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Brig. Gen. Sidney Gritz

Brig. Gen. Sidney Gritz, who helped free Jews in WWII, dies at 87

There was something piercing about Sidney Gritz's stare.

His eyes were dark and brown and deep set. They had seen more than one man should in a lifetime.

The retired U.S. Army brigadier general died Tuesday in suburban Boca Raton, leaving behind a trail of staggering military accomplishments. He was 87.

Gen. Gritz served in the Korean and Vietnam wars. But one of his most life-changing moments came during World War II, when Gen. Gritz, a devout Jew, helped liberate Jews from Nazi concentration camps.

Those dark, brown eyes saw a dying man dangling from barbed wires in Buchenwald. They saw the bodies of dead babies used for target practice.

Those eyes saw too much death.

When Gen. Gritz began to tell a story about those times, the people listening rarely looked away. Perhaps it was because of his chiseled, handsome face or that enchanting stare his wife has forever etched in her mind. Or maybe it was because the words coming from his mouth were so powerful, they could make even the burliest of men cry.

"When he looked at you, he stared straight through you," says his wife, Shirley Gritz. "He captivated people."

Gen. Gritz spoke often about the Holocaust, especially to schoolchildren who otherwise might not have known about it, she says.

She starts to cry.

"Every time he did it, he was going through it all again," she says. "It was not easy for him, but he knew it was something he just had to do. It should not be forgotten. He would tell them he was there and how hard it was to have a handle on all those bodies. His career was definitely not a little thing."

Shirley Gritz met her husband-to-be in Harrisburg, Pa. Then they were friends, but, seven years later, the two shared a dance at the wedding reception of a mutual friend.

She fell in love with those dark, brown eyes.

They married a few months later.

During their 59 years together, they lived in 24 places, including Japan, Germany and Iran.

Gen. Gritz began his Army career as a lowly private. He was drafted during World War II and figured he'd be out in a year. Instead, he fought in the Battle of Normandy, worked his way up to captain and earned the brigadier general rank in 1970 while living in Heidelberg, Germany. He earned as many as 20 medals, including a Bronze Star and the Distinguished Service Medal for his work in Europe, says his daughter, Sharon Yowell.

Soon after his retirement in 1975, Gen. Gritz accepted a job with the Iranian Imperial Army. The couple moved to Iran, but returned to the states when the Iranian Revolution began in 1979. They made it home in time for the birth of their first grandchild.

They raised two children. Yowell, the youngest, says people were drawn to her father because he was caring, big-hearted and warm.

A pencil sketch of Gen. Gritz now decorates his wife's den. It was drawn during World War II by a German prisoner, who died soon after he handed the sketch to Gen. Gritz. It's the spitting image of her father, Yowell says. She plans to take it with her when she returns to her Massachusetts home.

But first she will travel next week to Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, where she and her mother will lay to rest the husband, father and friend who worked so hard for freedom.

"He had a lifetime and a half," Shirley Gritz says, proudly. "He was everywhere. That's why we decided he would go to Arlington."

"I don't know where my life is going to go from here," she says quietly, "but I will follow him when the time comes."

Published in The Palm Beach Post on Dec. 29, 2005
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