Dita Shperling: Germans Did Not Distinguish Lithuanians from Jews

“During the first days of the war the Germans who came to Kaunas couldn’t tell the difference between Jews and Lithuanians, but Lithuanians helped them to do,” Kaunas ghetto prisoner Dita Shperling recalled, citing the words of the German soldiers themselves.


Dita (Yehudit) Schperling and her husband Yuda Zupowitch

Dita Schperling tries to travel every summer to Vilnius from Israel where she lives. She agreed to discuss her experience in the ghetto with staff from the LJC webpage.

“I was born in Kaunas, my family’s roots in Lithuania go very deep, and I have information supported by documents about my father Katz’s family from 1765. I was called Judita Kacaitė and I grew up speaking several languages. Before the war Kaunas spoke every language. My parents finished universities in Russia and spoke Russian between themselves. From the age of 4 I had a nanny and she was a German, so I began speaking German in early childhood, and I spoke Lithuanian with the children in the yard and went to a Lithuanian gymnasium. I also spoke Polish, and learned Yiddish from my grandparents. Now I speak seven languages, including Hebrew.

“I was born in 1920. I married very young, I was still a high school student, to a man who was older than I was. I took my final exams already married. I was lucky: the final exam at the Aušra Girls’ Gymnasium was held on the Saturday one day before the war on Sunday, June 21, 1941. “The plan for Sunday was to go kayaking at our grandfather’s summer cottage in Kačerginė, but it didn’t turn out that way. Very early in the morning on Sunday the war begun. My husband Yehuda Zupovitsch—they called him Julius—was an Army reserve officer in Smetona’s (the Lithuanian president) Army, and he had also completed studies as a construction engineer and worked in the very well-known dairy firm Pieno centras together with count Vladimir Zubov. I mention him because in our future life this man held a very important position.

“The  war began. So-called ‘white ribbon’ Lithuanians  began to  drag Jewish people out of the houses to the old fortresses, where they were all murdered. My father went out and never returned home. No one knows where he died. Mom hung up my husband’s officer uniform  in the hallway, and when the killers saw it, they paid tribute, turned around and left. One day our family—my mother, my brother, I and my husband—was sitting at the table, the doorbell rang and count Zubov stood there. Before that he never visited us and suddenly he was standing in the doorway, and said:

“‘I have come so that the world would not be thinking that all Lithuanians are ‘such-and-such’ [meaning  murderers]. I will help you.’

“And he did help. I realized that he risked not only his own life, but of all his family. If they had caught him, the whole family would have been executed. He helped us all the time. He would come over with the old bike to my work place in the city and he brought us butter, mainly because near the city of Šiauliai he had a milk farm. Zubov offered to hide us, but my husband had already established an underground group in the Kaunas ghetto and felt an obligation to rescue other people.

“I would like to stress that as soon as we moved to the ghetto, two men from the Jewish council came to visit us, after which Julius told me he had taken on a very dangerous job. They came because the Germans demanded the establishment of a local police force inside the ghetto to maintain order and to present a specified number of people for work putting the Aleksotas airport in order. The Jewish ghetto council was made up of educated Jews: well-known attorneys and doctors. Their age was about 50. Since Julius was a reserve military officer, they chose him and right away decided the police should be underground. That means they guaranteed the presentation for people for work and had to figure out their own ways of fighting the Nazis and rescuing people. Julius knew sooner or later they would catch him and he wouldn’t survive.

“It wasn’t easy for me living together with my mother, younger brother, grandfather and aunt, and none of them worked, only I did. I used to go to work, I had no protection at all, my Julius was an honest man. We had to look for food, there was a lack of clothing, there were no shops, we could trade clothes with Lithuanians but only if we ran away from work. It was dangerous to run away because the German guard wasn’t supposed to see this. Second, we had to wear a gold star in the street, and furthermore, a dark-haired girl with dark eyes attracted attention. I learned how to escape. It was an ironic twist of fate that the first time I was taken to work, I ended up at my grade school which I had attended when I was six. I was taken there to wash floors at the barracks set up there. But I had finished grammar school and was dreaming of continuing my education… Everything happened after the Great Action during which about ten thousand people were murdered. I used to speak with German soldiers who didn’t believe we were afraid to travel by conveyance from our work sites to the ghetto, afraid to get on the back of trucks. When we told them how our family members had been murdered, then they believed. Sometimes the Germans also helped us. Since I knew German well, I used to speak with them. They said they couldn’t tell who was a Jew and who was a Lithuanian in Lithuania, everyone looked similar to them. I remember a soldier who was passing out food and how he used to put more marmalade in my bowl and covered it up with his shirt, saying: ‘Dita, wash my shirt for me, but you’re taking a great risk, grab a bucket and a mop, take them, put them down, and I’ll wait for you down below.’ I learned how to squeeze through the fence, since I was small and thin.

