By Jeremy Diamond
Rev. Irvin (Isaac Leib) Stern was born on March 3, 1927. He was the oldest child to Chantza and Yisroel Dov Stern. Before World War II, they lived in a Romanian village called Strumtura, located in the Transylvanian Carpathian Mountains. The sole Holocaust survivor of his family, Stern immigrated to America as an orphan, began to study the craft of becoming a shochet (kosher ritual slaughterer) and started a new life in Baltimore.
He was also my zadie (grandfather), and he died from respiratory complications on March 16 at 94.
My zadie’s village in Romania consisted of more than 75 Chasidic families. He was related to more than half of them. Jews and gentiles got along very well. Torah learning was the most important thing to his parents, and the children began studying at an early age. Daily life was simple in Strumtura. Homes, one-room huts with dirt floors, did not have electricity or indoor plumbing. His mother took care of the family while his father traveled to teach Torah in the big city.
In 1943, it became dangerous for Jews to travel on the open roads between cities; they were required to wear a yellow star in public. They began to fear what was happening in Europe, but without a newspaper or radio, it was difficult to hear the news firsthand.
By 1944, the Jews were forced to move from their homes into Dragomerest Ghetto. Four weeks later, they were rounded up onto cattle car trains and headed to the Auschwitz death camp. When they arrived at night, there was pandemonium as the doors of the train cars opened. Nazis were yelling orders and dogs were barking. At that point, my zadie and his father were separated from the rest of the family and never saw them again. They remained in Auschwitz for five fearful days.
Throughout the following year, they were sent to Buchenwald, Dora, Ehrlich, Hartzungen and Bergen-Belsen. My zadie worked alongside his father until March 1945. At that point, his father became ill and disappeared. My zadie was alone. He never gave up his strong will to survive and his faith in G-d. My zadie promised himself he would survive this miserable time in his life.
On April 15, 1945, he was liberated from the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. He was only 18 years old.
In 1946, he was brought to America by boat with other young orphaned survivors, by Rabbi Wolf Jacobson. Arriving with only the shirts on their backs, a strong language barrier and having experienced the murder of their many family members, the young men adjusted and studied at Ner Israel Rabbinical College in Baltimore. Rabbi Zvi Elimelech Hertzberg came to the yeshiva to meet and greet the newcomers. He became a mentor, a father figure and close friend to many of these young survivors. After most of them graduated from the yeshiva and got married, they attended Rabbi Hertzberg’s shul (Beth Abraham Congregation), which is still in existence today.
While my zadie was studying in Ner Israel, he decided to become a shochet. After 6 months of learning, he received his certification from Rabbi Joseph Feldman. During this time, the Vaad Hakashrus did not exist in Baltimore; Rev. Stern’s name on kosher meat was all that was needed for local kosher consumers. He was respected by all the rabbis in Baltimore. He became a master shochet, and other shochtim and rabbis would look to him for answers or just to watch and learn from him at his craft.
When I was a kid, Zadie would arrive at our house, usually unannounced, with steaks straight from the slaughterhouse. When I became an adult, Zadie would come over to my own house with cases of chicken. He’d tell me to fill my freezer. This was Zadie’s giving nature.
We all miss him.
Jeremy Diamond is a member of Suburban Orthodox Congregation Toras Chaim and author of the book “Tastemakers: The Legacy of Jewish Entrepreneurs in the Mid-Atlantic Grocery Industry,” available on Amazon.
Update (5/24/21): This story has been updated to correct some names.