“Ironically, in my case, I went to the war, I survived. My whole family behind me, they were all killed. That’s my Holocaust.”
- Shep Zitler
In 1917, the third year of World War I, Shep (Shabtai, Sasha, Schepsel) Zitler was born in Vilna (Wilno, Vilnius), capital of Lithuania. The country was then a vassal state of Tsarist Russia but gained its independence after World War I. A slice of Lithuania, including Vilna, was fought over by Lithuanians and Poles and subsequently annexed by newly independent Poland.
Shep Zitler and family in 1936
Shep was the fifth child. His parents were Beila and Asher, his brother Benjamin (Binyamin), and his sisters Sonia, Rivka (Riva), Rachel, and Doba. Sonia married Micha Morganstern and they had two children, including Zerna (Tzerna). She was literary minded (writing for her school journal), a thinker, a pianist, and strikingly beautiful. When the war began, she was sixteen – and her fate in 1941 would be recorded by two eye-witnesses.
The Zitler family owned a fabrics store (and enjoyed a profitable relationship with German soldiers during the First World War). Fifty-seven thousand Jews lived in Vilna. Most of the Jewish community, including Shep’s family, was Orthodox and lived separately from the non-Jewish population. Shep didn’t know any Polish people and spoke Polish with a thick accent. His first language was Yiddish. He felt no emotional attachment to Poland.
Vilna had a deep religious and cultural tradition and was known as the “Jerusalem of the East.” YIVO, the Yiddish Scientific Institute, was located there. It was a depository of Jewish culture and literature. The Jewish political organization Bund was founded in Vilna in 1897 to promote Jewish nationalism and the rights of the working class. It opposed Zionism, that is, the idea of Jews returning to Palestine and establishing a Jewish state.
During the pre-war period the British controlled Palestine and restricted Jewish emigration. They didn’t want further to inflame Arab opinion and lose influence in this part of the world that was important for many reasons, oil not least of all. The British policy continued during the Second World War and ended only with the establishment of Israel in 1948. Shep’s brother Benjamin and his sister Rachel immigrated to Palestine (or made aliyah) in the 1930s.
Fighting between Jews and Arabs in Palestine (the British Mandate) intensified in the 1930s. In May 1939 the British government issued a “White Paper” on Palestine that limited Jewish emigration to 75,000 people during five years. When the quota was filled, the doors to Palestine would close forever.
Despite the assurances of the Balfour Declaration in 1917, the British government (and not just the British government) didn’t want to see the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine.
In early 1939, after Hitler occupied the Sudetenland and turned his attention to Poland, Shep was drafted into the Polish army and assigned to the 77th Infantry Battalion. He describes the anti-Semitism that he experienced before the war at the hands of Polish (Catholic) soldiers: “And the war breaks out, and I didn’t know how to fight. My first enemy was the Germans and my second enemy was the Poles.”
The world was astonished when the arch-enemies Hitler and Stalin signed a “non-aggression” pact on August 23, 1939. This was the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, named after the Soviet and Nazi foreign ministers. Hitler’s purpose was to isolate Poland – and to dissuade England and France from honoring their treaty obligations to defend Poland. In a secret protocol of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, Hitler and Stalin agreed to divide Poland and the Baltic countries, including Lithuania, between themselves.
German soldiers on September 1, 1939
Hitler attacked Poland on September 1, 1939. Two days later, England and France declared war on Germany. The era of “appeasement” was over. Shep’s unit was surrounded by the Germans near Warsaw. In the documentary Shep relates an amusing story about his fellow soldier and “partner” Harry Sanders. They were starving and climbed a tree to pick some (green) apples, avoiding a hail of German bullets on the way back. He was dismissive of the German marksmanship: “‘We are going to win the war because the Germans don’t know how to fight.’”
