As a 14-year-old girl, Gitla Doppelt abandoned her Belarus home with her family as Nazis invaded and executed their Jewish community in 1942.
“The whole town was murdered,” she said. “It was terrible. Every day they killed people.”
Doppelt, 91, inspired a crowd of about 400 people Monday at the Ramada Hotel and Convention Center where she was the keynote speaker for the annual State of Kansas Holocaust Commemoration. The crowd included U.S. military veterans, a handful of Holocaust survivors and Lt. Gov. Lynn Rogers.
Doppelt’s family fled to a nearby forest that summer, where she said the food supply was better than back home. The Russians, in 1939, invaded their town in the country between Poland and Russia, causing a shortage of food and resources before the German invasion.
Despite the extreme hardships, her family joined a resistance group in the forest to fight against Nazis until the end of World War II.
She shared frightening memories of betrayal, executions and mass graves, as well as those of bravery and honor shown in battle by those fighting alongside her.
A group of 18 people dug out a bunker to take cover during that winter, she said. They stayed there for seven months, and all 18 of them survived the war. When the snow melted in the spring of 1943, the Russians defeated the Germans in the area and Doppelt’s group left their refuge in the forest.
“My sister was 10 years old,” Doppelt said. “She didn’t see any bread for seven months.”
Doppelt credits her father for saving their lives, and her brother received a medal from the Russian government for his bravery.
Her family tried to move back into their home in Belarus, but decided to immigrate to Italy when they discovered nobody from her town had survived. Doppelt felt she was born again in Italy. She married a professional soccer player and traveled the country.
In 1950, Doppelt came to Kansas City to raise her family. The United States went to war, and so did her husband. One of her daughters joined the Salvation Army and the other one went to medical school at the University of Missouri.
“We have gone through so much,” Doppelt said. “I have two daughters. I have 12 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. God bless America — they give us their good loyalty. We have our own country, Israel, so we can defend ourselves and make sure it never happens again.”
Rogers read a proclamation for the Kansas Holocaust Commission on behalf of himself and Gov. Laura Kelly. He said we must keep our humanity at the front and center of everything we do.
“Hearing Gitla’s story today is an important responsibility for all of us — to show up, to listen and to bear witness," Rogers said. "After all, there are many Holocaust survivors that we no longer hear.”