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Remembering "Shep" Zitler


The last time I saw Marek Edelman, who died October 2 at 90, was at the October 5, 1997, “100 Years Bund” celebration, which was held at New York’s Crowne Plaza Hotel. We chatted in Yiddish. He remembered my father, Matvey Bernsztejn, and reminded me that as a teenager he had been one of my baby-sitters in prewar Warsaw when my parents wanted to attend various political or social unternemungen (meetings). The only surviving leader of the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto uprising, Edelman, who postwar became a cardiologist, spoke little of his role in the uprising until the 1970s. It would be for others to tout his vital role in Poland’s Jewish history.

During my chat with British writer Norman Davies at an October 18, 2004, luncheon at the Kosciuszko Foundation for the launch of his book “Rising ’44: The Battle for Warsaw” (Viking Penguin, 2004), I mentioned Edelman. Davies, who is also the author of the two-volume “God’s Playground: A History of Poland” (Columbia University Press, 1982), referred to Edelman, whom he mentioned in “Rising.” Davies stated: “Everyone knows about the [1943] Warsaw Ghetto uprising. But the story of the 1944 Warsaw Uprising is not known. No one wanted to talk about the ‘rising’ after the war.” In one of several references to Edelman, Davies, in the chapter “Echoes of the Rising, 1956–2000,” writes: “Equally important for the historical record were the number of interviews and investigations conceived or conducted in 1980–1981, which drew the veil from issues relevant to the Rising and which helped illuminate many of the subsequent distortions. One of these was a long conversation with Mark E. [Marek Edelman], a sometimes Bundist and leader of the Ghetto Uprising, whose views exposed many of the misconceptions about wartime Polish-Jewish Relations.”

Davies told how survivors of the ghetto uprising who came out of the sewers instructed the Polish Home Army on how to use those sewers in defense of Warsaw against the Germans. He added, “The fact is that Jews with various religious and political connections served with distinction both in the Home Army and the People’s Army…. More than 1,000 Jewish survivors fought with the Poles in the 1944 Rising.”


When I arrived in Montreal in 1941, the only refugee child in Outremont’s Alfred Joyce School, I was an outsider. Some of the parents of my Jewish classmates accused me of giving their children “nightmares” with my accounts of what I had witnessed during the flight my mother and I took from Nazi-occupied Warsaw, and during our escape via Japan. Then came Helen Panopalis, another outsider and a transfer from a Greek Orthodox school. She offered me refuge in her mother’s kitchen, where they listened to my stories and believed me. I read (in translation) to them reports from the Jewish Daily Forward of what was happening to the Jews of Poland and about the ghetto uprising. My first year in Montreal, I could not afford to buy a Christmas gift for my friend, so I sewed a Polish peasant doll by hand, complete with a sequined vest and multi-ribboned skirt. Panopalis told me: “You are Jewish. You don’t give Christmas presents. You can give it to me for New Year’s.” Over the decades, Helen Panopalis Katsonis and I never lost touch, not even when she moved to Athens, where she founded The Athenian, Greece’s first English-language monthly journal.

A few years ago, she sent me a letter saying that the Polish doll “with the Japanese eyes — no doubt inspired by your stay in Japan — is in a safety deposit box and is to be sent to you upon my death.” When I called her on January 1 for our annual catch-up, Helen Katsonis, her granddaughter, told me, “Grandmother Helen died two weeks ago.” And yes, she knew about the doll and needed my address to send it to me.

She sent me copies whenever she published an article of Jewish content, and kept me apprised of the doings at Athens’s Jewish Museum. She also kept me up to date on our former Alfred Joyce classmates. Though we lived in Quebec, a Catholic province, Alfred Joyce was an Anglican school; the teachers were Scots, and 98% of the girls were Jewish. Like Helen Panopalis, several of our classmates lived on Nelson Street, and Panapolis often reminded me that she spent more time “in shul” than I did. and attended many of our classmates’ bat mitzvahs.

While in Athens, one of our classmates, Harriet Kolomeier [nee Cohen], visited our friend and asked if she knew of my whereabouts. Kolomeier later came to New York and made a point of “apologizing” for her parents’ disbelief of my eyewitness accounts of wartime atrocities. Kolomeier, then a Holocaust scholar, said: “I begin each of my classes with the following introduction: ‘There was this little girl, Masha Bernstein, who came to our class during the war, an outsider, and told us what she had witnessed. And no one believed her.”


