Eddy Sterk

Sterk thumb

Born: Amsterdam, the Netherlands, 1927

Wartime experience: Camps

Writing partner: Marcie Somers

Eddy Sterk was born in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, in 1927. After the German occupation of the Netherlands in May 1940, Eddy’s parents tried to protect their family from deportation, but Eddy’s two older sisters and his older brother were deported from Amsterdam to the Westerbork transit and concentration camp and were eventually killed in other Nazi camps.

In September 1943, Eddy and his mother were sent to Westerbork as well. Due to his father’s work connections, Eddy and his mother managed to avoid deportation from Westerbork until September 1944, when they were sent to the Theresienstadt ghetto and concentration camp. One month later, Eddy was deported to the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp complex while his mother was kept in Theresienstadt. Eddy was selected for work at the subcamp of Golleschau (Goleszów) in a cement factory. On January 18, 1945, when the camp was being evacuated, Eddy was sent on a death march. He ended up in the Mauthausen concentration camp and was liberated in May by the American army. Eddy was sent to recover at a military hospital in Switzerland, and a few months later he returned to Amsterdam, where he reunited with his parents. Eddy met and married his wife, Sonja, in Amsterdam and they immigrated to Canada in 1954, settling in Toronto. Eddy Sterk passed away 2015.

The End for Us

I am from the Netherlands and grew up in Amsterdam. My father was a house painter and even though he was his own boss, my family was very poor. My father often had a hard time getting paid for his work, which meant he would have difficulty paying himself and his workers. When we had no money, we had to purchase our groceries on credit from the grocery store, which was next door to our home.

I don’t remember there being a lot of antisemitism while I was growing up, but before the war, it was definitely there, just under the surface.

In 1940, when I was thirteen, the Netherlands was invaded and occupied by the Germans, like many other countries. My brother had been called up to serve in the Dutch army to defend the Netherlands, but the country had no chance against Germany and capitulated. When my brother came home shortly after the invasion, my family was worried and feeling depressed about being occupied.

We had no clue what was actually happening. My father was very Dutch and believed the Germans would never touch us. If my parents heard anything about what was happening in Germany, they would say, “German Jews are different than us; we’re not the same.” My sister Hetty was the only person in my family who knew the arrival of the Germans meant trouble for us. I was not so conscious of all these things, but Hetty was involved with a Zionist movement called Maccabi Hatzair, and when she heard that our country had capitulated to the Germans, she knew it was very bad and that it would be the end for us. She knew this even though she was only sixteen years old. I remember her sitting in the corner of our living room, crying, when she heard the news about the German invasion.

Life didn’t change much for me, but I do remember what our neighbour did. One day when my father went across the street to the bakery to buy bread as usual, our neighbour, the owner of the bakery, wouldn’t give him the bread unless my father gave him a certain picture that was in our house. The owner had known us for years. Because it was already hard to get bread, my father felt he should give it to him, to keep him a little bit on his side. I now know that most people, although not all, were looking to find ways to profit from the Jews, especially after Jews started being deported. There was a moving company called Puls who removed items from Jewish homes. The word for stealing from a place after the Jewish family was rounded up came to be called “pulsen,” named, of course, after the moving company.

Many Jewish people in the Netherlands were like my family — very assimilated and feeling Dutch first and Jewish second. I came from a secular background and was not at all observant. The Jews believed the Workers’ Party would be the solution for everything — that people would be equal. They were idealistic. The Germans slowly implemented all kinds of laws to make life difficult for the Jewish people. There were minor things, like not being allowed to have a bicycle, but also more major restrictions: as early as September 1941, we weren’t allowed to go to public schools, and eventually all Jewish businesses were taken over and managed by collaborators.

In early 1942, the roundups, or razzias, began, which meant that the Germans would go to certain districts in the city and tell Jews, often in the middle of the night, to get dressed and go with them. They sent them to a transit and concentration camp called Westerbork, in the northern part of the Netherlands. As the roundups increased, thousands of people were taken away and sent to Westerbork.

