kosher bookworm

The legacy of Isaac Sturm


This week we are focusing on an autobiography of Isaac Sturm, titled Filling in the Pieces: A Survival Story of the Holocaust [Gefen Publishing, 2019], timed to the upcoming observance of the Three Weeks.

Isaac Sturm was born in Debica, Poland, in the mid-1920s. During World War II he was a survivor of Auschwitz-Birkenau and Bergen-Belsen. He emigrated to the United States in 1949, graduating Brooklyn College with a B.A. and Baruch College with an M.B.A. and lived all the rest of his life in New York City with his family.

Preceding two essays by his sons, Mark Moish Sturm and Daniel Sturm, is this tribute by Rabbi Hersh Weinreb: “Isaac Sturm’s Filling in the Pieces is in a class of its own among Holocaust memoirs. His vivid style and the graphic details he provides transform readers into active witnesses to his tragic experiences. By describing the brave Jewish and Gentile individuals who helped him and his family, he takes us beyond horror to humanity and hope. Isaac’ book is much more than a tale of survival. It is a tale of resilience, courage, and the healing powers of faith.”

Mark Moish Sturm:

Thanks again for considering my father’s book, Filling in the Pieces, for review. To give some added context, I will provide some of my own reflections about my father, the book, and how the book relates to our family and to the broader public.

There are some things the reader of the book will not be aware of. For example, when my brothers and I were kids, my father used to take us to Mets games at Shea Stadium. He taught us how to ride bicycles and saw to it that we were prepared to leyn at our bar mitzvahs. That is, he did the things that many fathers do.

Nobody can really say he was not affected by the traumatic events he experienced as a teenager, for we cannot know the deep internal workings of his mind. From our perspective, he was not beset by some of the challenging issues that other survivors of the Holocaust had to struggle with. He and our mother were “normal” in every way, and were able to provide a nurturing and healthy environment to their children.

It is also worth noting, in a similar vein, that my father has never complained about what he was forced to endure. He never complained that his teenage years were years of suffering and fear, rather than the exciting and promising times that teenagers today experience. I wouldn’t go so far as to use the words “took it all in stride,” or “he just moved on.” Nevertheless, he did manage to keep moving forward after the war. He went to high school in his early twenties and continued his education through college and a master’s degree. His efforts are a lesson of perseverance and determination that his children have benefited from. It continues today with the next generations of our family.

For me, this book began many years ago. I remember as a child asking my father why he had a number on his arm. He replied, “Bad men did that to me.” I asked him why, and he couldn’t provide an answer.

He didn’t speak about his experiences while we were growing up, and we knew there was much we didn’t know. But gradually the stories began to emerge. In 1971 he traveled to Vienna to testify against a former guard. In 1981, he traveled to the World Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors in Israel. We heard that he visited a friend from his hometown and got the sense that this was not an ordinary friend (their “adventures” together during the war are described in the book). By 1994, he outlined his history for Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation interviewer. And by 2004, he had begun speaking on Yom Hashoah in the schools attended by his grandchildren.

Today, we still grapple with the question of why, and there still aren’t great answers. But my father’s own personal story is now accessible, and he wants his story to be shared with as many people as possible, to fulfill the directive “zechor.”

Daniel Sturm:

When we were growing up, we did not know the details of his Shoah experience, yet we subconsciously understood that it was horrific. Therefore, just watching him do ordinary things such as going to work, speaking with him about our school day, and watching baseball games all had a sense of the extraordinary. As he did not speak of his war experiences, we could not pinpoint it, but we understood that there was something heroic about him going about his daily activities. He was a “regular” dad in many ways and at the same time earned a level of respect from my siblings and our friends that was notable in our community.

When my father did begin to speak to us about the war, he would often comment that he did not want to upset us or that he thought the memories that he was sharing would seem unbelievable to us. It was, of course, quite upsetting to hear about his suffering. Yet my father shared all of the details in a calm and thorough manner. Way before we had any plans to create this book, he was extremely conscientious of “filling in the pieces,” letting us know all of the details. When the physical work towards creating this book began, my brother Moish and I recorded my father relaying his story, we transcribed the recordings and reviewed the manuscript with him many times in order to make sure that it was complete. It was the ultimate labor of love.

Of course, my father was right. It is an unbelievable story. Not simply the details of the suffering — all of that has been documented. What is unbelievable to me is his story of survival. How does a human being who stood at the gate of hell maintain his faith and rebuild his life? He does not complain, he is not bitter. My father, who witnessed the worst of humanity, delights in the simple pleasures of home and family.

And now there is nothing that brings him greater joy than having his grandchildren visit to discuss their daily lives. When they ask him about the war and his experiences in the Shoah, he will patiently answer all of their questions. His legacy of determination and faith is a source of inspiration for us every single day.