Ethel Stercz (née Ethela Mermelstein) was born in Ulič, Czechoslovakia (now Slovakia), in 1930, in a region that was annexed to Hungary before World War II. Ethel and her two brothers grew up in an Orthodox family.
In 1939, her father passed away from an illness. About a month after Germany invaded Hungary in March 1944, Ethel and her mother and younger brother were sent to a ghetto in Ungvár, Hungary (now Uzhhorod, Ukraine). In the second half of May 1944, when the ghetto was being liquidated, Ethel and her family were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where she stayed for several months before being sent to Langenbilau and then Parschnitz, forced labour camps that were subcamps of the Gross-Rosen concentration camp. Liberated by the Soviets in May 1945, Ethel spent the years after the war in Europe, where she reunited with her older brother, Isaac, and met the man she would marry, Israel Stercz, in a displaced persons camp in Salzburg. Ethel and Israel immigrated to Canada in 1951, eventually settling in Toronto where they raised their two daughters. Ethel Stercz passed away in 2021.
Our family was Orthodox, as were all the fifteen or sixteen Jewish families in Ulič, Czechoslovakia (now Slovakia), and I really didn’t know there was any other kind of Jewish home. We celebrated all the Jewish holidays and always observed the Sabbath, when we were to do no work. Each Saturday, a Christian woman came to start our fire, warm the food and milk the cows.
During the week I attended public school in Ulič. I could speak many Slavic languages, including Russian and Ukrainian, and also understood German. On Sunday, I went to a Jewish religious school for two to three hours. As a girl I was only taught how to pray, read and speak Yiddish and how to keep kosher. My childhood friends in Ulič were both Jewish and Christian, and our favourite time was after school when we would be allowed to play outside before dinner. We didn’t have all the toys children have today. We might have had a skipping rope, just an old piece of rope, and perhaps a ball. Summers were easiest because we could be outside most of the time, but even though the winters were hard — cold and dry, with a lot of snow — we went ice skating and skiing.
We had a big house with a large garden. It wasn’t a farm, but we kept some chickens, a couple of cows for milk and meat, and about a dozen geese that provided the fat for cooking as well as down for pillows and comforters. The geese were also fattened up for special holiday meals. The house itself was just one big room with dividers. There was no central heating, but on one side we had a wood oven for cooking and warmth. With no refrigerator either, we kept milk in the cool basement, where in the winter we also filled wooden boxes with earth and grew carrots, parsley and onions.
At that time children were raised to help their parents in the home, and as the only girl, I had to help my mother with the housework. I learned how to sew, knit, crochet and do needlepoint — skills I have taught my daughters — and from watching my mother do all the cooking, I could prepare a kosher meal, always using the separate dishes.
I remember very little else about my childhood and, unfortunately, I have no pictures of my family. I cannot remember now what my parents looked like, and this weighs on me greatly. I’ve asked my eight-year-old granddaughter how far back she remembers, and she recalls things that happened when she was three or four. I think that, at some point, even though I didn’t choose to, I had to block out all my memories of my parents in order to survive.
In the spring of 1944, when I was fourteen, deportations began in Ulič. Before the war, the region where I lived had been annexed by Hungary, and now Hungary had been invaded by the Nazis. It was Passover, the celebration of freedom. It had always been my favourite holiday. I would get new shoes, and there were so many special foods and families getting together. Of course, that year it was different, although we all did the best we could. The deportation order came immediately following the celebration. We were given only an hour to collect whatever we could to take with us. If we forgot anything, we were not allowed back. Our homes and all the belongings we left behind were all taken over by other families in the town. They were told to take whatever they wanted.
All the Jewish people from Ulič were taken by horse and wagon for ten or twelve kilometres to a station where we boarded a train to a ghetto in Ungvár (now Uzhorod, Ukraine). When my mother, my younger brother and I arrived, we met my mother’s two brothers, Moshe and Bernard Lieberman, and we were all housed in a factory with thin walls and broken windows. Although there were washrooms and water, the facilities were very primitive and crowded. All the Jews from the surrounding areas and from the city of Ungvár itself were placed in this ghetto, with everyone sleeping together on cold floors. Children couldn’t play or make noise because it would bother the old and the sick. But at least we were together as a family.