My father found work for me at a factory for children’s clothing. He wanted me to be busy with something even though it was a very terrible time. He tried to keep things as normal as possible for us. I worked there for a while as a machine operator. I believe the factory was being run by a Verwalter, a gentile who took over from the original Jewish owner. The Germans had taken over the business, taken the owners away and put in one of their people to run the business.

My father didn’t have his house-painting business anymore and was working for the Jewish hospital doing maintenance. He was working in what was called the Joodse Invalide, the Jewish hospital where people with disabilities lived. Later, it tuned into a different hospital for people with illnesses and other health concerns. The Germans were in charge of the hospital.

Around this time, my sisters and brother were called up in the razzias. They were given papers telling them they had to report to a certain place at a certain time. They were given very short notice and were only allowed to bring a small bag with them. They didn’t know what was going to happen. We were under the impression the Germans were booking people to report to work somewhere “in the east.” In the Netherlands, when authorities told us to do something, we trusted that the person would not harm us, so when someone got a paper from the government, they went.

I was the only one of my siblings who was not asked to report. I was protected by my father and my mother and perhaps I was not the age the Germans wanted, as I was only thirteen or fourteen.

When my sisters and brother were sent to Westerbork, they knew it wouldn’t be good there, but they didn’t know about the death camps. They knew they wouldn’t be able to write my parents about their real experience there, but we had a neighbour who had a parrot that said the Dutch word “lorre,” so my siblings made an arrangement with my parents that if all was not “kosher” (okay there), they would use the code word “lorre” to let us know. All they had to do was just mention the secret word, and we would know it was no good. Indeed, we got a postcard from one of my sisters, who was already very insightful and knew it was the end, and she mentioned the word “lorre.” So my parents knew the situation was very bad in Westerbork. I still have that postcard somewhere.

Because my father was working in the hospital, we were exempt from the roundups. I guess the Germans wanted to keep the maintenance people around. Whenever there was a razzia, we were allowed to spend the night in the hospital, which meant we were gespart, a German word that meant “temporarily safe from deportation.” We would be protected for that night and then we could go back to our house the next night. This, of course, also applied to the other Jewish people who worked in the institution. The Germans kept doctors and nurses around too. These people were also allowed to bring in their younger children when there was a razzia, which was usually done at night.

When the Germans found out that I was an apprentice tailor, having trained with a tailor when I could no longer go to school, they put me to work. The Germans were proud of their uniforms, which had to be ironed and needed labels sewn on them. I didn’t know much about tailoring, but I could use an iron and needle and thread and do simple things. The Germans were vain and wanted to look good in their uniforms. I still have a label from one of those uniforms with German insignia on it.

We did anything to save our lives, anything to not be taken away from our home. My father felt somewhat privileged that we were not taken away. But he knew it was just a matter of time. As a child I wasn’t thinking about all these implications. I was with my father and mother, and a child feels good if close to their parents. That’s all that mattered to me.

One day in 1943, I think around September, my father was told to come to the hospital building without his wife and child. My father didn’t know what it meant, but he had no choice. He had to do what they told him. The relatives of all the other workers were also told not to come. That night was the final roundup in Amsterdam. Everyone was taken away. There was a knock on the door, and then the Germans, with their Dutch collaborators, came and told us to get out. They told us where to go. They assembled everyone from all the different districts, and then we were transported to Westerbork.

I tried to disappear among the crowd. Even in my young mind I knew it was better not to be noticed. As soon as you stand out, it’s trouble.

The Young One

As a child I didn’t realize exactly what was happening, but my mother knew — she knew that her children were gone. She didn’t know if they were dead, but she knew they had disappeared after they reported in.

The Germans kept my father working at the hospital. He made it through the war staying in his own home. From what I was told and remember, according to the circumstances and danger, my father would either wear the Jewish star on his clothing or take it off.