Shep was captured by the Germans and denounced as a Jew by Polish soldiers: “But the point is that the Germans couldn’t tell that I am Jewish. They couldn’t tell. So the Poles already heard it, that they are looking for Jews especial. So they say, ‘Here is a Jew! Here is a Jew!’ The Poles gave them away, so finally they got me as a Jew.”
On September 17, 1939, in accordance with the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the Red Army invaded and quickly occupied eastern Poland, including Vilna. Several months later the Soviets formally annexed Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. Their independence lasted less than twenty years.
Strangely enough, the Soviet annexation of Lithuania had life-saving consequences for Shep. Because the Soviet Union was allied (temporarily) to Nazi Germany and Lithuania was a satellite state of the Soviet Union, Shep received a measure of protection. He was classified by the Germans as a Lithuanian-Jewish POW, not a Polish-Jewish POW. This distinction saved his life – rather, it gave him a chance to survive, something the Polish-Jewish soldiers didn’t have.
Shep and nine other Jewish soldiers of Lithuanian origin were sent to a POW camp at Kielce, Poland. They were brutally treated and separated from the Polish-Jewish soldiers. The latter (61,000 in all) would be worked to death or shot. Shep and the other Jewish soldiers from Vilna, including his friend Harry Sanders, were sent to a labor camp. This group of Lithuanian-Jewish POWs would be together throughout the war.
Between 1939 and 1943, via the Red Cross, Shep received some twenty letters from his family in Vilna (under Soviet and then German occupation). Doba addressed her letters to “Dear Sasha,” and signed one letter, “Your loving sister Doba. I’m sending you a kiss. See you, see you, see you.” Shep received several food packages from his relatives (his mother’s brothers) in New Orleans.
Red Cross receipt
Shep’s mother tried desperately to get him released from German captivity – based on his Lithuanian (now Soviet) origins. She was unsuccessful, which proved another lucky break. Shep says that he was safer in a German POW camp than at home in Vilna: “Ironically, in my case, I went to the war, I survived. My whole family behind me, they were all killed. That’s my Holocaust.”
The Soviet occupation of eastern Poland and the Baltic countries (1940-’41) was extremely brutal. The NKVD (Soviet secret police) arrested and executed the leading citizens in those territories, or deported them and their families to the wastelands of Siberia where their chances of survival were minimal. Twenty-one thousand Lithuanians, including Jews, suffered this fate. A strong current in the popular mind (throughout Europe and beyond) linked communism to “international Jewry,” and it wasn’t hard for this same popular mind to blame Soviet atrocities on Jews in general and to seek vengeance. The Germans didn’t have to create an atmosphere for genocide in the Baltic countries. It greeted them.
After Hitler invaded the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, the German army quickly occupied Lithuania. Local collaborators, with German connivance, attacked the Jews. Public spectacles of humiliation and blood-letting drew crowds of spectators. In every occupied country of Europe, local people collaborated with the Nazis and committed atrocities against Jews – and against civilians generally.
A Judenrat (Jewish Council) was organized and two ghettos were established. Jews were ordered to wear the Star of David. Wasting no time, the Nazis began the systematic murder of the Jewish people. Several members of Shep’s family were murdered at Ponary (Ponar) Forest, a bucolic setting four miles south of Vilna. It had been a popular recreation area before the war, and now it became a site of mass murder. In Nazi “actions” over the course of several months, Jews were taken from Vilna to Ponary and shot, their bodies dumped in large pits (oil tank pits dug previously by the Soviets).
One of the early victims at Ponary was Shep’s brother-in-law Noah Levin. He left behind his wife Doba (Shep’s younger sister). She was pregnant at the time and gave birth to Natan (Notele) on October 2, 1941. Shep tells us in the documentary that his father insisted that Jewish tradition be observed and as a result Natan was circumcised. This removed any hope of the child being hidden by a Christian once the liquidation of the ghetto began.
