Born in 1919 in Sarny, Poland, Judel (Julius) Schuster was the third of seven children born to Henya (Anna) and Avram Schuster. Avram, a disabled World War I veteran, supported his family meagerly with his disability pension.
At the young age of 13, Judel became an apprentice to the tailor, Yakov Bryk. As part of his employment agreement he lived with the Bryk family and worked for Mr. Bryk in exchange for being trained as a tailor. A year later, Judel’s older sister Pesia followed her Zionist dream and moved to Palestine.
In the late 30’s, the Soviet Union occupied Sarny and annexed it to the western Ukraine. Then in June 1941, the Germans invaded. Judel was conscripted into the Soviet Army as was his oldest brother Yitzhak. Judel served as a tailor, fashioning uniforms for the officers and repairing clothing for his colleagues. Although he carried a gun, his work was mostly apart from the active fighting.
Life on the front was extremely difficult, with the focus always on staying alive – surviving the enemy, the elements, and finding enough food.
Sarny was captured by the Nazis in July 1941. Judel’s parents and 3 of his younger siblings, Litman, Nachum, and Itka, were forced into the newly established ghetto in April 1942. Only Litman, age 14, was able to escape, surviving in a series of orphanages and Soviet labor camps, ultimately settling in the Ukraine after the war. His father Avram and brother Nachum died of starvation or disease in the ghetto. His mother Henya and sister Itka were murdered during the Sarny Massacre of August 1942.
In the meantime, Judel’s unit continued to travel eastward as the Soviets retreated. They were ultimately in Stalingrad during the siege and historic battle for the city. With tremendous civilian losses, the Soviets made a concerted effort to repopulate the city with people from outside the region. In 1943, Pesia (Pauline) Rachman was relocated to Stalingrad from a Siberian labor camp, and there met Judel Schuster. They were married in April 1945 and stayed until the war was over to help rebuild the city.
After the war, with the help of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (the “Joint”), they travelled westward in search of living relatives. Upon return to Sarny, they learned that Judel’s brother Yitzhak was in a displaced persons camp in Italy. Unfortunately, Judel was recognized as a Jew in Sarny and a local Ukrainian gang threw him off a streetcar. He suffered a broken femur and was delayed by several months in his quest to find his brother. After recovering from this injury, the young couple found their way to Italy where they joined Yitzhak at the Anzio Beach Colony, a DP camp.
After two and a half years in the DP Camp, Judel and Pesia were given permission to immigrate to the US, sponsored by the United Service for New Americans (USNA) and assisted by Pesia’s uncles. They arrived in December of 1949 with their first child, Larry, in tow. In Buffalo, NY, Judel and Pesia had two more children, Esther and Abe, and formed a new family of “greeners” to replace the family they had lost.
When the opportunity arose to move to the warmer south and be closer to their children, Judel and Pesia moved to Birmingham in 1989 and flourished in the welcoming Jewish community, surrounded by children and grandchildren. After 50 years of marriage, they celebrated with their first real wedding ceremony.
From a small town in Poland, there are now Schusterim scattered throughout the world.