“It was a difficult time, there was a horrific cold in the winter. The ghetto underground learned how to make do with the existing situation: to look for food, to rescue children. I myself saved some. Our large family had two rooms in the ghetto, and later just one, which we divided into two by putting a dresser in the middle. I remember I was the only Jewish girl in my grade, my classmates could have found me and helped me, but no.

“Over a half year the ghetto underground got stronger. They reached agreement with Lithuanian police on brining in food. The password was: ‘All is in order.’ Once they brought in German shoe soles and we, ten girls, each took a pair, stuck them in the elastic hems of our underwear and I told them they knew me better and would let me in, so they should give them to me and avoid taking the risk. We left, but that time at the gate there stood a German and he followed us to the gate and what do you think? There was not a single Jewish police officer at the gate, it was empty, and our German stood next to me. I was walking and realized he would check me, but I didn’t lose control and said: ‘All is in order.’ He allowed me through and all ended well.

“In the underground we learned how to shoot guns in an excavated bunker under the ground, so it wouldn’t be hear above. It was important to us to bring children out through the police, it was forbidden to save them. I myself saved a small girl. We carried babies out in potato sacks. There were workshops in the ghetto which did sewing and repairs, and incidentally weapons repairs as well. There were more than 400 ghettos in Eastern Europe. Kaunas ghetto was the only one where the police were underground. It was important to Julius to record events so that the world would learn later who the murderers were. Police officers kept a secret diary. a daily ledger, in Yiddish with names and events showing how Lithuanians collaborated with the Nazis. They used to hide the daily ledger, changing its location. Julius used to tell me how important it was to him that the world come to understand what happened through the daily ledger, and that he didn’t think he would live much longer. One day they seized him, interrogated him, tortured him and poked out one of his eyes, but he didn’t reveal anything at all, and then they shot him. While they were taking Julius out to be shot, he sang his favorite Jewish song.

“One day two men came up to me whom I didn’t know, although I had seen them with Julius before, and said: ‘Come with us, but pay close attention where we are walking.’ I understood they were carrying out an order by Julius. We walked along Margio street and then turned onto a parallel street. Since Slobodka was like a village with small cottages, I began to count: first house, second, third… We went into the fourth house. We went to the oven on top of which people usually lay, and next to it there was a high chimney, and next to it a box which I can see now: about 1.2 meters long, perhaps 40 centimeters high and wide, covered in metal plating and nails.

“‘Look,’ they told me. ‘Here are all the documents. We will bury the box here. If you survive, remember where it is.’ I survived. I was liberated from Stutthof concentration camp and came back to Lithuania with my mother. We thought my brother would return as well and we would all meet again.

“I married Schperling. After the war we lived in Vilnius. I told my husband the whole story. One day eh told me: ‘Let’s go to Kaunas.’ When we got to Kaunas, I didn’t tell anyone I had been Zupowitch’s wife, so they wouldn’t send me to Siberia. I said I knew where the documents were buried. They brought in German POWs to dig. When we arrived at the ghetto, I felt as if I had been struck by lightning: no house was left, there were only chimneys left after the war. I began to count: first, second, third, fourth, then I asked them to dig next to one chimney. Julius Zapowitch had been a construction engineer and he had foreseen this contingency as well, so that’s why I was telling them to dig next to the chimney. The German POWs were very exhausted and they dug perhaps a meter and a half down, but discovered nothing.”

In 1972 Dita Schperling went to live in Israel. The box was found when construction began on a new home at the exact same location in the ruined ghetto and an excavator was used to dig up the ground. The discovery was taken to the KGB headquarters in Vilnius where it was kept in the basement. There it remained until Lithuanian independence was restored. The box was opened and copies of all the texts written by the ghetto police were made. One set of copies was sent to Beit Hatfutsot, the Museum of the Jewish People (or “the Diaspora House”) in Tel Aviv, and another set was sent to the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington, D. C. In 2014 a book was published containing the Kaunas ghetto police ledger describing life in the Kaunas ghetto. The U.S. Holocaust Museum published the book in English under the title “The Clandestine History of the Kovno Jewish Ghetto Police.”

“The book says no one knew about the box, but I did. And I had been told earlier in Israel by the writer adn historian Haim Yellin that the box had been found and was being protected.”

In recent years Dita Schperling has been travelling to Vilnius almost every year. She has many friends here and has received awards. She was graduated from the Vilnius Pedagogical Institute after the war and taught German language there, before going to work at Vilnius University. After she moved to Israel she worked for the Goethe-Institut as well.

Asked what she would like to say in 2014 on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the destruction of the Kaunas ghetto, Dita Schperling answered: “I don’t want to talk about it.”