“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
Life Before the War
Shep (Shabtai) Zitler was born on May 27, 1917, in Vilna (Wilno, Vilnius), Lithuania. In the Jewish world, Vilna was known as the “Jerusalem of the East.” YIVO, the depository of Jewish culture and literature, was located there. Before the Holocaust, 57,000 Jews lived in Vilna. One source says 100,000. In the third year of World War I, when Shep entered the world, the city was under German occupation. In 1918, at the end of the war, the Lithuanians declared independence. After sharp fighting, they were forced to cede Vilna to newly independent Poland. That was how Shep, born in Lithuania, became a Polish citizen.
Shep’s parents were Beila and Asher Zitler. Beila’s three brothers lived in New Orleans, Louisiana. Shep’s brother was Benjamin (Binyamin). His sisters were Sonia, Riva, Rachel, and Doba. Sonia married Micha Morganstern, a well-known teacher in Vilna. They had two children, the oldest of whom was Zerna (Tzerna). When the Second World War broke out in 1939, she was 16 years old and already a published writer and accomplished pianist. Shep’s nephew Shlomo Ben-Asher, in his book on the Zitler family titled Interrupted Legacy, described Zerna as “the lovely, sensitive, and gentle soul who grappled with questions of social justice and the place of Zionism in the lives of Jews…” Sarah Menkes, who witnessed Zerna’s murder at Ponary on October 24, 1941, remembered her “beautiful eyes, tall stature, and long braids.”
Of his family in Vilna, Shep was the only one who would survive the Holocaust. He did so, as we’ll see, owing to a unique twist of fate.
The Zitlers owned a fabrics store. They were Orthodox Jews and lived apart from the non-Jews. Segregation was the order of the day. Shep didn’t know any Polish people. His first language was Yiddish. He spoke Polish with a thick accent (which caused him endless trouble once he was drafted into the Polish army).
Shep’s brother Benjamin and sister Rachel immigrated to Palestine in the 1930s. The Jewish homeland was then under British control and called the British Mandate. Fighting between Jews and Arabs intensified in the years leading up the war. The British were caught in an impossible situation that was growing worse every day. Despite the assurances of the Balfour Declaration in 1917, the British government (and not just the British government) opposed the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine. It didn’t want to inflame the Arab world and lose access to the oil riches of the region. In May 1939, the British government issued a “White Paper” that called for limiting the number of immigrants (i.e. Jewish refugees) to the Mandate before halting immigration altogether.
During World War II, the British closed Palestine to Jews fleeing the Nazis. It seemed they didn’t want the Jews to survive. More Jews in Palestine meant more trouble with the Arabs and more headaches for the British.
Drafted into Polish Army
In February 1939, Shep was drafted into the Polish army and assigned to the 77th Infantry Battalion. This represented an abrupt change in his life. He had searing memories of the anti-Semitism that he experienced in training camp: “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.”
Hitler and Stalin stunned the world on August 23, 1939. The foreign ministers of the once and future enemies signed a non-aggression pact in Moscow. In a secret protocol of the agreement, the two totalitarian powers agreed to divide Poland (and Eastern Europe) between themselves. Shep’s family in Vilna would soon find itself on the Russian side of the new German-Russian border.
Outbreak of the German-Polish War
Hitler attacked Poland on September 1, 1939. Two days later, England and France declared war on Germany. Shep’s unit was surrounded near Warsaw. He and his “partner” Harry Sanders, a fellow Jew from Vilna, were hungry. They braved a hail storm of bullets to climb a tree and pick some (green) apples. Harry, who was an excellent marksman, joked: “‘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 some of the 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, the Red Army crossed the Polish border and seized the eastern half of the country, including Vilna. In April 1940, the Soviets annexed Lithuania along with Latvia and Estonia. The citizens of these countries had enjoyed independence for less than twenty years. Virtually overnight they became citizens of the Soviet Union.
The Soviet annexation of Lithuania had major consequences for Shep. The citizens of Lithuania, including Shep and ten other Jewish POWs from Vilna, became citizens of the Soviet Union, which was temporarily allied to Nazi Germany. As a result, Shep was reclassified. He was no longer a Polish-Jewish POW. He was now a Lithuanian-Jewish POW. That slight change He now had a chance to survive. The Polish-Jewish soldiers had no chance. Sixty-one thousand perished in German captivity. Shep and the other Lithuanian-Jewish soldiers were spared that fate. They were sent to the first of many labor camps. For the next five years, they were treated harshly but not put up against the wall and shot or transported to occupied Poland and gassed. Shep tells us that his group of Lithuanian-Jewish POWs remained together throughout the war.
