He was a POW at their age

Loujane Johns
Henry N. Silberstern

Eighth grade students of Penn Yan Middle School sat quietly, spell-bound in the auditorium, as they listened to Henry N. Silberstern, of Rochester, tell of his life during the Holocaust on May 15. 

The students have been studying the Holocaust in required eighth grade curriculum.  English teacher Margaret White said,”I believe it is impossible to understand the Anne Frank story without an insight into the times.

“Silberstern’s talk brings a reality to the events.  More importantly, he was the same age as the students at the time he was in the concentration camps,”   she added.

During his teen years, he experienced starvation, forced labor and living in horrible conditions; a sharp contrast to how these young people live.

This is the eighth time Silberstern has visited Penn Yan to tell his story.  He speaks through CHAI (Center for Holocaust Awareness and Information) as part of the Jewish Federation. CHAI means “life” in the Hebrew language.  The mission of the group is to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive.

Over 13,000 hear  presentations each year by survivors.  Silberstern said there was a movement a few years ago when some said the Holocaust never happened, but he was there and knows it did.

Silberstern began, “I know you kids just finished watching ‘Lost Childhood.’  Interesting, I went through that when I was your age.”  He said most films and books depict the time through an adult point of view.  “So, some things I say might not agree with what you have read or heard, because I am looking through it as a childhood memory.”

He was born in Teplice-Sanov, Czechoslovakia April 15, 1930.  In 1938 his family moved to Prague because they heard the Germans were making plans.  By March 1939 all of Czechoslovakia was occupied by the Germans.  The people had to turn in all their valuables- bikes, cameras, radios.  Children were not allowed to go to school and the Jewish people were not allowed in public places. Life was filled with rules and restrictions.

In 1942 the family was separated. Henry and his mother were “picked” to go to camp in Terezin.  Since he was over  age 10, he was separated from his mother and lived with other boys his age in a converted one room school house. His father died in Prague and his brother came to Terezin in 1943. 

In May 1944 the three remaining family members were told they had been selected to “go east.”  Their destination was Auschwitz/ Birenau, the largest “killing facility” operated by the Nazis.  In July the camp was liquidated and able-bodied men and women were sent to labor camps.  His mother and brother were chosen to go. 

Those left in camp heard many would be killed. But Henry was one of 89 boys (ages 12 to 15) selected by the infamous Dr. Josef Mengele to remain in camp. He remembers having to run naked in front of the doctor.  “Mengele was an unusual person. He was a doctor and took an oath to save lives, but he did just the opposite.”

After three months, he moved to a camp where he learned to be a bricklayer. In December 1944 he was sent in an open cattle car to a bomb-making factory.

Silberstern’s final camp, Bergen-Belsen, was liberated in April 1945 by Canadian troops. He was briefly reunited with his mother, but she died of typhus six weeks after liberation. Within the first six weeks after liberation 14,000 died in the camps. 

 He talked about the liberation. One day the guards disappeared and the next day a rag-tag group of home guards entered camp.  They could still hear the battle close by. 

Another day they woke up and the guards were gone.  A jeep came by and soldiers announced the liberation in seven languages. Most prisoners couldn’t believe it was a permanent situation. Then the British and Canadian troops arrived.  At the age of 15 Silberstern returned to Prague by train to live in an orphanage.

Not being able to go to school had a major affect on the rest of his life he said.   Since the  Jews were forbidden to attend school, when he went to the orphanage he should have started in the sixth grade. 

But he was 15 and  put in the ninth grade. He had missed three or four years of school and could not even write.  “It was sink or swim,” he said. He went on in the mid-sixties to obtain a college degree at the University of Buffalo.

He related his personal views of the work camps.  “I think the work was just done for punishment.  One group would dig a ditch. Another would fill it in. Some spent the days moving stones to one side of the camp.  Others brought the stones back. I worked on a farm and and tended to animals and vegetables.  I don’t know if it was by accident or design, but I didn’t do much hard labor,” he said.

One detail the boys had was pushing wagons, sometimes filled with lumber, sometimes with bodies.

“Everyone worked.  It was a given.  Germany did not have a big workforce because most were in the Army,” he said.

When asked if he had gone back, he said it took him a long time to return to Germany.  In 1948 he emigrated to Toronto where he worked, married and started a family.  In 1954 he emigrated to Buffalo and attended school. It was1994 when he went back with a group making a movie about children in the camps.   His second return was last year with a group of students.

The first visit was very surprising to him. He said the camp didn’t look real. There were trees and grass where the awful sites had been.  Visiting 60 years later, his mind played tricks on him. He imagined he could smell the odor from the latrine still. 

The group of young people he was escorting thought he was crazy.

A student inquired about how he regained his trust in people after his ordeal. He said in camp most kids learned fast not to trust adults. 

“They stole our food, shoes and anything else they could use. And this was other prisoners not the guards.  I don’t blame the adults. They were starving.  Parents would take food from a daughter or son, just to survive,” he said.

 He was asked what kids did in camp all day.  “Well first, this camp was not like summer camp. We were in a 24 by 7 foot room.  We could not speak when we laid down. I remember making up some games with scraps of paper.”

The number one topic amongst the boys was food.  He said more prisoners died of starvation that anything else. In the morning they were given a cup of “muddy” coffee.  For lunch every prisoner was served potato peel soup with carrots and turnips out of a 55 gallon drum. At night  they were given a slice of bread with a pat of margarine. The bakers used a supplement thought to be sawdust to make the bread go farther. When liberation came, many ate until they were sick.

He was asked if he suffered post traumatic stress.  Although many had serious problems, he said he didn’t.  “I was a kid and didn’t remember a lot. I was resilient and did not have any adult memories.” 

He also said many survivors were married or later married other survivors.  But Silberstern married an American girl with no knowledge of what happened. The Holocaust was not talked about much.

The only question he did not answer was “what did they do with the babies?”

Silberstern concluded his talk by telling the students this was not the first or only time such terrible things were perpetrated on other human beings. 

“I find it amazing one human being can be this way to others. The guards were brutal in camp,  but would go home and be very different with their own families. We humans are not as nice as we appear.  You need to speak up if you don’t agree or do agree.  Don’t be a silent-stander,” he told the students.