It was traumatic in the ghetto. The authorities were strict, and all the girls had to cut their hair. Most girls had long hair made into braids, and my hair was beautiful, so for my mother it was a small tragedy when I was forced to cut it off, especially because I was her only daughter. She arranged it so my hair was not totally cut off. This short hair rule was made because there were few washing facilities, making it very hard to keep clean, and the lice were eating everyone alive. I don’t remember if my mother or I had lice in the ghetto, but most people did.
During the day, everyone except the children had to work. My mother helped take care of the elderly and the sick and, since I was fourteen, I was employed sorting through the belongings of the ghetto residents, which had been confiscated when we arrived. The best items were given to the Germans, and the rest were redistributed among the inhabitants of the ghetto. I made some money doing this, although I don’t really remember much more about it. I was afraid and really didn’t understand what was going on. Our situation was even more confusing for my little brother. Because he wasn’t allowed to do much of anything, he never learned how to play, and there was so little food he cried to my mother for milk because he remembered that milk used to come from her. I remember this clearly, even though I’ve forgotten so much else. I think I just wanted to forget. I wanted to forget so many things.
Although our time in the ghetto seemed long, I think we were only there for six or seven weeks. We had no calendars and no way to tell the days, but some did keep track, and we knew it was Shavuot, the holiday commemorating the day God gave the Torah to the nation of Israel. When the order came to pack up. I’m not sure exactly who told us we had to leave, but the ghetto was under the control of the Hungarian police, so it may have been them. The Hungarian army had previously marched into Czechoslovakia and they were just like the Nazis. They also called us “dirty Jews.” The police and the SS had Jewish people from the ghetto acting as sort of supervisors, and they kept order for the Nazis. In any case, we were told we could take whatever we wanted with us, but without any suitcases what could we carry? We bundled what we could in a bed sheet.
When we’d first arrived at the station, we had seen a long train of cattle cars. Soon we learned these were to transport us away. We were on the train for three days — men, women and children all crowded in together with no seats or benches. We sat on the floor, gathering up our belongings into beds. With no washrooms and no air, the smell was horrible. My mother’s sister Rachel, my uncle Moshe Lieberman, his wife and children and his mother-in-law were all with us. We regarded our cousin’s grandmother as our own, since our grandparents had passed away. She was everyone’s Buba, really. At one point, she said she needed just a drop of water. It was raining and the train wagon had cracks, so my uncle used one of the plates we’d brought to reach outside through the crack to collect her some water. Not more than ten minutes later, the train stopped and the door was opened. All the guards were watching, and they all had guns. One guard asked who had used the plate for water, and my uncle admitted that he had. The guard immediately ordered him off the train, took out his revolver and shot my uncle, making sure he was dead. The guards then threw him back into the car and shut the door. My uncle’s body was with us for two days, until we reached our destination. His mother-in-law could not forgive herself.
Even now, when I remember my uncle Moshe’s death, I feel like I’m in a daze and cannot sleep. I was a naive child from a very Orthodox Jewish home in a small village in Czechoslovakia. I didn’t know such things could happen. I had never experienced death, aside from my father’s, which I hadn’t seen.
When the train finally stopped, we had to jump off since there were no steps. My mother brought what she could, and before we left the train all the women, myself included, were putting on all our dresses, one on top of the other. My mother said that she was feeling very faint and told me to go, but to look after my little brother. I didn’t want to leave her and told her to just leave our things. Everyone really wanted to live, and we were relieved to leave the train and get out into fresher air.
Jewish men with shaved heads and blue-and-white striped clothing met us at the train. They spoke Yiddish and helped people, especially the elderly, get down from the cars. The men were immediately separated from the women and children. We were lined up five people to a row in very long lines. I was right behind my mother. My mother spoke very good German and, although she was trembling, she spoke to the man who seemed to be in charge. I remember him asking what interest she had in staying alive. Although I was barely fourteen, my mother said I was fifteen. The man said I was eighteen and capable of working, and in an instant I was separated from my mother and little brother. I never saw them again. No goodbye. I had been holding onto a piece of bread for my brother, but the man just knocked this out of my hand.
We were told that younger women would be sent to work, while the elderly and women with children would stay behind; they said we would get back together once a week and everything would be normal. It didn’t take us long to find out this wasn’t so. What we soon realized was that all mothers with children in hand or holding babies were taken away immediately and sent to the gas chamber. Some women had many children, and my aunt Rachel, newly married with no children of her own, had assisted one of them by carrying her baby. My aunt was sent to the gas chamber. If she hadn’t been holding the child, she may have survived. Now I was surrounded by strangers, thousands of them, marching toward Birkenau.
