In September of 2016, Rachael Cerrotti, a writer and photographer, and Sergiusz Scheller, an aspiring organic farmer, were newlyweds in Boston. Their apartment was full of wedding gifts, some still unopened.
Sergiusz had a map of Maine on the wall with pins in all the places they might start their own farm someday. Their plan was to move to Maine once Rachael finished writing the book she’d been working on for years. You may remember from our last Kind World episode that Rachael was retracing the steps of her grandmother, the sole survivor Jewish Czech family after the Holocaust.
“She was talking about this research, and she'd spent many years retracing her family history, but she had come from this perspective as the granddaughter of an SS officer,” Rachael says.
Julie had uncovered the family secret that her grandfather had been a brutal Nazi officer during World War II, and as Sergiusz listened, he was stunned by how much her work paralleled Rachael’s project. Yes, Rachael was descended from a Holocaust survivor and Julie from Nazis, but they had both spent years immersed in the same history.
“Sergiusz called me from the car and was like, ‘Oh my God, Rachael. You’re not alone!’” Rachael remembers.
So the next day, Rachael and Sergiusz huddled around her computer and wrote an email to Julie. Sergiusz left her in their office, and Rachael was back to her work when something startled her.
“I just heard this massive thump. I went over and I was like, ‘Sergiusz?’”
Rachael walked across the hall and found him on the floor, unresponsive. She called 911 and started giving him CPR.
“[It was] weirdly calm and weird madness. Time stops but it’s also sped up. I think he was trying to hold on for me. ... I know the minute he died, and I know the minute his eyes changed from life to no life.”
An ambulance rushed Sergiusz to the hospital, but nothing could be done. Sergiusz had died of a heart attack. He was 28 years old.
Rachael sat with his body until they wouldn't let her anymore, holding his hand as it turned cold. The next morning she woke up on the futon in her parents' basement. Her mother had spent the night next to her. Rachael looked out the window, heavy and numb.
“The sun's coming in through the leaves, and if you move your head just like a couple little millimeters, the sun ray looks different and it shines through a different leaf, and then if you move your head a little bit to the other way, it illuminates something else,” Rachael says.
“Just in that slight movement of the head, you get a different perspective of what life looks like. I remember just playing with that for a little bit, and feeling nothing and feeling everything.”
Rachael was still in bed that morning when she looked at her phone and saw an email from Julie Lindahl, the woman whom Rachael and Sergiusz had been so excited to email together the night before.
“That was kind of our last activity together,” Rachael says. “In a normal world, I would wake up at home and would have been been like, ‘Sergiusz, Sergiusz! Guess who wrote me back!’ He would have made breakfast and we would have talked about it. It was the first time that I wanted to share something with him and couldn’t.”
A few weeks later, Julie and Rachael started talking. Rachael still felt the unimaginable shock of Sergiusz’s death, but somehow she felt like she could share that with Julie. Julie had already looked into the face of darkness unearthing her grandfather’s crimes, and, unlike a lot of people, she didn’t shy away from talking about death.
“When people die, sometimes other people don't want to include them in the narrative anymore,” Rachael says. “She speaks of him as if he's still present, and that is incredibly meaningful for me.”
Julie understood pretty quickly that Sergiusz was alive in the connection between the two women.
“When we reached out to each other, something very important happened,” Julie told Rachael in a recent conversation. “You have now two sides of your life: the life before he died, and now the life after. You sent this email, and then I responded after he died. There was something about it that was kind of surreal. It was a bit like a bridge.”
Julie and Rachael have started to think of their friendship as an educational peace project. At a time when the world can feel polarized and intolerant, the more they talk, the more they find common ground.
“Perhaps if somebody looked at our stories on paper, you couldn't think they'd be more further apart, right?” Rachael says. “A perpetrator and a victim. But when we started getting to talking, all of these themes that come out are just so universal, and all of a sudden it feels much more connected. And I just wish more people could do that.”
Julie often thinks of her and Rachael as though they are two voices “calling back from the future of today, and kind of shouting from the future, ‘Choose another path.’”
Julie and Rachael want to use lessons from their grandparents lives to keep history from repeating itself, and doing so together, they feel less alone.
It’s been a little over a year since Sergiusz died, but to Rachael, he’s still very much alive.
“The more I think about the fact that you and I have this friendship now, where we’ve talked about these incredibly deep things, and then he was the link to that is so beautiful. Sergiusz gave me so many gifts in life, but that was one of his final gifts.”
Rachael may not be able to make sense of her husband’s sudden death, but she can find meaning in the gifts he gave her, and, if she moves her head a little to the left or right, some sunlight still shifts through the branches.
This segment aired on December 19, 2017.