Ezra Sherman witnessed some of the 20th century’s most transformational moments.
The 87-year-old survived the Holocaust, saw Auschwitz as part of a Soviet brigade, participated in the Battle of Berlin and fought in Israel’s War of Independence under Yitzhak Rabin.
In Israel, he married and started a family and eventually moved to Philadelphia in the ’70s.
“I was one of the lackeys that could survive the war in Europe and hiding for 18 months, and then all the wars in Israel,”
Sherman said. “I took part in all the wars. I was a fighter.”
Sherman was born the youngest of four siblings in a small town in Poland, now Ukraine, called Mlynov. His father worked as a kosher butcher in the town, which was mostly comprised of Jews, though it had a diverse population that included Poles, Ukrainians and Czechs. In a 2014 interview with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Sherman described Mlynov as similar to Anatevka in Fiddler on the Roof.
The Soviet Union took over Mlynov in 1939 when Sherman was 8, resulting in an almost immediate shortage of foods and goods. His father found ways to get things for people, which eventually landed him in trouble with the Soviet government.
The family was forced to move to Dubno, Ukraine, where his father worked taking care of a commandant’s horses.
Two years later, when Sherman was in Mlynov visiting his grandmother, planes flew overhead and bombed a military airport near the town in the middle of the night. Later that day, planes bombed again. Some of the bombs fell in the town, and a few people died.
“In the morning, we got up,” Sherman said to the Holocaust museum. “Everybody knew it — a war.”
Just a few days later, Germans came into the town, and there was a shootout between them and the Soviets. Soon after, the Germans took over Mlynov.
One of the first things the Germans did was kill the rabbi. Slowly, they began to establish a judenrat.
About two months after the Germans invaded, Sherman went back to Dubno, where his siblings and father were. They lived near a cemetery, where he witnessed mass executions of Jews. He was 11 years old, and it was the first time he saw someone killed. After the second execution, where 300 were killed, he returned to Mlynov.
In April 1942, the Germans established a ghetto in the town. Sherman slept there at night, but during the day, he crawled out under the fence and helped gentile farmers in exchange for food.
One day, the Germans began rounding up the Jews near the synagogue and taking people into a house across the street to search them for their belongings, before they directed them onto a truck and, from there, to a killing field. Everyone knew what was about to happen — they had dug the graves themselves just a few weeks before.
Sherman went to hide in a shack in the ghetto. When Ukrainian police began to search the ghetto, he fled.
“When I ran away from the killing area, I was 12 years old,” Sherman said. “The next night after that, I already didn’t think like a 12-year-old boy, and I start to think like 30 years.”
Sherman eventually went into the woods and spent several months surviving with the help of mostly Czech farmers. He lived that way for more than a year, until 1944, when Soviets liberated the area.
Sherman no longer had to hide. He befriended the colonel of the Soviet troops staying in the area and, one day, the colonel asked Sherman to join them and become the son of the brigade. They made a uniform for him, and Sherman made the troops vodka. He went with the brigade as they liberated Ukraine and Poland, from Mlynov, to Lviv, Krakow, and finally to Berlin. He saw Auschwitz just a few days after it had been liberated and was in Berlin for the battle that ended World War II’s European theater.
At 14 years old, Sherman had already seen things most people never do during an entire lifetime. But his story was still not over.
After the war, Sherman reconnected with his oldest brother, who had survived by fleeing to Russia. The two moved illegally to the Mandate of Palestine in 1946.
Sherman ended up on a kibbutz, which also served as a training ground for the Palmach. When the Israel War for Independence broke out in 1948, he worked securing kibbutzim. He found that his familiarity with weapons from his time traveling with the Soviet brigade helped.
“We didn’t have a choice,” Sherman said. “We fight for our lives. We didn’t have anywhere to run. We couldn’t retreat. Where, where will we retreat? To the ocean? That was the mood from all the soldiers.”
During this time, Sherman knew Yitzhak Rabin, Moshe Dayan and Shimon Peres. Rabin, he said, was a brilliant and honest person, while Dayan was a great fighter and Peres, not much of a fighter, did other great things.
When the war ended, Sherman said he and the other soldiers didn’t have time to reflect. His main preoccupation was where to sleep and eat.
“We used to, every night, go out for operation, and during the morning, we used to come back … and we always got dead, one soldier or two, and we used to bury them and then go to sleep because in the evening, again, we used to prepare to go out for another operation,” Sherman said. “We were very little soldiers. I was 17 years old. We didn’t have time to think.”
In the ensuing decades, Sherman also fought in the Six-Day War and the Yom Kippur War.
In 1956, Sherman married Sara Lamdan, another Holocaust survivor who came to Israel on the Exodus. They lived in Haifa, where Sherman owned a trucking company, and had three children. In 1974, they moved to New York and then to Philadelphia, where Sherman bought a tire center.
Estee Solar, Sherman’s daughter who was 5 when the family moved to the United States, said the family moved to the U.S. because her father had had enough of wars.
“We were all taught to be able to stand on our own two feet,” she said. “You take a potato; you can make food out of it. The Israeli way was, ‘You don’t have it? Go grow it yourself.’”
Solar said her father didn’t really start talking about the Holocaust until he started having grandchildren, of which he now has six. Sherman has done some Holocaust remembrance work, having spoken at schools in addition to the Holocaust museum.
“I’m lucky I’m still alive,” Sherman said. “I’m 87, thank God, and that’s it. I’m not complaining.”
[email protected]; 215-832-0729