It took a long time to walk to the camp, and on the way we saw many naked women. When we arrived, we noticed right away that all the girls and women had shaved heads. We thought it was because they were mentally ill. We didn’t realize that in a few hours we would look the same.
At this point, we were disinfected. We all had to undress, and the married women had to take off their wigs. This was awful, especially for the Orthodox women. When they married, it was tradition for them to cover their hair, but the SS guards ripped off their wigs. It was also shameful to be naked. Even the married women’s husbands had not seen them undressed. None of us wanted to take off our clothes, but the SS whipped, beat and screamed at us so terribly there was no choice; we all undressed. I was so young and felt so ashamed. It was all so disgusting. We were then taken to a large room with compartments where our hair was cut and we were shaved. From there we were sent to the showers. The shower halls were so long I couldn’t see the end, with hundreds of women showering.
They kept taking us for showers and to be disinfected. We would get different clothing each time, which was not fresh since it came from belongings that had been confiscated when we arrived. Although we were given dresses after the disinfecting showers, the clothing was not sized. Some women got clothing suitable for little children. People who received a dress that didn’t fit either traded it or went without. It became normal to be naked in the camp. There were always women who were bleeding as a result of their periods, and that’s how I learned about menstruation.
Some women had jewellery hidden either in their clothing or internally in their bodies. This was all found, taken away and probably melted down into gold bars for the Nazis. I was wearing earrings that I had had since I was a child. I had forgotten that I was wearing them. The SS guard tore them from my ears. To this day, I have the marks in my ears and have never wanted or worn earrings since.
In an instant, I was separated from my mother and little brother. I never saw them again. No goodbye. I had been holding onto a piece of bread for my brother, but the man just knocked this out of my hand.
The transports bringing thousands of Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz kept arriving every day. Selections were made twice a day; people who were weak and those with children were sent to the gas chamber. The crematorium worked twenty-four hours a day. I was sent to a barracks in C Lager. There were thirty barracks, with nearly a thousand people in each one I think. Five people slept in each bunk-like bed.
There was hardly any food in the camp. When we were first arrived, we weren’t given anything to eat for days. After that, a large pot of soup-like food was delivered for each barracks in the morning. This was our food for the day. Two women per barracks were selected to bring the pots. The soup was mostly water, but there would be some vegetables at the bottom. Some of the women would reach way down to get them, and in doing so would burn themselves. I believed that the Nazis were putting something in the soup that stopped us from getting our periods, which would explain why I was sixteen or older before I started to menstruate, but that was not the case — it was more likely due to our extreme suffering and lack of food.
Every day in Auschwitz was useless and horrible. We were hungry, naked and so cold because we had no hair or even underwear. I would dream of eating great quantities of bread, as much as I could, and then in my dream, I’d just die. We had no shoes, except when we marched they gave us wooden shoes. We may have arrived as human beings, but were treated so poorly we left as animals.
There were beautiful Jewish girls who were allowed to keep their hair. We called them Blokova, and they were assigned to be in charge of a block or barracks. The Blokova were relatively well clothed and taken care of because they had to deal directly with the SS and keep strict order in the barracks.
When we first smelled the crematorium, it didn’t seem like a bad smell. I was very hungry and saw the big chimneys with smoke coming out that I thought smelled like food cooking. I went to the Blokova and asked her what the chimneys were and why they were running all the time, even though we didn’t have any food. She responded, “You fool, that is where they burn your parents. You must think I’m crazy, but believe me.” She told me I could end up there too. I didn’t, therefore, expect to survive. After I learned what the smell was, it became unbearably awful.
I did not have to work in Birkenau. Camp C was a waiting place, not unlike death row in a prison. If a transport didn’t come on a particular day, selections would be made from the camp to make up the thousand people needed to fill the gas chamber that day. We were sorted into right and left rows. Those who were considered not to have long to live were selected for the gas chamber. Some of the others were selected to go deeper into Germany to work. Those picked for the work transport were tattooed. We were sad if we weren’t tattooed because that meant a daily wait to see if, at roll call, we would be selected for the gas chamber. I do not have a tattoo because I was continually on hold, waiting to be selected to be killed.
