Reviewing: “Filling in the Pieces: A Survival Story of the Holocaust,” by Izaak Sturm. Gefen Publishing House Ltd. Jerusalem. 2019. English. Hardcover. 264 pages. ISBN: 978-965-229-966-6.
Have you ever wondered about the mental and emotional processes of the survivor who suffered through the worst of mankind, but maintained his faith in Hashem?
Who is that person who suffered through the atrocities of the Holocaust, but exhibits the strength to confront the Nazi SS soldier who murdered fellow Jews in front of his own eyes?
These, and other existential questions, are confronted in this incredible memoir by Izaak Sturm.
When my family received our copy of “Filling in the Pieces,” I knew that I would be reading a book that not only documents the Holocaust but does so in a manner which is both contemplative and deliberative. In that regard, I must fully disclose that the author, Izaak Sturm, was my brother-in-law Mark (Moish) Sturm’s father, and a man I was honored to learn from for two decades. Further, this book was compiled, edited and researched through the hard work, dedication and devotion of my brother-in-law Moish, and his brother, Daniel Sturm. As a result of their efforts, as a reader, I was transported to another time and place where I was not fully prepared to go.
“Filling in the Pieces” is divided into 15 chapters, each of which smoothly and seamlessly transitions from one event to the next, but also exists as stand-alone episodes of Sturm’s life. The book tracks the life of Izaak Sturm, beginning with his birth in the city of Debica, a small town in southeastern Poland, located slightly to the east of Krakow. Born in the mid-1920s, Sturm traces his life as a survivor of the Plaszow, Auschwitz, Buchenwald and Bergen-Belsen concentration camps, to his emigration to the United States in 1949, and to the subsequent rebuilding of his family.
The book begins with a beautifully written foreword by Rabbi Marvin Hier, the founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which reads as a poignant and articulate book review. It is followed by a deep and moving essay by Moish Sturm, describing, among other things, his being raised by a survivor, the motivations of the book and the intentional limitations. I was immediately struck by one such limitation, which Moish articulates as follows:
“What my father does not do is linger obsessively in any moment, demanding that it yield epiphanic truth or resolve the tortured riddle of theodicy.”
This theme resurfaces again later in the book, after the war when Sturm arrives in Sweden. There, he states:
“Unlike Elie Wiesel, who questioned God in his books, I never thought about faith. I did not make a conscious decision to stop my religious observance because of anger with God, or a conviction that He did not exist. I simply lived without thinking about religion at all.”
Sturm’s strength shines through each of the book’s 15 chapters and five appendices, as he withstands the physical toll of his experiences, and contains their emotional toll. In chapters one and two, we learn about Sturm’s early life, home and schooling, and even a beautiful story about the local rebbe and his miraculous intervention. Each chapter of the book is footnoted with painstaking detail, so that the reader is provided with the historical context of each and every scene.
Then, in chapters three through five, we learn of the rising tensions and antisemitism, the decisional process on whether to leave, and the beginnings of life inside the ghetto. As a reader, I was educated to better understand how no choice was simple. I also appreciated how, even in these early days, survival was never taken for granted, and miracles, intuition and inner strength were necessary to sustain oneself.
The next couple of chapters detail attempts at escaping from the ghetto, and Sturm’s final days in Debica. We learn the miraculous story of the survival of Sturm’s father and sister, which continually unfolds as the book documents the heroic steps of the gentile family that risked their lives to hide them, as well as the future meetings between three generations of the Sturm family and this gentile family over the course of various trips to Debica.
The book then details Sturm’s horrific experiences and incredible story of survival through four concentration camps: Plaszow, Auschwitz, Buchenwald and Bergen-Belsen. Honestly, until I read this book, I had never even heard of Plaszow. However, it was chapter eight, “Plaszow, Hell on Earth,” that moved me the most. Sturm describes two central figures: the commandant, Amon Goth, and the SS guard, Franz Grun. Sturm details how he personally witnessed Grun whip and shoot fellow inmates. Later in the book, we are able to read Sturm’s testimony from the actual transcript before the court in Austria that prosecuted Grun for war crimes. Grun’s defense counsel questioned Sturm on every detail. Nevertheless, Sturm stood his ground, as he did his whole life, and provided the necessary proof to convict Grun.
The chapter detailing Sturm’s liberation from Bergen-Belsen once again displays his superhuman strength. On April 15, 1945, British soldiers entered the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp and disarmed the Nazi soldiers, including the SS commander of the camp, Josef Kramer. However, Sturm and the remaining inmates were not permitted to leave because of concerns over a typhus epidemic. Yet, Sturm was not too weak to physically effectuate what anyone would be feeling at that moment (page 110):
“As I stood by, watching all of this, I picked up some stones from the ground and threw them at the SS guards who were sitting on the bodies. A British soldier hit me with his rifle butt. I didn’t understand a word he said, but he was obviously trying to prevent me from throwing rocks at the Nazis. Despite his efforts, he couldn’t stop me—I kept picking up stones and throwing them as hard as I could.”
At this point in the book, I was able to vividly visualize the scene, simultaneously shaken but also inspired.
The remainder of the book details the voyage to America through Sweden (which I found exceedingly educational and informative), as well as the building of a new home, family and lasting legacy. It also discusses the emotional trips by three generations of Sturms to the house in Debica where Sturm lived, as well as their meetings with the gentile family that risked their lives to hide Sturm’s sister and father. Again, I would be remiss if I did not highlight the invaluable footnotes to each such chapter that elucidate the historical background; for example, in this instance, providing the pictures and specifications of the Gripsholm, the ship that brought Sturm from Sweden to America.
The book closes with five appendices: (i) the amazing story of survival and triumph of Mrs. Sally Sturm, Izaak Sturm’s wife; (ii) details of Sturm’s relationship with his sister, Helen; (iii) reproductions of relevant documents; (iv) the aforementioned transcript of Sturm’s testimony at the trial of Grun; and (v) photographs of Sturm and his family, displaying his beautiful and lasting legacy. Each such appendix assists the reader to understand how Sturm eventually was capable of speaking about his experiences and presenting them to varied audiences.
“Filling in the Pieces” not only distinguishes itself as a book that educates the reader of the factual details of the Holocaust, but also takes the reader on a journey to experience a taste of the emotions of a survivor. The entire world has an obligation to “Never Forget.” As such, we must all do whatever we can to have these stories told and re-told. And, in that regard, we can thank the Sturm family for publishing this book.
Zevi Fischer is an attorney who practices in the area of real estate litigation. He was born and raised in Forest Hills, New York, and now lives in Teaneck, New Jersey. He studied in the Chaver Program of the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary.