"The apartment was ideally built, as though fate had meant it to be a hide-out for hunted people. Still, it is difficult to forget the frequent rebuilding of that damp, dark hole in which we hid and which we reached by walking through a clothes closet." -- A letter from Liza Aizenberg to Stasia and Jonas Ruzgis , 1961.
It lasted three years. Or maybe four. A frightened 7-year-old could not really know for sure.
All Rita Feitler knew was that she had to be still, extremely still. For days and weeks at a time. Her mother commanded that she couldn't cry or cough or make a sound in that back bedroom, hidden from the rest of the four-room apartment, and the world, by a clothes rack.
Soon, Rita learned to muzzle her noises, great and small, into a pillow.
"Times were perilous," she said. "My mother threatened me with abandonment if I didn't behave."
The Nazis had invaded Lithuania in 1941, and in Vilnius, capital of the Republic, Rita and her mother, Liza Aizenberg, had no place to go in the crush of World War II. Bodies were strung up in town, warning that those who helped Jews would suffer the same fate.
Liza Aizenberg's husband had been captured during the first day of the occupation. But, before he was taken away forever, he told his wife that a colleague at a local hospital might be able to help someday should she ever find herself in trouble.
Rita and her mother were discovered and led away to prison but escaped days later. They appeared at the home of Jonas Ruzgis, a hospital administrator. He and his wife, Stasia, hid the pair at the hospital, but the staff grew suspicious and wanted them out.
The Ruzgises made a place for the Aizenbergs in their apartment, secreting them from prying neighbors and authorities until the Soviet army liberated the area in 1944. It was in that little room, a closet really, that little Rita sometimes worked up the nerve to peek outside and watch the children play below.
Liza Aizenberg died in 1969. Rita, now 53, lives in Serra Mesa with her daughter, Jackie, nearby. But the Ruzgises have not been forgotten.
Nearly half a century after her long wait and eventual flight to freedom--to Poland, Sweden and the United States--Rita has been reunited with Jonas and Stasia, unrecognizable from those early days but lifelong heroes in her eyes.
"They save my life at the risk of being killed themselves," she said. "And the threat wasn't occasional. It was continuous, any minute of the day."
Through the Anti-Defamation League's Jewish Foundation for Christian Rescuers, the Ruzgises were flown to New York City to meet with Rita and to have their stories told to hundreds of people gathered for a fund-raising dinner.
In the lobby of the Grand Hyatt Hotel last week, Rita peered over the heads in the crowd. By process of elimination, she picked out Jonas, now 88, but looking robust and much younger. Beside her husband was Stasia, 73, still resembling photos taken of her decades ago.
Stasia said they wouldn't have recognized Rita if she hadn't introduced herself.
Liza had called them "saving angels" in an extraordinary letter she wrote from New York in 1961.
"At times, you appeared brave and superhuman, capable of outsmarting the craftiest schemes of the Nazis. At other times, you appeared naive and unsuspecting. . . ." she wrote of Stasia. "And then I saw you as a wise, farseeing person who knew only too well the dark clouds that the Nazis were spreading over the horizons of the Jews."
In all, the Ruzgises say, they helped 47 people during World War II, either by providing shelter in their own apartments or by finding friends who would be willing to hide them.
With Rita and her mother in the apartment, there were always close calls, the Ruzgises said Sunday through an interpreter, Henry Gorodeckas of Escondido.
The Nazis rapped on the door one day and demanded entry. Their hearts sinking, the Ruzgises let them in. But all the soldiers wanted was a telephone. Another time, friends dropped by with Rita and Liza in full view. Liza sat down and began sewing, acting like distant relatives who belonged there, and nobody said a word.
Once, fearing the Gestapo might descend, Liza told Stasia that she and Rita should leave forever.
Stasia did not hesitate to answer.
"Lisa, you shall not go anyplace," she said. "If we are to die, we will all die together!"
With neighbors turning in neighbors and collaborators running the risk of ending up in prison, the Ruzgises continued to provide safe haven. Even today, faced with the same situation, Rita says she doubts she would have done the same.
To Jonas, even asking the question is preposterous.
"We saw the suffering of human beings being treated like animals, and we had to help," Jonas said. "We helped because it was another human being."
Jonas accepted his share of suffering. Two years after the Soviet Army took control of Lithuania, he was sent away for eight years to a work camp in Vorkuta, near Siberia. His crime, someone told him, was his one-time membership to the Social-Democrat Party as a delegate in 1924.
The Ruzgises still live in Lithuania, now independent, although thousands of Soviet troops are still based there. Jonas proudly wears a button displaying the Lithuanian flag and carries with him the black-and-white photos of long ago. Himself as a young man. Rita at age 6. Others who were harbored at their apartment.
Stasia makes long, sweeping gestures with her hands as she describes Rita as a little girl.
One time, Rita was lying on the floor of the apartment, when a neighbor happened by.
"She kept her eyes closed because she said if she did, nobody would be able to see her," Stasia said and began laughing.
Rita and her daughter will entertain the Ruzgises for the rest of the week, until they fly back to Lithuania.
None of them said so Sunday, but they are as close as family.
In her letter of 30 years ago, Liza perhaps said it best.
"I consider (Rita) the daughter of all three of us," she said. "You, my dear friends, did for her as much as if she were your own daughter. I want to share with you my joy. I want you to know all about her. I'm sure it will make you very happy."