First thing in the morning and again at night, we had to go out for roll call, the Appell. Between the barracks there were long spaces where we were lined up. I don’t know how long we stood there but it must have been two or three hours each time. Who knows — we didn’t have watches. We were all almost naked and had to stand in perfectly straight lines, like soldiers. In summer, we stood in the hot sun. In winter, we froze, wearing only a dress, if we were lucky, and sometimes hard wooden shoes. It didn’t matter if the old or sick were in the line; they had to stand perfectly still as well. We were so hungry, but those who fell from hunger and exhaustion were put on the wagons going to the gas chamber. Every day, there were selections; every day, horse and wagons came to take these people to the gas chamber. If someone couldn’t work anymore or was too sick to go to the roll call, they too would be taken away. I was the youngest in my barracks, and I protected the older women, rather than the other way around. At first, I believed I would see my mother again one day, and I thought that if I could help someone, someone else would be helping my mother. This was my childish thinking.
Every day was the same. When the guards decided someone needed to be punished, she was taken out of the barracks at roll call and either hung or shot. We were all ordered to look, even if we didn’t want to. The SS were teaching us all a lesson — the same would happen to us if we did anything that they considered punishable.
We were never given much water to drink. One of my friends in the barracks drank her own urine, but I could never do that. The only thing we talked about was food. Sometimes we got one bite of bread, no bigger than a finger. Some would save it, hide it under what little bit of hair they had, but it would crumble to nothing. I never hid food because I was always so hungry. Thirst and hunger do awful things to people, and there was a lot of theft of any saved food.
After I had been in Birkenau for some time, I decided I wouldn’t survive the way things were going, but I thought if I had food, I might actually survive. I went off to the German kitchen where the food was prepared for the SS and the guards to look for some peels in the garbage. The kitchen was located in the far end of the camp. Between the barracks, we could go outside, but it was dangerous to walk around. I was sure to be seen, but I didn’t care. While I was on my way, no one saw me — maybe because they didn’t want to. I searched in the garbage and managed to find some potato peels. A guard high up on a tower saw me going through the garbage, blew the whistle and yelled, “Halt!” I started to run and felt as if my feet weren’t touching the ground. It was like I was flying. It occurred to me then that if I had this much energy to run, I didn’t want to die.
Unfortunately, I dropped the peels. The guard was screaming and threw something sharp, hitting me in the head. I felt the warm blood flowing down my back as I ran into my barracks. Inside, one of the more aggressive girls said she had an extra dress. She and three other girls I shared my bunk with pulled off the green dress I was wearing and put on this other. I made it up to my top bunk and stayed there with the girls who had helped me. The guard kept going around the barracks, but there was no one there in a green dress. He told the Blokova to find out where that girl was. She knew it was me but didn’t let on, knowing that if she did I would go to the crematorium. Some of the Blokova had kept their humanity. The wound on my head took a long time to heal. I found a little water, and one of the girls cleaned it, but I never received any other treatment in the camp.
I was in the second of the forced labour camps they had sent me to after Auschwitz. One day everything just seemed to come to a stop. There were no more guards, no SS, no counting or roll call, not even the girls carrying the meagre little soup. We were confused. Although we were happy the guards had left, we still expected someone would eventually come to take us to another camp or even to the gas chamber and crematoriums. Someone did come, one of the relatives from another camp, who told us that we were free and could leave. The Nazis, the SS, had left without telling us anything.
It had become so quiet, with nobody yelling or watching us. The camp was deep in a forest in Germany. We didn’t know where we were, where to go or even what to do. We didn’t even know what month or day of the week it was and could only estimate the time of day by the sun because none of us had watches.
It wasn’t until the Soviets arrived that we knew it was May 1945. I will never forget the day I was liberated. The soldiers said the Soviet army was also in all the cities in Germany. We were so hungry, but they had nothing to give us. Regular German people didn’t have any food either. The Americans did, though, when they liberated survivors. They took them to sanatoriums and monitored their food intake because it was too dangerous to eat too much too soon. Many died that way after the liberation, but those of us liberated by the Soviets instead had to fear being raped. It was horrible. We tried to avoid the soldiers and searched in the earth for something to eat, like an old potato. We also ate grass as directed by some of the older women who knew which types were edible.
After a few days, the soldiers let us go, telling us to go home. We were happy to be freed, but we had no idea of where to go. I wanted to find my mother. We were so poorly clothed, with only a worn dress, no real shoes except for the wooden ones used in the march, and no underwear.