Shep’s niece Zerna was raped by the Nazis in the ghetto as her father stood powerless. On October 24, 1941, Zerna (age 18), with her mother Sonia (Shep’s older sister, age 42) and her brother Hirsh (age 10), was taken to a mass grave at Ponary and ordered to strip. An SS officer named Martin Weiss (“the master of Ponary”) approached Zerna and extolled her beauty. He offered to spare her but instead took out a revolver and shot her in the back of the head.
Martin Weiss, SS killer at Ponary
There are two eye-witness accounts of Zerna’s death, the first written by Sarah Menkes, a Jewish slave at Ponary:
“Zerna Morgenstern was one of the women transported to Ponar. When they arrived, they were told to wait. As they waited, groups of them were selected and told to stand in a line and undress. They took off their blouses and exposed the upper parts of their bodies. Facing them were members of the Einsatzgruppen. One of them, an officer, stepped forward to look at the women and stopped when he got to Zerna, who had beautiful eyes, a tall stature, and long braids. He looked at her a long time, smiled, and said, ‘Take a step forward.’ She was stunned. Everyone was stunned. No one cried or asked for a thing. Zerna froze in her place, as if, as if some force were holding her back, and didn’t step forward. He spoke to her again, saying, ‘You are so beautiful. Don’t you want to live? I’m telling you, take a step forward!’ Zerna took the step, and once again he said, ‘What a shame to bury beauty like that in the ground. Go away, but don’t look back. Over there is a row of trees. You know that now. Go ahead.’ She hesitated a moment and turned to go, while the other women looked at her with a mixture of fear and jealousy. As Zerna continued to walk away, staggeringly, the officer pulled out his revolver and shot her in the back.”
Zelda Einhorn, another Jewish slave at Ponary, provides a second account of Zerna’s death:
Between 70,000 and 100,000 Jewish people were murdered at Ponary.
Shep received a letter from his brother-in-law Micha Morgenstern (Zerna’s father) on August 27, 1942:
“Doba [Shep’s sister] and I, we are the only ones left from the entire family in Vilna. When we got your letter of June 24, we were so happy we cried. We are so happy that you, the third member of our family, are also still alive. That’s not taking into account Doba’s little boy, who is now nine months old.”
The Jewish resistance movement in the Vilna ghetto, called the ‘United Partisan Organization,’ or UPO, was led by Yitzhak Wittenberg, a shoemaker. He was compelled to turn himself over to the Gestapo in July 1943 to prevent reprisal against the remaining inhabitants of the ghetto. The poet Abba Kovner assumed command of the Jewish resistance. The fighters ultimately escaped the ghetto and fought as partisans in the forests. In the documentary Shep offers a rendition of the “Song of the Partisans.” This song (or poem) was written in 1943 by Hirsh Glik in the Vilna ghetto. He was later killed by the Nazis.
Doba’s brother-in-law Haim Levin escaped to the forests and joined Abba Kovner’s unit. His wife remained with her parents in the ghetto. She handed over her son Shalom to Stefanie Lipska and her husband, a Christian couple. They were childless. The child was eight months old and not circumcised, making it possible to conceal his Jewish identity. Doba’s two year old son Natan (Notele) was circumcised and Jewish at a glance. Stefanie Lipska and her husband were unwilling to take the child. It was too dangerous.
Shalom Levin survived the war “passing” as a Christian child. In 1991 Yad Vashem honored his rescuer Stefanie Lipska as a Righteous Gentile. On her certificate is the Talmudic expression, “Whoever saves one life is as though he had saved the entire world.”
Shep and his fellow Jewish prisoners of Lithuanian origin were sent to a labor camp in Ludwigsdorf, Germany. They loaded coal onto trains and toiled with heavy rocks. It was here that a group photograph of the prisoners, still wearing their Polish uniforms, was taken.
They later constructed roads at Krems, Austria, and spent time in a labor camp at Teschen, Poland. At Stalag VIII (A), near Gorlitz, Germany, they were forced to clean latrines by hand.
