The Holocaust Survivor Memoirs Program

Willie Sterner

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Born
September 15, 1919 Wolbrom, Poland

Map of Mukacevo, Czechoslovakia

Immigrated
1948 Montreal, Quebec

For six desperate years, Willie Sterner’s skill as a painter saved him from death at the hands of the Nazis. Faced with inhumane conditions in slave labour camps and grieving the loss of his close-knit family, Sterner relied on courage and ingenuity to hold onto his dignity. Through almost random luck, he came under the protection of the famed Oskar Schindler and became his personal art restorer. An unvarnished account of what he experienced and what he lost, The Shadows Behind Me, also follows the story of Willie and Eva – the woman he met on a death march – as they rebuilt their lives and regained hope in Canada. Gripping and moving, this is a tribute to one man’s remarkable determination to survive.

About Willie

Willie Sterner was born in Wolbrom, Poland on September 15, 1919. The eldest of seven children, he was the only one to survive the Holocaust. After the war, he lived in Displaced Persons camps in Austria, where he became chief of the Jewish police. He and his wife, Eva, immigrated to Canada in 1948 and settled in Montreal. Willie Sterner passed away in 2011.

Photos and Artifacts

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    Willie’s father, Hersz Leib Sterner, as a soldier in the Russian army during World War I, circa 1915.

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    Willie’s mother, Hinda Reizel Sterner, circa 1921.

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    Willie's mother, Hinda, with Willie’s brother Abraham and sister Ida at the spa where Hinda went for treatments for her arthritis. Busko-Zdrój, 1928.

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    Willie, at age nineteen, with his family not long before the war. Left to right (behind) Willie; Willie’s mother, Hinda; his father, Hersz; and his brother Josel Meier, age sixteen; (in front) Willie’s sisters, Ida, age twelve; Rachel, age nine; Sarah, age six; Genia, age eleven; and his brother Abraham, age fourteen. Krakow, 1938.

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    Willie at work for his father’s contracting company, Fine Home Painting, Decorating and Sign Painting. Krakow, 1938.

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    Willie as the goalie for the Gwiazda Jewish soccer team, which was part of the Zionist Poale Zion organization’s sports club. Krakow, 1938.

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    Willie (left) with his friend Leon Monderer (centre) and another friend on the Vistula River. Krakow, 1938.

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    Willie (second from the left) with his friends Ida (far left), Sarah (second from the right) and Leon outside the Wawel Palace. Krakow, 1938.

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    Willie (fourth from the right) during his first summer at pre-military school. Krakow, 1938.

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    Willie (second from the left) with his friend Ida (third from the left); his girlfriend, Helen (second from the right); and Leon (far right). Krakow, 1938.

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    Willie (left) during his second summer at pre-military school. Krakow, 1939.

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    Willie and some of his friends during the war wearing armbands that identify them as Jews. Left to right: Joseph, Helen, Willie and Rosie. Krakow, 1940.

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    Kazimiera (Kazia) Strzalka, Willie’s friend and neighbour from Wolbrom who gave him shelter and then helped him when he was in the Rakowice forced labour camp. Wolbrom, 1941. She also gave him the precious photos of his family in this book.

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    Kazimiera Strzalka’s name inscribed on one of the walls of the Garden of the Righteous Among the Nations at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority in Jerusalem. Kazimiera Strzalka is the only person from Wolbrom to be awarded the title of Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem. She gave Willie shelter and helped him when he was in the Rakowice forced labour camp.

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    The Schindler enamel factory Deutsche Emailwaren Fabrik (DEF) at 4 Lipowa Street in the Zabłocie district of Krakow. (Photo courtesy of Noa Cafri.)

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    Willie (standing, centre) with the Jewish police force in the Lichteneck Displaced Persons camp. Wels, Austria, 1945.

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    Willie (right) with Stefan, a US soldier, at the Lichteneck DP camp. Wels, 1945.

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    Willie (right) at the Bindermichl DP camp. Linz, Austria, 1946.

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    Willie and his wife, Eva, at the Imperial Villa of Emperor Franz Jozef I not long after their wedding. Bad Ischl, Austria, 1946.

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    Willie in his uniform as chief of the Jewish police for the Bindermichl DP camp. Linz, Austria, 1946.

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    Willie (centre) proudly marching with members of the Jewish police force. Salzburg, Austria, 1946.

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    Willie’s identification card as chief of the Jewish police. Linz, 1946.

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    The Linz-Bindermichl Jewish police force. The painting of Willie in the centre at the top is a self-portrait. Linz, 1946.

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    Willie (right) and Leon Green (left) in Dachau to testify at the war crimes trials, 1947.

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    Willie (back row, second from the right) with the group of refugees that came from the DP camp in Linz-Bindermichl to testify at the Dachau war crimes trials. 1947.

