Survivor Stories
Shep Zitler
There were 10 of us who stayed together for the entire 5 years and 7 months of our captivity. We had been through hell. There were 2 things we were not going to do: We were not going to get married and we were not going to have children. Why should our children suffer as Jews? Then we got married and had children. Life goes on. Now, our children are giving back to society.

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I am proud of having been born in Vilna because it gave an eminent name to the Jewish people. Vilna was called the Jerusalem of Lithuania. Why? Because like Jerusalem the capital of Israel, Vilna was believed to be the capital of the Diaspora Jews in Eastern Europe.

In Vilna, we believed in the book, in learning. We had the Strashun Library, the biggest library of Jewish learning in the world. We had Jewish organizations. The Bund started in Vilna. We had so many organizations: the left Zionists, the right Zionists, the middle Zionists, the Bund, the Communists, the religious party. A father and mother could have five children and they would belong to five different organizations. At dinner they would all be arguing because each wanted to persuade the other one to his point of view. We had the biggest cantors in Vilna. And, also we had the biggest thiefs.

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My private hell started six months before the war began. In February 1939, I was drafted into the Polish army. The army was the first time that I associated with Poles. In Vilna, the Jews lived on one side of the street and the Poles lived on the other side. We spoke Yiddish and Russian. My Polish accent was not that great. The Polish soldiers laughed at me.

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In the Polish army we had a lieutenant named Walchek. He was skinny, six feet tall, handsome and he had boots that shined like a mirror. On his office he had a sign which read: ENTRY IS FORBIDDEN TO JEWS AND DOGS. We, Jews, were told, "First we are going to take care of the Germans, then we are going to take care of you." How did I feel going against my enemy, the Germans, fighting with my second enemy, the Poles?

There was no future for Jewish youth in Poland. When Pilsudski died, they said to us, "Your father died, now we can do what we want with you." The anti-Semitism was terrible.

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On September 1, 1939, the war started when Germany invaded Poland. Poland lost the war in sixteen days. I was with the 77th Pulk Piechoty (77th Infantry Regiment). Our unit was captured near Radom. We were sent to a prisoner-of-war camp near Kielce. I remember that the Jews had already been separated from the Polish soldiers. The Germans could not tell the Jews apart from the other Polish soldiers. They depended on the Poles to tell them that.

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Vilna at that time was technically located in Lithuania which was not at war with Germany. I was classified as one of the so-called Lithuanian Jews and not as a regular Polish soldier. So I was sent to a POW labor camp. This saved my life. The other Jewish soldiers were demobilized and sent back to Poland. There they faced almost certain death.

I was in various labor camps for five years and seven months. We belonged to Stalag VIII A. But we did not stay there. If we had stayed in the Stalag (prisoner-of-war camp) we would have starved like the Russian POW's we saw because there was not enough food there. They sent us to many different places to work. International law required us to kept in humane conditions, and it forbade Germany from forcing us to be slave laborers.

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I was forced to work on the Autobahn near Krems, Austria. I was forced to load coal at Ludwigsdorf. As Jews we were singled out for special treatment. At Goerlitz the Jews had to clean excrement out of the slit latrines with our hands. The Jews were always given the dirtiest and most dangerous jobs. Our lives were threatened and we were beaten. We were always hungry, and many of us did not survive.

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This is the only picture I have of my family. It was taken on the occasion of my sister, Rachel, leaving for Palestine. It shows my four sisters, my mother and father, and my nephews and nieces. I am standing at the far right. Except for my sister Rachel and myself, none of them died a natural death. They were all killed. This is my Holocaust. After the war I came to know what happened to some of the members of my family. It is better to know how they died then not to know.

My oldest sister Sonia was married to the famous Professor Morgenstern who taught Polish literature at the Epstein-Szpeizer Gymnasium. His daughter Tzerna was a gorgeous girl. She was the first grandchild in our family. I can remember her reciting a poem at a Passover Seder when she was 4 years old. It began, "Softly, softly goes the mouse." Tzerna was personally killed at Ponary by the sadist Martin Weiss. Her story was written up in a book by the Yiddish poet Abraham Sutzkever, and also mentioned at the Eichmann Trial, Tzerna's Story . Recently, a book was published that contained two of Tzerna's school essays .

After the war I got a letter from Israel from a man who identified himself as the brother-in-law of my youngest sister, Doba. Doba had married his brother during the war. They were living in the Vilna ghetto. He, the brother-in-law, was a member of the partisans. Both his wife and Doba had given birth to baby boys at around the same time. A Polish peasant was found who agreed to hide the two babies. However, there was a stipulation. The babies could not be circumcised because then they could be identified as Jewish. The other baby was not circumcised and he was sent with the Polish woman.

