Eli Levitt's Story
by Miriam Levitt (2003)
My late father, Eli Levitt (Ela Kuschelewicz) of blessed memory, told this story to me, about his best friend, who was a pilot during World War II. Although my father also served in the military, he was a member of the 29th Territorial Rifle Corps, a Lithuanian infantry riflemen’s division within the Red Army. My father was an accomplished marksman, and served in the army for 7 years, before being discharged due to suffering a crippling wound. He had been conscripted at age 17. Interestingly, my son, Eric, who carries my father’s name, is a medal winning marksman, including being state collegiate champion, when he was the captain of the Yale University International Skeet and Trap (Shotgun) Team. Luckily, my son’s shooting experience has been confined to sports, unlike his grandfather’s generation.
My father told me stories about his service in combat, where he was assigned to shooting down German incendiary devices with his “bix,” as he referred to his rifle. The devices were dropped from aircraft, and parachuted slowly to the ground, lighting up the territory with a shining torch before they exploded on impact. The lights allowed the German pilots to accurately place the next round above the vulnerable soldiers, who were accustomed to moving under the cover of darkness. The devices created much panic as they whirled, making a distinctive clacking sound. (The US military is now equipped with spectacular night vision devices that will hopefully give them a huge advantage, if necessary). Back then, my father’s task was to shoot the tiny German parachutes out of the sky in order to detonate the devices before they reached the troops on the ground. He was quite good at this, but as I said, this story is about his friend, whom I will call Jakob (not his real name).
Jakob was one of three brothers in an educated family of Lida. His father was a lawyer. Because of their position, Jakob was able to study to become an engineer, and excelled in mathematics. In addition to the Yiddish education that most children in Lida received, he was proficient in Polish, and probably several other languages as well. Just before Hitler invaded Poland, Jakob, due to his technical abilities, was trained as a pilot by the Polish military (I’m not certain if they knew he was Jewish). Hitler’s invasion of Poland was a historic military rout, with the Polish army being destroyed or captured in days. But an air force cannot be captured.
Jakob, then about 18 or 19 years old, was able to take to the air in his plane, which he flew to England. Imagine this teenager flying his airplane over Europe and landing in the British Isles. There, Jakob and his aircraft were absorbed into a special RAF unit called the Polish Brigade. The Polish Brigade participated in the Battle of Britain, providing air power for the defeat of Hitler’s crusade for world domination. After the War, Jewish refugees displaced from Eastern Europe were seen as a big problem by the Allies, and we were confined to camps (I was born in a camp in US occupied Germany). General George Patton referred to us as “A particularly subhuman form of refugee.” As you can tell by the story of heroic Jakob, he was far from “subhuman.” The British government allowed him to emigrate to Canada, and he was later able to legally enter the USA, where he now lives with his family.
Miriam Mary Levitt (Mirjam Kuschelewicz)
Scarsdale, New York