Irving Stal was born in Stryków, Poland, in 1928. After Germany occupied Poland, he and his family were forced into the Stryków ghetto.
In 1942, Irving’s father and brother were taken to a forced labour camp, and he and his mother were sent briefly to the Brzeziny ghetto, then to the Lodz ghetto. There, Irving worked in a tailor shop and in a shoe factory. In the summer of 1944, Irving and his mother were deported to Auschwitz, where she was murdered. Irving soon managed to join a transport that took him to work as a forced labourer in Oberwüstegiersdorf (Głuszyca Górna, Poland) and then Wolfsberg (Góry Sowie), subcamps of the Gross-Rosen concentration camp. In February 1945, Wolfsberg was evacuated, and Irving and the other prisoners were sent on a death march. Irving ended up at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp and then on a transport that took him to do forced labour in Stettin (Szczecin). He was then transferred to Barth, a subcamp of Ravensbrück, from where he was again sent on a death march. Irving escaped the death march, and the area was soon liberated by the Soviet army. After the war, Irving returned to Poland, and in 1946, he travelled to British Mandate Palestine. In 1951, Irving immigrated to Canada and settled in Toronto, where he married, raised a family and worked in the aircraft industry and in metal manufacturing.
As a child, I felt like my mother and father had wings that protected me, but in late 1939 and 1940, I realized that they could no longer protect me, that their control had been taken away. It felt bad to be on my own, knowing that though they were there, if it came to it and I was taken away or shot, there was nothing they could do. If I got caught somewhere, I could not count on my father or mother to help me. It was a shock. The next shock came later when we were in the Lodz ghetto. I was in quarantine, and I heard my mother talking to a friend of hers, saying that I was a delicate child and that she could see me dying, and I thought to myself, I can be as tough as any street kid.
It was during the summer vacation of 1939, when I had just completed Grade 6, that the war broke out and the Germans invaded. When school started in the fall of 1939, we were under German occupation, so we were taught German in addition to the other subjects. I was a top student again — I knew German and spoke it freely. But after about two or three weeks in Grade 7, the Germans came in and we were told that Jews weren’t allowed to attend school anymore. When I came home to tell my parents, they felt bad for me. After a while, maybe a few weeks later, they worried that I was going to be a failure, without either school or a trade, so they sent me to a tailor named Matis to learn the trade.
It was the most boring job for me. I would look at the clock constantly, and it never seemed to move. When I decided not to look, hoping it would move, it still didn’t. I sometimes thought, I’m an eleven-year-old kid, why worry about having a trade? But that was the European way.
Other restrictions were imposed in Stryków. For example, Jewish people were taken to be “cleaned,” and their beards were cut. The Germans told Jews to remove the Torahs from the shuls, made a fire and burned the scrolls. They made the Jews dance in the street while they filmed them. There were public hangings of innocent people. For any German who lived around there and had anything against a Jew, this was the time — they came to take their “revenge.”
Then the first deportations from Stryków began. The Germans sent Jews who they felt could not be of help to the Reich to the Generalgouvernement. Poland was now divided. Lodz was part of the Third Reich and so was Stryków. My family stayed because the Germans needed my father for different projects. They deported the other Jews in a terrible manner.
The Jews that remained, including my family, were put in the small ghetto of Stryków. We had relatives on the other side, in the Generalgouvernement part of Poland, and I used to walk there, climbing over the fence and leaving the ghetto and coming back the same day. One time, on the way out, I was followed by a plainclothes Gestapo officer, and when I entered my aunt’s house, he arrested me and took me in for questioning. He thought I was smuggling something important, but I didn’t have anything of importance so he let me go.
I also used to travel to the Lodz and Brzeziny ghettos, posing as a non-Jew with a German family called Scheibe. They had been our neighbours before we had to move to the ghetto, and they really helped me. I was like another son to them. The father’s name was Heinrich Scheibe. After the war, Poland deported the ethnic Germans to Germany and I lost track of them. Every time I go back to Poland, I try to find the Scheibe family, searching for their children or grandchildren. I ask people if anybody from the Scheibe family has shown up, and I leave my name and number, but so far, nothing.
I didn’t look Jewish, with my blue eyes and fair hair. As a matter of a fact, sometimes the Scheibes even took me to a restaurant. They always reminded me to say “Heil Hitler.” They had a permit to deliver flour, potatoes and other essentials to the ghettos, and I would accompany them. At the entrance to the ghettos there were SS, and inside the ghettos there were Jewish police. Once inside, I would go off on my own, having arranged to meet the Scheibes again at a certain time and place. I would deliver medicine to some of my relatives in the ghettos.
