuel Ingel stayed in the barn. The two later became close with the Ivanauskais' children, Giedrute and Gintautas.
The couple remained at the farm until the Soviets arrived in August 1944 and married that December. They moved to Boston, then New York.
Ingel said she could never return to Lithuania. "It's hard for me to even talk about it," she said.
Her husband did go back, in 1995. Upon his return, he fell ill with lymphoma and later died, their son said.
In August, Ingel was taken to the hospital with a heart condition.
"I think she's just realizing that if she doesn't do (the reunion) now, she may never do it," her son said.