Shep was threatened with execution twice – once because of a “love letter” written to him in German by a Ukrainian girl (a “forced laborer”). When the Germans realized that the girl was Ukrainian and not German, Shep was released with a mere slap in the face. The racial laws had not been violated after all. In comparison to the rest of European Jewry, this small group of Lithuanian-Jewish POWs was lucky - and unique. In the last months of the war Shep heard rumors about the Nazi annihilation of the Jews: “But we didn’t hear exactly how they did it. How it happened.”
On April 22, 1945, after surviving a “death march” lasting three days, Shep and his fellow POWs were liberated near Gorlitz, Germany, by Russian soldiers on horseback who demanded, “Give us your watches!”
Shep says that he lost hope many times during the war: “It’s things that I cannot understand how I made. How I survived six winters in Germany without Tylenol or aspirin, which I didn’t have it. Not good shoes, either. I don’t know how. But I did survive. I’m here.”
Shep and his friends didn’t want to return to Vilna. Their relatives had been murdered and anti-Semitism remained lethal. In addition, the Soviets were in control and ruthlessly exercised their power. The countries of Central and Eastern Europe, occupied by the Red Army in the last year of the war, fell into the Russian sphere of influence. The latter was confirmed by Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin at the Yalta Conference in February 1945. And so it was that Central and Eastern Europe, brutalized by the Nazis, became satellites of the Soviet Union. One nightmare replaced another.
Sheps tells us that he and his friends said that they would never get married and have children: “Who would want to see Jewish children tortured like they saw it? And who would want to get married? But we got married. We got children. We have grandchildren that are giving back to the society. Life goes on.”
Shep and the other Lithuanian-Jewish POWs informed their Russian liberators that they belonged to the Jewish Brigade fighting alongside the British army in Italy. Fearful of being repatriated to Poland, they thought it wise to conceal the fact that they were soldiers from the (original) Polish army. The former POWs ended up in England where, much to their disappointment, they were handed over to the Polish army. Shep was discharged and spent the next three years in London, selling men’s suits in the West End.
In December 1948, Shep immigrated to New Orleans, Louisiana, where his uncle Ya’akov Cohen lived. He arrived with $32.15 in his pocket. He worked as a salesman of wholesale clothes and dry goods and travelled to stores in towns across rural Louisiana. He later opened his own wholesale business.
Shep married an American Jewish woman, Lillian Weinstein, on December 25, 1949. She had been an army nurse (with the rank of lieutenant) during World War II.
Shep Zitler and Max Fuksman at Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, 1981
When the couple went to newly-established Israel on their honeymoon, Shep was reunited with his sister and brother. He was devoted to Israel and became a representative for United Jewish Appeal: “If we have Israel, it cannot happen again. I don’t think they would be burying the Jews in Auschwitz if Israel would be there. We have an Israel right now. Very strong Israel. They wouldn’t let it happen.”
Shep and Lillian had a son, Justin. Lillian died on March 10, 1986. Shep then married Anne Weinstein Weaker.
Shep Zitler at Acadiana High School in Lafayette, Louisiana
For many years he visited schools and recounted his war-time experiences: “The Holocaust in my opinion cannot be understood. Nobody in this whole world can understand the Holocaust. But I want them to remember. I owe it to my family and to my people.”
Shep Zitler and Dora Niederman at Acadiana High School in Lafayette, Louisiana
In the documentary Shep shows us a photograph of his family taken in 1936 when his sister Rachel departed for Palestine: “My three other sisters, with her husbands, with her children, my parents, none of them died a normal death. They were all killed by the Nazis in different ways.”
Shep lost his home in New Orleans to the high waters that followed Hurricane Katrina in August 2005. He died on November 30, 2009, after dinner at a restaurant, and was buried beside his first wife Lillian in New Orleans.
Shep’s nephew Shlomo Ben-Asher researched the history of the Zitler family during the Holocaust and published his work in a book titled Legacy Interrupted. The book includes translations of the family letters written to Shep during the war. Every family should have a historian who gathers memories before it’s too late. “When an old person dies,” the saying goes, “a library burns.”