Sometimes I left the Stryków ghetto by myself. I used to jump the fence and then pretend to be German. One time, I was caught in a very dangerous place and I was afraid to say, “I am German,” so I said, “I am Polish.” Poles were not supposed to be there either, so I was taken to the Gestapo for interrogation. They brought in a Polish-to-German translator. A Jewish woman who was cleaning for them as a forced labourer passed by, and she said, “He doesn’t need a translator. He speaks perfect German.” The SS man said, “I’ll let you go, but next time, I’ll personally put a bullet in your head.” I was relieved to be out of there.
The barracks I was in was guarded by kapos, and I could tell what kind of people they were — I knew I might get killed for running out, but tomorrow I’d die for sure. So I took that chance.
Outside Auschwitz were other camps where the Germans put people to work in munitions factories. They gave them very little food and worked them to death there, but it was still better than being at Auschwitz, and everybody wanted to be picked to go. The first time there was a selection, I wasn’t chosen for work.
The next time someone came to do a selection for the factories, I again wasn’t lucky. I didn’t get picked. I was put in a barracks from where I was to be sent to the gas chamber the next morning. I met a cousin there, Moshe Burakowski. I said, “Let’s do something,” but he said no. That night, there was an air raid, and suddenly all the lights in the camp were turned off, but I could see that the people selected for that transport were lined up. The man that had picked the prisoners was writing down the names and numbers of the people he had selected. The barracks I was in was guarded by kapos, and I could tell what kind of people they were — I knew I might get killed for running out, but tomorrow I’d die for sure. So I took that chance. It was completely dark. I pushed myself into that line of people who were leaving and approached the person who was sitting behind a table with a flashlight, recording their names. I stretched myself taller and gave him my older brother’s name in case they rejected me for my age — four years older was safer. That same night, they gave us the striped suits, and I got out of Auschwitz. To this day, I don’t know if I took somebody else’s place.
I arrived at a new camp called Oberwüstegiersdorf, a subcamp of Gross-Rosen, which was incomparable to Auschwitz. Every new arrival got two boiled potatoes. The Jewish kapos who were guarding us found out my last name, which was known in the sports world because of my relatives, and they treated me better for those few days. I had a bed of my own, and a blanket. At that moment, I felt that I could survive the war.
I think there was an epidemic or something in the camp, so they put us in quarantine. One day, the Oberscharführer, the commander, gave a speech to all the new arrivals who were in quarantine. He said that in the winter the snow would be a metre or two high and that we would be making roads, but for people underage — sixteen to eighteen — there were indoor factories with hot food and better conditions. So there was a choice. He walked up and down, making his speech, and some people who were twenty said they were sixteen. I stood in front. He came over to me, stopped and said, “You.” I stepped out and took off my hat. I knew the Germans. I looked him straight in the eye and I told him that I didn’t like indoor work, that I was used to outside work and cold, and that I came from a place that was cold and I enjoyed it. He knew I was lying. I could see his anger, but he did not have the guts to make me move. Was there some humanity left in him, or was it something else I awoke? In anger, he pushed me back into the line. The others were sent back to Auschwitz to be gassed.
This man could have been savage. He had the authority to send me back to Auschwitz. Suriving the war wasn’t only about being smart; it was a combination of things, and depended on hitting the right thing at the right time. How many stronger people and how many smarter people are not here to tell their story? I decided to survive, but many other people decided that too. There was more than one thing that went into surviving, even after being liberated.
After a few days, they marched us to Wolfsberg. At first, I worked on road construction. I made friends with an SS guard; this was not uncommon. I always spoke to the Germans in perfect German. After that, I worked for Organisation Todt, the engineering group of the German military. I worked in the mountains on construction projects, securing rebar at the Riese Complex, also known as Project Riese. One day, the German in charge told me that he had a son around my age and that he had written home about me. Then, every time he got a package, there was something in it for me. He even once set up a meeting for me to claim I was not Jewish, but it didn’t work. I was there for months.
When that project had to be abandoned because the Soviets were approaching, I was transported to Bergen-Belsen, first on foot, a death march, and then by open railway wagons. I think that about 30 per cent of people did not survive the march. Entering these wagons, we were given some bread and a slice of sausage. It was cold. These were open wagons, and all we wore was our striped clothes. There were two guards for each wagon.
After a day or so, I was hungry and thirsty. I realized that I couldn’t do anything about the hunger, but I could do something about thirst. I put my shirt above my head and let the collected snow melt so I could suck the water out. Just before we got to Hanover, the train stopped. There was an Allied air raid. The guards jumped from their positions, and pointing their submachine guns at us, they made sure nobody escaped. Then we saw, and heard, something great — sirens and the sky full of planes. We witnessed the skyline of Hanover being flattened. Food rations were also dropping into our wagons.