Invasion of Russia
Hitler invaded the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941. The German army quickly occupied Lithuania. Just as quickly, local collaborators went to work. Public spectacles of humiliation and blood-letting drew crowds of ordinary people who behaved as if at a circus.
Between 1939 and 1943, Shep received some twenty letters from his family in Vilna (under Soviet and Nazi occupations). His sister Doba signed one letter, “I’m sending you a kiss. See you, see you, see you.” Shep received food packages from his mother as well as from his uncles and aunts in New Orleans, Louisiana.
Shep’s mother Beila repeatedly tried to get him released from German captivity based on his Lithuanian (not Polish) origins. Her efforts were unsuccessful, which was fortunate for Shep. He was less endangered in a German POW camp than he would have been with his family 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 Sovietization of eastern Poland and the Baltic countries was merciless. Leading citizens were executed. In Lithuania alone, 21,000 were deported to Siberia. Jewish citizens were among them. Yet the stereotype of Jewish-communism persisted. The Jews, Bolsheviks at heart, were blamed for Lithuania’s troubles. As if the slur “Christ killer” wasn’t enough.
When the Germans occupied Lithuania in June 1941, they didn’t create an atmosphere for genocide. It greeted them.
Massacre of Vilna’s Jews at Ponary
Shep’s family was ordered into the ghetto (there were two). Wasting no time, the Nazis began the systematic murder of the Vilna Jews on July 8, 1941. Lithuanian collaborators and the Jewish ghetto police, following German orders, played a nefarious role. “You can trust me, I’m not a ghetto policeman,” went a popular saying. Before the war, Ponary Forest, four miles from Vilna, had been a popular place for city dwellers to enjoy a country outing. It became the place where the Jews of Vilna were shot in the back of the head. Shep’s brother-in-law Noah Levin was one of the first victims at Ponary. He was married to Shep’s younger sister Doba. She was pregnant at the time and gave birth to Natan (Notele) on October 2, 1941. Shep’s father Asher insisted that Natan be circumcised. This decision led to problems later on when the opportunity arose to hand the child over to a Christian rescuer.
The Death of Zerna
The ghetto was sealed on September 6, 1941. By then 20,000 Jews had been murdered at Ponary. Shep’s niece Zerna was raped by the Nazis. When it came to a beautiful young girl, the master race wasn’t all that particular. Her father was powerless to intervene. In a Nazi action on October 24, 1941, 3,700 Jews were taken to Ponary. Among them were Shep’s sister Sonia (age 42), nephew Hirsh (age 10), and niece Zerna (age 18). A drunk SS officer named Martin Weiss (“the master of Ponary”) approached Zerna. As Shep tells us, the German killer extolled her beauty:
One of two surviving witnesses of Zerna’s murder was 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, provided another account of Zerna’s last moments:
“Zerna was brought with her mother and younger brother to Ponar. She was ordered to stand next to a deep pit, and there she was told to undress. Anyone not obeying these orders had their eyes gouged out. It was evening. The moon was just beginning to rise as it shined on the body of Zerna, who stood half naked next to the pit. The SS officer, Weiss, approached her quickly and pulled her aside by the arm, as if to save her. Zerna struggled with him, preferring to die with her mother and little brother, who had already been shot and were lying dead in the pit. Weiss didn’t relent. ‘A beautiful girl like you doesn’t have to die,’ he said, and pulled her further along, ignoring her screaming and crying. She asked him to let go but he held her tightly and didn’t let her run away. ‘How beautiful the world is,’ he said, pointing to the trees, as moonlight shined through their branches. ‘And you, young lady, as even more beautiful in the moonlight.’ That’s the way he talked to her, like a young lover. While he continued to tell her about life’s beauty, he pulled his revolver out when her back was turned and shot her in the head. Then he dragged the dying girl to the pit where her family lay, as he laughed out loud…”
By December 1941, 48,000 Jews had been murdered at Ponary.
Jewish Resistance in Vilna
The poet Abba Kovner assumed command of the Jewish resistance in the Vilna ghetto in 1943. The fighters escaped to the forests and fought as partisans. In his documentary, Shep sings the partisans’ anthem, the “Song of the Partisans.” This song (or poem) was written by Hirsh Glik in the Vilna ghetto. He didn’t survive the war.
Doba’s brother-in-law Haim Levin slipped out of the ghetto and joined Abba Kovner’s unit in the forest. His wife remained with her parents in the ghetto. She handed over her son Shalom to Stefanie Lipska and her husband, a Christian couple who were childless. Shalom was eight months old and not circumcised, making it possible to conceal his Jewish identity. Doba’s two year old son Natan (Notele), as a result of her father’s instructions, was circumcised. One glance was proof enough of his origins. Stefanie Lipska and her husband were unwilling to take him. It was too dangerous.