We finally struck out with the intention of finding a city, and as we made our way, the German people saw us and fed us, even though they had little themselves. Many said they wanted to show that all Germans were not so bad. They said the camps were in Poland and that they didn’t know what had happened there. Maybe they really didn’t know. Who knows? They were afraid of lice, so we didn’t go into their houses. The lice were eating us alive, and the Germans could see the blood.
Many girls stayed together and feared being raped. Those who were raped were so petrified and kept asking why, after all they’d been through over such a long time, were they now being raped too. Nobody bothered with me because I hadn’t yet developed and didn’t look like a woman. I had no hair and was just skin and bones. I looked like a little girl, so they left me alone. They were after the older girls and women.
My first stop was Prague, the capital of Czechoslovakia. It was close to Germany. Many of the hospitals in the area, including a famous one in Vienna, had been emptied and converted to refugee centres. These places were similar to sanatoriums. Although the big synagogues were mostly destroyed in the war, those that were left, along with schools, were also opened to refugees. We had nothing and no money for rent, so we would stay in these places, crowded in with refugees from all over, although the women and men were separated.
In one of those centres, I received treatment for the head wound I had received in Auschwitz. It had never healed properly and was still somewhat fresh. I was told that since it appeared to be healing by itself, to just leave it. I’ve suffered my whole life with that wound. If I get agitated, I can feel it. If I lay on it in bed, I can feel it. I have to sleep on my back because I find it difficult to lie on my side. I don’t talk about it, but I always feel it.
In Prague we still just had rags, schmatte, for clothing. We had travelled without shoes, but Jewish charities in the United States, like the United Jewish Appeal (UJA), had sent goods and food to Europe so we could survive. We received some clothing and shoes from these donations. Although the clothes didn’t fit me, I was happy to get what was given. I really didn’t think about what I looked like, I was only thinking about my family, my mother, not myself.
Even after years trying to build a life after the war, in Budapest where I had reunited with my brother Isaac and then in Vienna, I didn’t know where to settle. I found myself staying at a displaced persons camp in Salzburg, Austria, and it was there, on the first day, that I met my future husband, Israel Stercz. Israel was from Poland and had spent the war in forced labour camps, where he’d suffered a lot. He had a beautiful voice and had been a cantor. He sang for the labour camp staff, and this is what had saved him.
In 1951, we were married in a Jewish ceremony in Salzburg.
We caught the boat going to Canada in Bremen, Germany, and landed in Halifax on October 18, 1951. The boat was full of survivors from the camps and was quite horribly crowded. In Halifax we were met by a person whose job it was to help refugees, and we finally boarded a train for Montreal. On the boat, my husband had developed a bad sinus infection. He was very sick and couldn’t work after we arrived in Montreal. We had nothing. There were treatments for Israel’s infection, but the doctors wanted money. We went to the Jewish charitable organization for assistance, but there was not enough money for refugees. We found a small apartment, a room really, in someone else’s apartment, with a shared kitchen and bathroom. I became a waitress in a kosher restaurant, and after our daughter Betty was born, my husband stayed home to look after her.
We didn’t stay in Montreal for very long, moving to Toronto in 1963 around the time of President Kennedy’s death. My husband was hired as the first cantor in a new shul in a residential area around Dufferin Street. My girls were still young, and we enrolled them into very good Hebrew schools.
I was home most of the time when the girls were younger, but I did work for a time in a fur factory on Spadina Avenue. Later the furrier began bringing the furs to my home, and I worked in the evenings finishing the clothing. My husband taught me to drive, and eventually I taught my girls.
I wanted to improve my English, so when the children got older I enrolled in some night classes, but something would always come up and I didn’t attend many. Over the years in Canada, I did learn to speak English, but my grammar is not perfect. I learned with a dictionary. I took that dictionary everywhere, and whenever I needed to learn a new word I would look it up.
When my children were young and went to Hebrew school, they would come home on Friday and want to spend time on Shabbat with their Buba, just like their friends at school did. I had to explain that they had no grandparents, and this was hard for them to understand. How could I tell a child what I had been through?
They did learn something about the Holocaust at Hebrew school, but the teachings only scratched the surface. My granddaughter and her husband have three children, and it was on their encouragement that I decided to tell my story, although it’s more than a story for me — I lived it. I want my family to know their history — my history is their history. It’s important to record this.
When I was living it, I was just a child and didn’t really understand what was happening. Now that I’m older, I understand. Telling my story brings it all back and reliving it has been very difficult. Until now, no one has known what I went through.