When the raid was over, the guards took their positions, and we arrived just outside Bergen-Belsen. I would estimate that about another 30 per cent were dead by then. As we were marched into the camp, we could see the gallows. At this concentration camp, there was dysentery, typhus, everything. This was the only place where, when I arrived, I thought, this is the end. I didn’t see how I could survive or get out of there. I remember that, for food, we got a cup of beets a day. And the mountains of corpses were huge. In the morning, when it was time for the prisoner count, almost every walking person was dragging dead people out of the barracks so that the count would be right.
Labourers were needed to clean a bombed, burned-out refinery just outside Stettin (Szczecin). There were five boys in our barracks in Bergen-Belsen, and we stayed together. We found a table that we called “ours” and we slept under it. There was only one transport going out to Stettin, but one of the other boys had somehow managed to get near the loudspeakers. He knew our numbers by heart and called them, and we managed to get out on that transport to a camp just outside Stettin. I had a number from Gross-Rosen, 24907, and I was told this number was a replacement, from a dead person.
In this camp, a Polish kapo was in charge. I slept with my head on my shoes, using them as a pillow. Shoes were your life. One morning, I woke up and my shoes were gone. How, from under my head? A pair of wooden clogs was there instead. I went outside for the count, and I looked around and saw someone wearing my shoes. I saw who he was, right there, but I knew that if I forced it, I was dead. He wouldn’t give me back the shoes.
That same boy who had called our names and saved us soon got sick. The camp had a hospital, but people only lasted there for twelve hours or so. The boy sent a message to me that he was in the hospital, and he told me which window to go to. When I got there, he said he couldn’t eat the ration he got anymore. He gave me a piece of bread and knew I would share with the other three. That was the last time I saw him. Then, two or three days later, I got sick with dysentery. Everything just went through me. I knew what it meant to go to the hospital, so I went to work. At the destroyed refinery, some things were still smouldering, and there was lots of charcoal. I decided to eat it. Maybe I knew it could help my dysentery. To this day, I remember the squeaking between my teeth as I chewed the charcoal. I ate tremendous amounts of charcoal, and it cured me.
This work at the refinery went on a little while, and then the camp was dissolved. They sent us to Barth, near Rostock, by the sea. We were supposed to work on an airfield that the Americans had bombed, I think, but that never happened.
One morning near the end of April 1945, they took us out of the camp. Everybody able to walk had to leave. The sick ones, mostly ill with typhus, were left to die. It was the last month of the war, and as the Soviet army advanced, all us prisoners were marched westward.
This whole time, I was still wearing the clogs. After a night or two on the death march, it was more or less impossible to continue, and if you dropped, you were shot and thrown onto a wagon. I felt exhausted. I couldn’t walk in those clogs anymore. I was tired, hungry and worn down, but I realized I could sort of fall asleep while I marched. I let my body and mind fall asleep while I kept my legs moving and my eyes open. I was actually able to get some rest while I walked. That was the only way I was able to keep marching. I woke myself up when I felt rested.
Beside me walked an SS man with a submachine gun, and I started a conversation with him. The guards kept rotating, and when this guard came back, I talked with him again. I don’t remember what I was talking about, but I just talked. At some point he said to me, “Get into the ditch and fix your clogs.” I knew he was not going to shoot me, so I said, “I have a friend here.” He said, “Him too.” So the two of us sat in that ditch, and behind us other Germans were saying, “Why don’t you throw them onto the truck?” and he replied, “No, I will look after it.”
A bit later on, three or four high-ranking German officers were walking by as well. We must have looked terrible because they stopped. They didn’t see the columns of the prisoners before; they just saw us, still sitting in the ditch with the SS man standing over us. They were standing there, looking, and one of them pointed to me and my friend and said, “Look at what we did to humans. No wonder we lost the war.” They continued on, and then the SS man who was standing over us threw some bread to us and said, “Run in that direction.”
Maybe if I’d had my other shoes, I would have walked much better, and maybe the SS man wouldn’t have had pity on me. Maybe I wouldn’t be here. So the stealing of my shoes also created a situation that I think contributed to my survival. I never found out, though I’ve been trying, what happened to that column of prisoners that I marched with on that death march. I know what direction we were going in, and I know from where.
My friend and I left the ditch and ran and hid in a barn that was full of straw, which was really stupid. The Soviet front was getting closer, and any spark from an exchange of fire would have burned that barn down. We hid quite deep in the straw, because we knew the Germans searched by shoving their bayonets into it. At night, we took turns crawling to the farm and scraping out the food that was left in the pigs’ trough. And that’s what we ate for a few days until we were liberated. We were lucky that that farmer did not have dogs, because dogs would have detected us.
I remember that one morning I stopped hearing shelling, and I heard Russian being spoken, so my friend and I left the barn. The Germans were walking with their hands up. The Russians already knew who the people in striped clothes were, and I went over to one and asked, “What day is it?” It was May 1. To this day, I celebrate my second birthday on May 1.