In Westerbork, it was very bad, but not as bad as what would happen later. It was a crazy situation. The Germans kept a façade of normalcy there, like a theatre, a hospital, kitchens, Jewish police and currency. The Germans wanted to pit everyone against the other. That was the whole point. They knew that human instinct is to save your own life, even if you have to do something that is not ethically or morally right. Everyone was thinking this way, thinking, “how can I save my life?” You cannot blame anyone for this.

When I was in Westerbork, trains came into the camp every Tuesday. There was a railroad track that went right into Westerbork. Freight trains, not regular trains, arrived every Tuesday and took hundreds of people from the barracks. The Jewish organizers of the camp had to make the quota, a certain number of people each week that went on the trains. And they went away. We didn’t know where, but we knew it was “to the east.”

I was not on the list to be transported away. My mother and I stayed in Westerbork for one year. During that time, the main thing on my mind was food. I was always looking for food. I was always hungry. I was at that age, being fifteen, sixteen years old, where you always want to eat. But there was hardly any food, and the food we did get was very bad. Once, when I was told to transport metal containers of milk from one place to another with a wheelbarrow, I had a few cups of it. I drank and drank, but how much milk can one drink in the cold winter? But on an empty stomach, cold milk is better than nothing, so I drank it.

I was a young man who didn’t know what he was doing. All I wanted was not to be hungry. I always went round to the kitchen to see if I could get some food. The German Jews worked in the kitchen, and I was always looking to see if there was one person who would take a little pity on me. I got a little food sometimes, which made me very happy.

Also, my father was able to send parcels of food to my mother and me. He was still in Amsterdam and even though it was hard for him, though not as hard as it was in Westerbork, he got some food together and sent it to us. When I got a parcel, I was like an animal. Keeping the parcel was difficult because I didn’t know where to put it for safe keeping. There was nowhere to hide it.

My mother was in the hospital, sick, but she would save her last piece of bread for me. She was sick and she needed it. As a child I didn’t appreciate what she did for me. I wasn’t totally aware of what my mother was going through. She was sick and living with the knowledge that her children were gone, and she didn’t know if they were dead or alive.

In my young mind, I didn’t understand what was going on with my mother and with everything around me. Because she was sick, I had very little contact with her. When I did see her, it was not very positive for me, because I was always upset. I didn’t understand that my mother needed my love and help — I was a young guy and didn’t know about things like that. Now I know.

Fighting for Life

I didn’t know where I was going, but I guess, by that time, I was old enough to be transported by myself, without my mother. I was just told that I had to go, and then I was put on a train leaving Theresienstadt, where I had been for only a month. I didn’t understand what it meant to go to Auschwitz. I knew that it was probably a dangerous situation and maybe even a matter of life and death, but I was still too young to be conscious of all the details.

When I finally arrived at Auschwitz-Birkenau, there was a selection. People were sent left or right. I didn’t know what it meant. I just knew I was forced out of the train and onto a platform and I was told where to go. I was young and just tried to stay alive and always thought about food.

When I stood before the person making the decision about who would go left or right, I soon found out that I was going to live and that I hadn’t been sent to the gas chambers. I was a bit tall for my age, so even though I was not in very good condition, the officer doing the selection must have thought there was still a little bit of labour, a little work left in that body.

Then they did with me what they did with everybody — I was shaved everywhere, my clothing was taken off, I was sent to shower and then I was given a striped uniform and some clogs. I don’t remember how long all this took. I was mostly handled, or supervised, by the SS or by other inmates. I just went through the motions because I knew I couldn’t resist or ask questions. No one could do anything — we just did what they wanted us to do.

I have no memory of getting my camp number tattooed on me. My number is B1134 and it is on my left forearm. I don’t know if the B on my arm stands for Birkenau. I never found out if it stood for Birkenau or the order in which they processed people.