Doba decided to ask her parents what to do. My parents were very religious. My father said, "The boy is Jewish; he has to be circumcised." So Doba's little boy was circumcised, and he stayed with our family in the ghetto. All of them perished. The other little boy, who was hidden with the Polish woman, was picked up after the war by his father. His wife had been killed. Today, that child works for IBM. His daughter was Miss Vermont.

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Doba and her infant were in that part of the ghetto known as Kalis. It was the last part of the ghetto to be liquidated at the very end of the war. I was told by someone that Doba had a chance to be liberated by the Russians if she would give up her son. This she would not do. She chose to die with her son.

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My father, besides being a very religious man, was a Zionist. In 1926, he was doing well financially. He considered moving the entire family to Palestine. So he sent Professor Morgenstern to Palestine to look around for business opportunities. Morgenstern came back to Vilna and said, "You are having it good here, it is very hard over there." So the family stayed in Vilna.

My father sent the wrong man. Professor Morgenstern was a very nice man, but he was a professor of Polish literature. Can you imagine? What kind of opportunities could a Professor of Polish literature find in Palestine? Eventually, my brother Benjamin went to a kibbutz in 1933, and my sister Rachel went to Palestine in 1936.

Near the end of the war we were marching two or three days without stopping. The Germans told us to lie down in a field. We slept. The Russian calvary woke us up. About 30 of them on horses rode up to us. The first thing they said to us was, I will never forget it, "Give us your watches." We learned that they were crazy for wristwatches. We told them who we were, and they left us alone. They smiled and rode away. That was our liberation on April 22, 1945.

There were eleven of us Lithuanian Jews together at this time. We were free. No Germans. We went into the villages and there was plenty of food there. One of us died from overeating, and then we were ten.

When the war was over, we thought we had survived because we were smarter than other people. Then we talked to other survivors. Plenty of smart people died. We learned we were just luckier than they were.

Somehow we knew nobody was left alive at home. We did not want to go back to Poland. We wanted to stick together and we wanted to go to Palestine. So we lied to the Russians that we were members of the Jewish Brigade. The Russians sent us to the Americans. We told them the same lie. We were members of the Jewish Brigade and we had lost our papers. So the Americans sent us to the British. The British brought us to England to a camp near Newcastle.

There was a Jewish Captain in the British Army, who was named Goldman. He came to see us. We told the truth to him because he was a Jew. We said we were Polish soldiers who wanted to go to Palestine. At 4:30 the next morning, they woke us up, and then they took us to a camp in Scotland for Polish Soldiers.

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Goldman betrayed our secret. Can you imagine how we felt? We did not want to be back with the Poles. We did not expect to be back in the Polish Army which we hated. That evening we went into the canteen and there were two Volksdeutsch speaking German. We got into a fight with them. We were so depressed. They did not know what to do with us so they gave us leave. We went to London. The Jewish community took us in and showed us the sights. We were stuffing ourselves on the food, and we went to see Parliament.

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After six months it became clear we were not going to be allowed to go to Palestine. I got a temporary release from the army, and I took a job in the East End of London selling suits. I got three pounds a week for working all week long and half a day on Sunday. After three years my boss said to me, "You have finished 'Harvard'- - now you can go to America to sell."

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On December 23, 1948, my boat landed in New York. An uncle who lived in New Orleans sponsored me to go to America. I spent the first night in Brooklyn at the home of one of my ten army friends who was from Vilna and who was with me in camp all those five years and seven months. He had gotten married in May 1948. "Sasha..." he told me--my friends called me Sasha, in America they call me Shep. "Sasha," he said, "here in America we take a shower every night."

I took the train to New Orleans. I had $32.15 in my pocket and no job. I couldn't drive a car. I spoke broken English. In Vilna, my profession was as a dental technician making false teeth. Somebody recommended me to a Jewish doctor by the name of Kaplan. He said to me, "Well, I guess we can get you a job paying fifty dollars a week." He talks to me a bit more and then he asks me. "How long has it been since you worked in your profession?" "Nine years," I said. "Nine years, that is a long time," he said. I was still a young man of 32. Then he looked at me and he said, "Can you sell shoes?"

