Speaking before Ida Crown Jewish Academy’s students and staff on Yom HaShoah, Mr. Izzy Starck of Chicago recalled the last Pesach he spent with his family as a 14-year-old boy. It was the last time he was together with his family. At the seder, his family spoke the words that Jews continue today to recite: v’higadata l’vincha—you should tell your children the story of leaving Egypt. For Izzy Starck today, that story of the Jews leaving slavery in Egypt has become his lifetime legacy of telling his story of surviving the Nazi death camps.
The Last Time He Saw His Family
Mr. Starck told the students about the last few moments he spent with his mother on a freight train at Auschwitz. His mother was layering him with clothing as everyone disembarked the train, as a man in a striped shirt hurried them off board.
The man suddenly stopped to embark the train and asked, “Yingele, how old are you?” Mr. Starck, or Srulik at the time, answered, “14.”
Pointing a finger in the boy’s chest, the man insisted, “No, you are not 14, you are 18.”
“If I am 14, why should I be 18?” asked Srulik.
To this, the man who would save his life sharply replied, “Here you don’t ask any questions.”
Armed with the man’s advice, his mother’s layers of clothes and his father’s tefillin, Srulik faced his first round of selection. “I got a striped uniform, which meant I was still alive. That began my struggle every day to stay alive.”
Before the War
Before being sent to Auschwitz, the Starck family had lived in the area of the Carpathian Mountains, under control of Czechoslovakia. Before the war, he says, the country was one of the most democratic countries in Europe, and Jews had a “decent life.”
The lives of Jews changed when Germany occupied the area. It was the day after Pesach in 1944 when the Starcks the Nazis knocked at the door demanding they leave the home with only what they could carry. “We didn’t even have time to put the Pesach dishes away.”
What followed was a three-day trip on a standing-room only freight train with no water or food. Still, says Mr. Starck, “In the midst of the most visual evidence, we still did not want to believe what was going on.”
Surviving the Camps
Once he was in the camps, there was no more denying the reality. From Auschwitz, Mr. Starck was sent to three other camps. At Melk in Austria, Srulik worked to build a tunnel through a mountain. There, his job was to replace dull hammers with newly sharpened ones, giving him mobility and access to fire—two advantages that helped him survive. He was able to make charcoal and distribute it as a remedy to dysentery.
On one occasion, Srulik was directed by “Weber the Shoemaker” to following him toward old railroad cars. Together they crawled to find a Sukkah. When Weber encouraged him to make a blessing, leyshev basukkah, Srulik broke down, crying that in his Sukkah he would have cake. Still, they made the bracha. Weber had known the date of Sukkot only because of another Jew, Koppel, who kept record of the calendar in his head.
“These were not tzaddikim,” says Mr. Starck, “This is just how they lived.”
Mr. Starck was liberated on May 8, 1945, a day when his life was saved in more ways then one. He was standing by the gates of the concentration camp to see the American tanks roll in. Everyone began shouting for food. When the Americans threw some crackers at them, there was a stampede, killing 30-40 men.
Later in a line for food, Srulik witnessed several men die immediately from eating the rich food. It was then that he noticed another line nearby. He approached to see people making a bracha on a broken piece of tefillin with the Klausenberger Rebbe. “I was thinking, ‘Ribbono Shel Olam, this [teffillin] is the last thing I gave up when I was standing naked, and it’s the first thing I got back after liberation.’”
Our Yom HaShoah program is generously sponsored in memory of Rabbi Shlomo Hirsch Koller, Hy”d and his sister Etka Koller-Cykornik, Hy”d, by Sharon and Seymour Gertz and the estate of Margalit bat Rav Shilem Gertz z”l .