If I had gone through all that at an older age, I probably would not have survived. I think the reason I’m sitting here is because I was young. I still didn’t know that my situation was a matter of life and death; I only knew I was in a dangerous place.

Next, I was transported to subcamp, a camp that was connected to the main, larger camp of Birkenau, but lay outside of it, called Golleschau. They had me work in a cement factory there. Cement was needed to build bunkers and roadways and for other uses. The rocks came from the mountains, where either Polish civilians or people from the camp worked, using dynamite to extract these materials. Working with tools, I would take the rocks that had come out of the mountains and lift them into carts that would take them to the factory.

The other inmates and I were always under the supervision of a kapo. This person always made sure, sometimes violently, that we did what we were supposed to. Every day there was a roll call, where we were all counted to make sure no one had escaped. Roll call was quite severe and violent. If the Germans didn’t like the way someone opened their eyes or the way they looked, they could be killed. If people couldn’t stand, the Germans would either beat them or kill them.

I tried to disappear among the crowd. Even in my young mind I knew it was better not to be noticed. As soon as you stand out, it’s trouble. So I would try to just do what I was told and try not to be noticed.

One day, a very large rock fell on my leg and injured it. I don’t remember how I got back to the camp, but I was sent to the so-called hospital because of my injury. Jewish doctors who were inmates worked there. I also had a very high fever. I remember being wrapped in a large, cold white sheet, which was perhaps an attempt to get my fever down. There wasn’t any proper medication there. Yet somehow, even in that primitive place, they were able to fix my leg and bring my temperature down to normal. I was happy that the doctor, who was doing what he could to save his own life, wanted to try to save mine too.

I was so hungry in the hospital, and people kept saying I should go ask the SS guy there for some food. They thought because I was young, maybe he would have a little pity on me. I didn’t, though — I was too scared and I knew he could shoot me.

I was in the hospital for some time; I’m not sure how long. Around then, I heard that the Soviets were getting closer and closer to Auschwitz. I probably heard shooting in the distance, but didn’t pay attention to it because I was just trying to stay alive, which was a struggle because I was in a bunk with three people on top and three below, with many people in one bunk. I had to fight for my life. I was skinny and couldn’t lie on the boards and I had to fight to have a little space. It was a lousy situation, but I was maybe a little better off than I had been before.

One day, I heard we were going to be taken away from Auschwitz because the Soviets were coming. Some people were telling me, “You can stay, you don’t have to go on the transport.” I didn’t know what transport meant, but the rumour was that we would be shot if we didn’t go. Who wants to be shot? Nobody. So I figured, even with my injured leg, I might as well give it a try. I didn’t know if it was the right thing or the wrong thing to do, but I decided to go with the transport. That was a very big undertaking. We had to walk for quite a while. It was already the middle of the winter — it was January and it was cold in Poland, with snow everywhere. I just kept walking; I didn’t want to fall down and be shot. I don’t know how long we walked — eventually we were put on another transport. I wound up in a camp near Berlin, in the small town of Oranienburg, called Sachsenhausen. I stayed in the Heinkel airplane hall, where warplanes were manufactured.

I stayed there for a few days and was then put in a cattle car. I don’t remember what time or day, but I knew that I was being transported west. I arrived in Mauthausen, a very well-known, awful concentration camp. I had even heard about Mauthausen when I was in Amsterdam. I heard that my cousins, who were older than me and had been taken away in razzias and had been sent to Mauthausen. They were never heard from again.

At Mauthausen I was put in the sick barracks and given a little metal plate with a number on it. That was their way of keeping track of who was there. In the barracks, I struggled to stay alive, which was difficult with so many people around me who were pushing and trying to get a place to lie down. Imagine at least six people in one bed, with nothing to sleep on other than wooden planks. I had sores all over my back from lying on these boards and had bones protruding through my skin, which was very painful. I had to keep pushing people away from me if they bothered me. I knew that these people were in bad shape themselves, but I had to fight for my own life.