I looked at him and I thought, "What does he mean can I sell shoes? I never sold shoes in my life." I asked him, "What do you mean? I don't know if I can sell shoes?" "Well, I don't mean shoes," he said. "Can you be a salesman? Can you go out on the road and sell to people? You will make better than as a dental technician." Well, that convinced me, and I asked around. I had a cousin who introduced me to two brothers who were in the wholesale ladies dresses business. They called themselves Greene's Fashion Mart.

Of course, I wasn't a salesperson. I didn't even have a car. So they brought me inside and paid me thirty dollars a week. Later I became a salesman on the route. My cousin taught me how to drive a car in two hours. Then I was driving like mad. Everybody was flying around. I really couldn't drive, but everyday I got better. I had to get better or I would get killed and you wouldn't hear this story from me now.

I called on small towns in the State of Louisiana. Later, I borrowed some money and became self employed. I bought property. After one year in America I married and had a son, Justin, who is a lawyer. My wife died, and I married Anne, my present wife.

I remember the first time I came into a bus in New Orleans. I sat in the back of the bus, where I like to sit. A few people looked at me. That was where the blacks were supposed to sit. I found out about segregation, but I did not understand.

In 1961, George Lincoln Rockwell, the American Nazi, planned to come to New Orleans to demonstrate in front of the picture show "Exodus" which was showing in a theater on Baronne Street. There were going to be 10 or 12 of these Nazis demonstrating , and they were going to be carrying swastikas. Our people didn't like that. Word went around that there was going to be a meeting at Ralph Rosenblatt's butcher shop and later we had another meeting at the Jewish Community Center. Barney Mintz, the chairman of the Anti-defamation League, was there, and I remember we were telling him, "We don't like it and we are going to kill him." Can you imagine it?

Of course, we were just talking. But it was still fresh in our minds because we had only been 12 years since coming out of the DP camps. I do remember I was in a car with three other survivors, and we were going around and around Baronne Street in front of the theater. Sure enough we saw him. We were so mad we wanted to stop the car, but there were Jewish people from all kinds of organizations there. The police were there, and in five minutes the police took him away and led him out of town.

Then I got to thinking, and some others got to thinking, too. We were going to have more strength if we were organized than if we were individuals. It was sometime in June 1961, at the Jewish Community Center, that we had our first meeting. Around 60 to 80 survivors came, and we decided to organize ourselves as a group. It was a secret ballot, and I was elected the first president. We decided to call ourselves The New Americans Social Club. I think we had 60 members; right now, we have 28. More than half of us have died out, but we are still strong. We still call ourselves The New Americans. People are laughing, saying we are not new Americans anymore, but we like the name.

In 1981, there was the First World Gathering of Holocaust Survivors in Israel. It was organized by an Auschwitz survivor, Ernest Michel. I met Ernst Michel in New York in 1977. He said it was his dream from when he came out of Auschwitz to bring all of the Holocaust survivors to Israel for a world gathering. It became my dream also.

I came to the members of our club and said, "We are going to save money every month for a couple of years." We had 37 or 38 people on that trip to Israel, proportionately the biggest percentage of Holocaust survivors from any other city in the United States. Many people said, "Why didn't we do this before?" The answer was that it took 30 years to heal the wounds before survivors would come. It was just the right time.

In 1983, in Washington we had a gathering of 18,000 Holocaust survivors. For 18,000 people we did not get just a congressman or a senator. We got the president. Then we met again in Philadelphia in 1985 and elected Benjamin Meed as our president.

The main job right now is to speak out whenever we can. We go to high schools, to colleges, to universities, or to NASA, or to the Social Security office. I feel personally, why should I talk to Jewish people? Jewish people should know about the Holocaust. I go out of my way to talk to non-Jewish people. If I speak to 60 students or 40 students or 80 students, then they will know that the Holocaust did exist. It is important never to forget that we have been through hell in our lifetimes if we don't want the Holocaust to repeat itself.

The whole business with Hitler lasted only 12 years. It started in 1933, and Hitler committed suicide in 1945, which is only 12 years. What is 12 years in history? A blink of an eye. I divide Hitler's reign into two parts: 6 years, 1933 to 1939, and 6 years, 1939 to 1945. From 1933 to 1939, Hitler was building, building, building and from 1939 to 1945 he was killing, killing, killing.

Once a year we commemorate the Holocaust at a ceremony held at the Jewish Community Center on the 27th day of the month of Nissan, the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. My part for the last few years has been to lead the singing of the Hymn of the Holocaust Survivors, the Partisan Song, Zog Nit Keyn Mol. It was written by Hirsch Glick, a poet and a partisan fighter. He was born in 1922 and was killed in 1944. He was 22 years old. He was a young fellow, brilliant. He was also from Vilna.


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