Isaac Giterman was the Director of JDC Operations in Poland from 1926-1939. Forced to flee Warsaw in 1939, he returned in 1940 and served as one of the four JDC Directors in Warsaw during World War II. After the establishment of the Warsaw Ghetto, he provided for the needs of the ghetto residents, supported cultural activities in the ghetto, and helped the underground resistance groups. He refused all opportunities to escape. Giterman was murdered by SS soldiers in 1943 while on his way to a secret bunker in his apartment building.
Isaac Giterman, the son of Moshe and Malka, was born in January 1889, in Hornostopol, Ukraine. Through his mother, he was descended from the Schneersohn and Twerski Hasidic dynasties, and he was raised in proximity to his grandfather’s Hasidic court. From his upbringing, he inherited the passion that made him an inspiring employer. He moved to Kiev where he acquired a secular education, fluency in Russian and a close relationship with the emerging generation of Yiddish writers. The Director of JDC Operations in Poland from 1926-1939, Giterman was active in every area of Jewish public life.
During World War I, Giterman helped organize EKOPO, which became the central relief organization of Russia’s Jews. When the war ended and bloody pogroms broke out in Ukraine, Giterman risked his life providing aid to the terrorized victims. His connection with JDC began in 1919, when he helped Jewish refugees from pogroms in Ukraine to immigrate to the United States. In 1920, he was sentenced to death by the Soviet authorities in Rovno and narrowly avoided execution.
Giterman relocated to Warsaw in 1921. He became head of the JDC Warsaw office for a brief period and concentrated on improving the economic position of Warsaw’s Jews. In 1926, in the wake of the deteriorating position of Polish Jewry, he was appointed as the Director of JDC operations in Poland. A creative man with initiative, Giterman opened many new departments in the JDC. One of his early innovations was to establish free-loan funds (kassas) throughout the country to help impoverished Jews. These free loan societies were of tremendous importance in maintaining the economic viability of the Jewish community, as Jews were not able to obtain loans from government sources or from Polish non-Jewish financial institutions. Giterman supervised the loan kassas until 1939, when they could no longer function.
To further help impoverished Polish Jews, Giterman organized a Department for Landsmanschaften, which coordinated funds sent to Poland by former Jewish residents of Polish towns and villages who were now living overseas. He also set up a Department of Rehabilitation, which helped Jews who had lost their livelihoods as a result of the Polish government’s anti-Semitic economic policy, to re-establish themselves economically. In a 1936 comment, Giterman remarked that, at the beginning of the decade, he had thought that the situation of Polish Jewry had hit rock-bottom, “but I now realize that I was too optimistic in my pessimism.”
Giterman was the role model for and mentor to Emanuel Ringelblum, who was considered his protégé. At the end of October 1938, when some six thousand Polish Jews expelled from Germany were stranded at the border town of Zbaszyn, Giterman rushed to Zbaszyn together with Ringelblum to bring them emergency relief.
In August 1939, Giterman participated in a conference of leaders of JDC and HICEM (Jewish emigration association), who met in Paris to discuss possible arrangements in the event of war. He left the in the middle of the conference to return to his post in Poland.
In September 1939, at the outbreak of World War II, Giterman, who was known as a leading anti-Nazi activist, fled from Warsaw. He joined Moses Beckelman at the JDC office in Vilna. Together they boarded a ship at the port of Liepaja (Libau) in Latvia and tried to escape to Sweden. However, in the midst of the journey, the ship was seized by the Germans. Beckelman, an American citizen, was released and was able to return to the United States. Giterman, a Polish citizen, was imprisoned in Germany until March 1940. Returning to Warsaw and to the JDC, but no longer as its head, he immediately resumed his role in providing for the needs of Warsaw’s Jewish residents. He played a central role in the Jewish Self-Help organization (later renamed ZTOS – Zydowskie Towarzystwo Opieki Spoleczne) which provided for the needs of Warsaw’s Jews. After the establishment of the Warsaw Ghetto in November 1940, he continued his activities in the Jewish Self-Help organization, helping to support soup kitchens, health and welfare programs and cultural and educational activities in the ghetto. Although a member of left-wing Socialist Zionist movements, he had a reputation of being both sensitive and attentive to the concerns and needs of the religiously observant population.