For years following Hurricane Katrina, I sought news of Vilna-born, New Orleans transplant Holocaust survivor Shepsel “Shep” Zitler, who, during my trips to the Big Easy, treated my daughter Karen and me like family. Zitler died of a heart attack November 30, at 92. During our January 3 chat, his widow, Ann Zitler told me that “he collapsed in our car outside a Metairie restaurant, looking forward to watching the Saints play the biggest game of the season.” Following the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann, Zitler galvanized the city’s small group of survivors into the New American Social Club to begin telling their stories. In 1981, he singlehandedly organized the proportionately largest contingent of survivors to fly to that year’s historic First World Gathering of Holocaust Survivors in Israel, organized by Auschwitz survivor Ernest Michel. Zitler, who remembered my father from prewar Poland, told me during each trip, “Though there may be other subscribers, I am the Forward’s standard-bearer in the city of the Mardi Gras.”

We first met in 1981, when he picked me up in his silver Volvo near the embarkation point of the Creole Queen. Decades in the Big Easy transformed this Yiddishist Litvak who grew up on herring in Vilna into a man with a Cajun palate for crawfish and beignets. A mentor for the city’s Second Generation group, his survival saga is grist for a film. One of 72 Jewish soldiers in the Polish Rzesznow Company captured by the Germans, instead of being returned to certain death to Poland — as were the other Jewish soldiers — since he was from Vilna, he was designated a Lithuanian national, and with other Lithuanian-born Jews, he was sent to Bavaria, Germany, where he was housed with American, British and French prisoners of war, “including a contingent of the Jewish Brigade from Palestine…. We were 20- to 21-year olds,” he recalled. He and his fellow Lithuanian Jews supervised several hundred German female farm workers and were repeatedly spared because they were needed to produce food. After the war, Zitler landed in Edinburgh, Scotland, and having spent three years in Britain, he remembered the name of an uncle in New Orleans.

The last of my five trips to New Orleans in April 1992 coincided with Holocaust Commemoration Week. Zitler, who had helped organize a special commemoration at New Orleans’s Jewish Community Center on St. Charles Street, invited me, “a fellow Litvak,” to participate. The evening’s roster included rabbis Geoffrey Spector, Gavriel Newman and Scott Hoffman, and Holocaust survivors and their children and grandchildren, who sang Di Partizner Lid, (“Song of the Partisans”). The evening ended with Zitler reciting Kaddish. His impact and imprint on the Big Easy’s Jewish community will resonate for generations.


The last time I spoke with Mary Travers of the folk rock group Peter, Paul & Mary was at the June 2006 Songwriters Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony and Awards Dinner honoring her, Peter Yarrow and (Noel) Paul Stookey with the Sammy Cahn Lifetime Achievement Award. That night, Travers, who died September 16 at 72, following years of chemotherapy for leukemia, looked fit and chipper. “My mother, a journalist, got kicked off the line picketing the Jewish Daily Forward because of me,” she told me. “I think it was in Albany, and I was singing the wrong song, ‘We Shall Not Be Moved.’” As an afterthought, she asked, “Will you also write this in Yiddish?” SHOF chairman and CEO Hal David told the night’s crowd at the Marriott Marquis, “Our songs are the mirror of our lives and [like PP&M] songs are employed in the fight against injustice and intolerance.” Accepting the award, Travers joshed, “After 46 years, I still call [Peter and Paul] ‘the boys.’” The 1000-plus black-tie audience joined the trio in singing “If I Had a Hammer.”

At the October 21, 2004, Huntington’s Disease Society of America dinner at the Waldorf-Astoria honoring Woody Guthrie and hosted by Guthrie’s daughter, Nora, Travers accepted the Woody Guthrie Award “on behalf of Peter and Paul.” Before leading the business-attired crowd in singing Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” and “This Land Is Your Land,” Travers said, “We are all Woody’s children.” Among my most cherished PP&M mementos is an ecru Peter, Paul & Mary T-shirt from their 1978 outdoor concert in Saratoga, N.Y.

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