Tuesday, April 28, 2009

On Israel's Day of Memorial: Remembering Israel Gitlitz

The kindly chronicler of Belarus/Eastern Poland Jewish history, Eilat Gordin has sent me a photo and further details on Israel Gitlitz. He was born November 20, 1929  and is buried in the Nahalat Yitzhak cemetery.

Today is Israel’s day of memorial for those killed fighting for the country’s independence and protecting its civilians against terrorists. Everyone thinks of people they have known who have died in wars or terror attacks.

I think of someone I never knew nor have I ever seen a picture of him. His name was Israel Gitlitz.

He was born in Dolhinov, Poland, the ancestral home of my father’s family, in 1930. His parents were Shimon and Gita Gitlitz. He had two older brothers, Aron and Nachman. On April 28, 1942, when he was 12, the Germans--helped by Lithuanian and Latvian security police, and by Polish and Byelorussian local police—surrounded the ghetto to wipe out all the remaining Jews there who they had not killed the previous month.

A shelter had been prepared for the Gitlitz’s and their relatives to survive. But there wasn’t room for everyone. Gita and Israel were among those in the shelter; Shimon, Aron, and Nachman hid outside. The three older men were all killed that day.

In the shelter, Israel heard their Polish neighbors guiding the Germans to other hiding places of Jews; the screams and pleas of captured Jews; gunshots, grenade explosions, and then deadly silence. Frozen with fear, they did not even dare to whisper. There were more screams and more gunshots, and more and more.

Twice, police and looters entered the house.

The first time, they just stole; the second, accompanied by German SS men, they probed for the hideout. All this Israel heard. He also heard it when a quarrel broke out among their pursuers about who had the right to loot the house. Then a German bugle called for assembly, the murderers left; those concealed were saved.

Yet they knew it was only a matter of time before the Germans returned. The Jews came out of the shelter and headed for a gate door they knew led from the ghetto. But it was locked. That fact, though they didn’t know it until much later, saved their lives. The door had been discovered and all their husbands, sons, and fathers who had gone through the previous day had been shot.

They returned to their hiding place. After the massacre ended, they escaped. They hid out in fields for many days but were starving. Having lost all hope, they decided to return to Dolhinov and face whatever happened.

But on their way back they ran into Gita’s nephew who persuaded them to return to the forest.

Finally, they met up with the Red Army partisans and lived in the woods for the remaining two and a half years of war. When the Nazis and their allies were finally destroyed, mother and son emigrated to Israel in 1948.

Israel joined the army of the country that bore his name and was killed in the War of Independence in 1948. He was 18 years old.

He knew what he was fighting for, and what he was fighting against.

May his memory be blessed.

[This is adapted from my forthcoming book on Dolhinov and Its Children]

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