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    (Image on left) Willie's wife, Eva (left), and fellow refugee, Bella Piler, at a memorial service in Gunskirchen, standing beside the monument put up to commemorate the Jews who died in the camp; (image on right) Willie with his wife, Eva (left), and Bella in front of the monument. Gunskirchen, 1947.

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    Willie and his wife, Eva, on the train from Salzburg, Austria, to Bremerhaven, Germany, on their way to Canada, 1948.

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    Willie as a member of the military police on board the military transport ship, USS General M.B. Stewart, that took Willie and his wife, Eva, to Canada, 1948.

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    Willie landing in Halifax on the eve of Rosh Hashanah 1948.

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    Willie's son, Harry, at his bar mitzvah at Young Israel of Val Royal synagogue. Montreal, 1965.

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    Willie's son, Abie, at his bar mitzvah at Young Israel of Val Royal synagogue. Montreal, 1969.

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    Willie and his wife, Eva, dancing at a celebration. Montreal, 1970.

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    Willie in his tobacco shop. Montreal, 1982.

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    Willie at the monument to the victims on the site of the Płaszów forced labour camp during the March of the Living. Krakow, 2000.

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    The monument on the site of the former Treblinka death camp that commemorates, among others, Jewish victims from Wolbrom (where Willie spent the first decade of his life). Małkinia Górna, Poland, 2000.

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    Willie and his wife, Eva (second row, middle), with the March of the Living group at Płaszów, 2000.

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    Willie with his family. Left to right (bottom left): Willie’s great-granddaughter, Kaylay (seated); Willie's granddaughter, Melanie; Willie's granddaughter, Seana; Willie's son, Harry; Willie's granddaughter (and Kaylay’s mother), Patricia; Harry’s daughter, Jessica; Willie; Willie's son, Abie; and Willie's wife, Eva. Montreal, 2005.

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    Willie with his family. Left to right (behind): Willie's son, Harry; Harry’s daughter, Melanie; Harry’s daughter, Jessica; Nicole, wife of Harry's son, Abie; and Willie; (seated in front): Abie’s daughters Patricia and Seana; and Willie's wife, Eva. Montreal, 2005.

The Book

Cover of The Shadows Behind Me

The Shadows Behind Me

I was surprised that Oskar Schindler, a German industrialist, would talk to me not as a Jew but as a normal person…. I thought that I must be having a nice dream.

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The Shadows Behind Me

Occupation and Loss

Shortly after the war began, the Soviet government opened its borders and many Jewish people tried to save themselves by crossing into the Soviet Union. But a lot of Jews didn’t go. Some disliked the Communist regime and others didn’t want to leave their homes and everything else behind. Older Jews, who remembered how well the German soldiers who occupied Poland in World War i had treated them, couldn’t imagine the German evil that would emerge in World War ii. And many Jews couldn’t go to the Soviet Union because they had large families with small children. In our family, my mother was ill with arthritis and there were seven children, the youngest only five years old. It was impossible for all of us to go to the Soviet Union. In early spring 1940, my good friends Leon Monderer and Jozef Szarp went to Lwów in Soviet-occupied Poland. They went through the open Soviet border and found freedom from Nazi oppression.10 After they had found jobs in Lwów, they got a chance to come back to Krakow for a few days to see their families and friends. Before they left Krakow to return to the Soviet-occupied area, Leon and Jozef came to my house and asked me to go with them. They told me that they had a good job for me and that I should seize this opportunity to save myself from the Nazis. I had an impossibly painful decision to make. Should I leave my dear family in such a terrible time? I couldn’t be of much help to them and I had the chance to be better off in Lwów with my friends. So I decided to be free and save myself. With pain in my heart, I decided to go.

My parents agreed with my decision; they wanted me to save myself from what was happening in Poland. My mother packed a suitcase for me with shirts, pants, socks and a jacket. I was ready to go. I said goodbye to my family and my parents pushed me to go with my friends, who were standing near the door. “I hope to see you soon,” I said to them, but then looked back and saw my whole family holding onto one another. My younger sisters were crying. It was such a distressing image that I couldn’t leave. I put down my suitcase and told my friends to go without me. “I hope someday we will see each other as free people,” I said, “but I will not leave my family.”

Leon and Jozef were sorry to hear my decision, but they understood my feelings. We all said goodbye and hoped to see one another after the war. It was difficult for me to say goodbye to my best friends because I couldn’t shake the feeling that I would never see them again. But if I had gone with my friends, I would never have forgiven myself. I was so glad that I decided to stay with my family. I knew then that I could never leave my family behind and that I didn’t care what happened as long as I was with my loved ones. It was the only way. I was only sorry that I couldn’t be more helpful to them.

I still think about that time when I could have gone to the Soviet Union to save my life and escape the Germans. In Krakow, we were hunted by the Nazis as animals are hunted in the jungle. We suffered from hunger, terror and humiliation. It was exhausting to get through each day and it was unbearable to watch my family suffering. Not being able to help them made me feel helpless, angry and miserable. If only my family could have gone to the Soviet Union.