Seventy-five years ago today, the Nazis murdered a little-known relief worker named Isaac Giterman.
A forgotten hero of the Warsaw Ghetto’s storied uprising, he did not live to see the fruits of his clandestine efforts. Giterman was killed by the Nazis three months before the uprising began.
His role–brimming with courage and sacrifice–was the last milestone in a life devoted to helping Jews in danger.
Born in Ukraine, Giterman organized relief efforts for displaced Jews during World War I. After the war, Ukraine was wracked by a series of pogroms. In response, Giterman helped Jews leave for America. (My grandfather was nearly murdered in one of those pogroms, and left for New York a few months later). Viewing Giterman’s work as disloyal to the new Communist regime, the Soviet authorities sentenced him to death.
Fortunately, Giterman escaped to Poland, where he spent the inter-war years directing the work of my organization, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. Giterman provided free loans and other economic support to impoverished Polish Jews, who had lost their livelihoods because of anti-Semitic government policies.
When the Germans invaded Poland in September of 1939, they imprisoned Giterman for anti-Nazi activities. Freed in March 1940, he resumed his relief work in Warsaw.
When Jews were confined to the ghetto in November 1940, Giterman supported the work of his protégé, Emmanual Ringelblum, to memorialize conditions in the ghetto. Their secret archive, with the code name Oyneg Shabbes, included hundreds of testimonials. These secret records, buried in aluminum crates and recovered after the war, provided first-hand accounts of Nazi brutality and Jewish resistance.
After Pearl Harbor, in December of 1941, we could no longer operate openly in Poland, but Giterman pressed on. He made two indispensable contributions to the uprising.
First, Giterman helped secure funds to buy weapons. For as long as he could, he brought in money from donors in New York. When this channel was cut off, Giterman persuaded local Jewish families to contribute wealth they had hidden.
Second, to plan the uprising, its leaders had to meet regularly, but the Nazis did not allow Jews to hold meetings. With characteristic resourcefulness, Giterman solved this problem by opening a soup kitchen. Leaders of the uprising served the soup. For hours each day, they stood side-by-side, all the while formulating plans to resist Nazi oppression.
Three months before the uprising began, Giterman was gunned down in the stairway of a Warsaw apartment building. Although he knew he would be killed eventually, Giterman refused to leave his post. In the words of Ringelblum, “a true public servant like Giterman could not cut himself from his activities.” No matter the cost to himself, Giterman would not abandon his people.
“The death of Isaac Giterman shocked everyone,” Ringelblum recalled only a few months before the Nazis murdered him as well. “He was the personification of community activists who faithfully served the needs of the Jewish people. To the suffering Jews of Poland, Isaac Giterman was a hero and their only hope, and he died serving them. We will always remember him in awe and esteem.”
Today, I find inspiration not only in Giterman’s courage and sacrifice, but also in two other singular aspects of his legacy.
First, although the Jewish community of his time was divided–with tensions flaring among Zionists, socialists, and religious Jews–Giterman was a unifying force. Under his leadership, Jews put aside their differences to help those who were in need and in danger. We would do well to follow his example today.
Second, Giterman was as resourceful as he was relentless. When lives were at risk, he would not give up, however long the odds. He showed how creativity and determination could work miracles.
I often think about Giterman, knowing that in the former Soviet Union–the place where his work began–more than 100,000 elderly Jews live in abject poverty. The poorest Jews in the world, they subsist on pensions as low as two dollars a day. Nearly half are Holocaust survivors, and all endured relentless discrimination during the Soviet era. Many are alone, since over a million Jews left the former Soviet Union in the past three decades.
Following Giterman’s example, we should do whatever we can–indeed, whatever is necessary–to save the lives of these elderly Jews. We are joined by valued partners in this work–the Claims Conference, IFCJ, and Jewish Federations–but the growing need to provide life-saving food, medicine, and home care for these aging Jews is the responsibility of all of us.
Giterman’s legacy shows what courage, determination, and compassion can achieve, even when the obstacles seem insurmountable. May Giterman’s memory be a blessing, and may we carry forward his legacy together.