Giterman showed special interest in the cultural work in the ghetto. He was a major supporter of the Oneg Shabbat underground archives led by Emanuel Ringelblum and a director of the IKOR, the underground organization for Jewish culture in the ghetto.
After the United States entry into the war in December 1941, the JDC could no longer operate legally in Poland. The JDC office in Warsaw was forced to close down, but the JDC staff in Warsaw continued to work underground. In order to finance the welfare and aid activities in the ghetto, Giterman and other JDC Directors took loans from wealthy Jews in Warsaw on the promise of repayment after the war. The loans were used to finance the soup kitchens and health and welfare programs as well as the underground political and educational activities.
Giterman was a strong supporter of the underground political movements in the ghetto and of the underground youth movements. He provided funds for underground schools, newspapers and publications. In early 1942, he provided substantial funds for the purchase of weapons for the planned uprising in the Bialystok ghetto. In October 1942, he became a member of the finance committee of the Jewish Fighting Organization. He was involved in the planning of the Warsaw ghetto uprising and provided funds for the purchase of weapons.
Giterman was married to Esther (née Sapozhnikova). The couple had a son and a daughter. His son Motl, born in 1928, perished in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1941. His wife died there in 1942. Giterman’s daughter Hannah, who fled with her father to Vilna in 1939, survived the Holocaust and moved to New York after the war. There, she married Szajko Frydman and they had one son, Isaac.
Giterman himself obtained a fake Argentinian passport in 1941, but refused all opportunities to escape from the ghetto. According to Ringelblum, “Giterman sought a way to find arrangements on the ‘Aryan’ side and discussed the matter with non-Jewish Polish friends from the prison camp. However, the ghetto still had more than 30,000 (sic) Jews living there and a true public servant like Giterman could not cut himself from his activities and cross over to the other side.”
On Monday before dawn, January 18, 1943, SS and Ukrainian soldiers surrounded the ghetto. Giterman lived at 69 Mila St., the residence of communal workers. A bunker had just been built in the cellar, but Giterman did not yet know its location. Before dawn, he left his room to find it. In the stairwell, he met Rosenblum, the head of the Tarbut School, along with Bernstein, secretary of the community, and they had a conversation about news in the city. Suddenly a burst of shooting was heard, and Giterman fell dead on the steps. The SS had just entered the house, and when they saw three Jews standing, they did not hesitate and shot Giterman.
Giterman was buried next to the Yiddish author Naumberg. By this time, only the gravediggers had access to the cemetery, so none of his friends were at the burial.
As Ringelblum notes, “The death of Isaac Giterman shocked everyone. 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.”
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Gutman, Israel, Entry on Isaac Giterman, Encyclopedia of the Holocaust., ed. Israel Gutman. Tel Aviv: Yad Vashem/Sifriat Poalim, 1990.
Huberband, Shimon. Kiddush Hashem: Jewish Religious and Cultural Life in Poland during the Holocaust. Edited by Jeffrey S. Gurock & Robert S. Hirt, translated by David E. Fishman. New York: Ktav/Yeshiva University Press, 1987.
JDC Archives, New York.
Kassow, Samuel D. Who Will Write Our History – Emanuel Ringelblum, the Warsaw Ghetto and the Oyneg Shabes Archive. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007.
Ringelblum, Emanuel. Notes from the Warsaw Ghetto, translated by Jacob Sloan. New York: Schocken Books, 1958.
_________________. Polish-Jewish Relations during the Second World War. Edited & footnotes by Joseph Kermish, Shmuel Krakowski, translated from Polish Dafna Allon, Danuta Dabrowska, Dana Keren. Jerusalem: Yad Vashem, 1974.
Yad Vashem – Pages of Testimony for Isaac, Esther and Motl Giterman, Submitted 04.06.1974 by his sister Chana Giterman, Tel Aviv.