Shalom Levin survived the war in the care of the Lipskis. In 1991, Yad Vashem honored Stefanie Lipska as a Righteous Gentile. On her certificate was the Talmudic expression, “Whoever saves one life is as though he had saved the entire world.”
Nazi Labor Camps
Shep and the Lithuanian-Jewish POWs spent the war laboring in one Nazi labor camp or another. In April 1941, they were in Ludwigsdorf, Germany, where they loaded coal onto trains. At this camp a group photograph of the POWs shows them still in their Polish uniforms. They later constructed roads at Krems, Austria, and were forced to clean latrines at Stalag VIII (A) near Gorlitz, Germany. Towards the end of the war, they worked on a German farm, where Shep nearly lost his life. The Germans found a “love letter” in his possession and, because it was written in German, they concluded that Shep was involved with a German woman. Nobody had to ask what the penalty for race defilement was. It turned out Shep was involved with not a German woman but a Ukrainian woman who spoke (and wrote) German. He got off with a slap in the face.
Shep can’t explain how he and the other Lithuanian-Jewish POWs survived the war. Did the Germans forget about them? That was unlikely. Did the Lithuanian-Jewish POWs “fall between the cracks?” Hard to believe. One thing is for sure: Shep never expected to survive the war. Until the last minute, he expected a bullet in the back of his head.
On August 27, 1942, Shep received a letter from his brother-in-law Micha Morgenstern (Zerna’s father), who wrote from the Vilna ghetto:
“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 [Natan], who is now nine months old.”
Micha ended up in Estonia. He didn’t survive the war. Doba and Natan were murdered during the “Children’s Action” on March 27, 1944. They were the last of Shep’s relatives in Vilna. Before the Germans withdrew, they ordered Jewish slaves (a special commando) to exhume the victims from the huge pits at Ponary, in the attempt to remove the evidence of their crimes. Sixty-eight thousand bodies were burned in monstrous pyres. Before the Red Army liberated Vilna on July 13, 1944, the SS shot the remaining 1,800 Jewish slaves.
Shep says it was only towards the end of the war that he heard rumors of the Holocaust: “But we didn’t hear exactly how they did it. How it happened.”
Liberated by the Russians
After surviving three days on a “death march,” Shep and his fellow POWs were liberated near Gorlitz, Germany, by Russian soldiers who arrived on horses. “Give us your watches!” they shouted. Shep had survived five years and seven months as a prisoner of the Nazis: “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 didn’t want to go home. Only bad memories awaited him in Vilna. His people were dead. Anti-Semitism was still lethal. The Soviets were in control. One nightmare had replaced another. That was no place for a Jew.
Shep and his friends told one another they would never get married. Having children was out of the question: “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 didn’t want repatriation to Poland. He told his Russian liberators that he belonged to the Jewish Brigade, attached to the British army, that had fought the Germans in Italy. Shep was put on a plane to England and, much to his dismay, handed over to the Polish army. He was discharged and spent the next three years in London, selling men’s suits in the West End.
Arriving in New Orleans
In December 1948, Shep immigrated to the United States and settled in New Orleans, where his Uncle Ya’akov and Aunt Jenny Cohen lived. He arrived with $32.15 in his pocket. At first he worked as a salesman in dry goods and wholesale clothes. He traveled across rural Louisiana and called on the proprietors of stores in all the small towns. He had a hard time understanding Cajun French. He later opened his a wholesale business.
Shep married Lillian Weinstein on December 25, 1949. She had been a U. S. Army nurse during the war, with the rank of lieutenant. She outranked him, Shep often said with a wry smile. The newly-weds went to Israel on their honeymoon. Shep was reunited with his sister Rachel and brother Benjamin. For the rest of his life, Shep worked tirelessly on behalf of Israel: “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 later married Anne Weinstein Weaker. They visited Lithuania in 1995.
For many years, Shep traveled with the Southern Institute across the Deep South and shared his war-time experiences at schools and workshops. He emphasized this point: “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.”
In his presentations, Shep showed a photograph of his family that was taken in 1936, before his sister Rachel left 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 and Anne lost their home to Hurricane Katrina in August 2005. Shep died on November 30, 2009. He was buried next to his first wife Lillian. His wife Annie, always at his side when he spoke about the past, died in 2017.
We deeply appreciate and fully acknowledge the efforts Shep’s nephew Shlomo Ben-Asher, who researched the family’s history and wrote Legacy Interrupted. Every family would do well to have an historian like Shlomo. As the saying goes, “When an old person dies, a library burns.”