If you will but listen to Henry Silberstern he will tell you his abominable memories. For 22 years, this 84-year-old Holocaust survivor has told countless students, dozens of groups, the media and others of his adolescence as a Nazi prisoner. He even has a book out (available on Amazon, aptly titled "Lost Childhood: A Memoir.")
And he will continue to speak out as long as he is able because he says it's something that younger generations need to hear -- and firsthand accounts are rare. Silberstern is keenly aware that time is running out; that he is among the few still alive to tell the God's honest truth.
That's what brought the Rochester resident to Batavia High School on Friday, at the invitation of Special Education teacher Kathryn Herniman. Two specially selected groups of about 30 students got to hear him in the library.
The bare outline of his bio is that he was born in a little town called Teplice, west of Prague in Czechoslovakia. Fearing an advancing German army, his Jewish parents moved to Prague. But, like many others, they misjudged the situation and in 1939 the Germans came and occupied the country, bringing with them their new rules and regulations for Jews. No cameras, radios, bicycles, shop only certain times on certain days, no use of public transportation, et al.
"The only place kids could play was the graveyard. Sounds a little gruesome, but you can play a lot of hide and seek there," he said with a chuckle.
Eventually, he would have to wear the humiliating yellow star sewn on his shirt, which prevented him from doing other things, too. He was forbidden to attend school at age 12, something that affected him for the rest of his life. That same year, he was sent off to a prison camp.
Children around his age were put in youth dorms, those for girls and those for boys. At his dorm, there were 30 boys living in each of the 10 rooms of a converted schoolhouse. They slept on three-tiered bunks.
The Germans relocated him and his mother and older brother and they wound up in Auschwitz-Birkenau in Southern Poland in the so-called family section with about 10,000 others.
In June of '44, the Germans decided to break up the section and they selected able-bodied men and women for labor camps. Silberstern's mother and brother were among the able-bodied. But three-quarters of the inhabitants did not qualify and were supposed to have been gassed and cremated by the end of July.
At literally the last minute of the disbursement, an order came to choose about 100 boys between ages 11 and 15, for reasons unknown, to go to a youth labor camp. Dr. Josef Mengele made the split-second selections, pointing left or right, live or die. Henry got to live and so did 88 others (not the 100 originally called for).
He then stayed in the neighboring men's camp until the early Fall of 1944 when he and five other boys were picked again to go to another camp in a complex which supplied labor to a nearby coal mine. From there, the six were shipped to Nordhausen (a sub-camp for Dora-Mittelbau, in turn a sub-camp for Buchenwald) where they toiled to help a manufacturer make the devasting bombs that killed a lot of Londoners.
Then Silberstern says he was sent further inside Germany to Bergen-Belsen, by far the worst camp he ever suffered. A Canadian contingency of the British Army freed him from that place when he was 15 -- in fact on his 15th birthday, April 15, 1945.
At this point, the visiting speaker told the Batavia High students that the most important thing now was to take advantage of what is almost certainly their only opportunity to ask a Holocaust survivor something directly.
"Please ask me anything you want and we'll take it from there," said the diminutive, somewhat hoarse Silberstern, seated before the group, and wearing tan pants, long-sleeved navy-blue Oxford shirt, brown leather deck shoes. He had a slight cough, which prompted him to dab a handkerchief on his lips from time to time.
During the post-lunch session, the first question asked was if he has a number.
"Why do you think I have a number?" Henry asked the girl.
"Because you were in the camp."
Silberstern answered that most people think every person who was in a concentration or labor camp had a number tattooed on the forearm. But actually, it was only those who were in the gigantic Auschwitz-Birkenau complex, which he thinks had about 69 sub-camps, who were distinguished in that way. And yes, he has his number tattooed on his forearm.
Next, a boy asked "What were your initial thoughts upon arriving at the first camp you went to?"
"A bit of confusion. I didn't understand why. But then again, I didn't understand a lot of the other whys either -- Why couldn't I keep my bike? Why couldn't I...so many other issues. There were no answers to it. It was always ' 'cause that's the orders.' ... I guess this seemed like just another order in the progression of things. You go from one bad thing to another, after awhile you say 'well, I guess that's the way it is.'
"And in a way that's exactly the way it happened. I never sat down and really questioned it. ... there were so many other kids in exactly the same situation that I was and this was a common thread amongst us. Unfortunately, for those things there were no answers."
"How hard was it to re-adapt to normal society after you were liberated?"
After a long pause, he replied "I'm not sure how long it took me, but I do know that it was extremely important. Other kids my age had the same problem. We were a certain age chronologically -- I was 15 at that point -- but street smart (-wise) I was more like 21. I learned how to steal, I learned how to cheat, and lie, and all those things. It was necessary to get along, to survive. ... And I was really a third age. When I was forbidden to go to school, my education stopped there, so I was about 12. ... I knew I had to make a decision...most of us realized it makes more sense to be what your chronological age is. We didn't come to that conclusion overnight, but we realized that you have to pick one and stick with it."
Question by Ms. Herniman: "Talk about how food helped you get through it (as he had explained to the prior group of students).
"We were always hungry. Constantly hungry. And I've never yet come up with a way to explain it -- what it means to be really hungry. I'm sure there were occasions when you thought you were hungry -- maybe you didn't feel well and you didn't eat for two days -- but that's not being hungry. And I found out that being thirsty is worse than being hungry."
To help them grasp what he meant, Silberstern told them about a typical daily menu. In the morning, a prisoner was given a cup or bowl (whichever the prisoner had) of a lukewarm, cloudy, muddy-looking liquid. He was told it was made from grain, but for some reason he says he never believed that. He doesn't know what the gruel was made from. At noon, all the camps serve soup. It was usually made from potato peels (the guards got the actual potatoes) and often they threw in a vegetable, most times a turnip. At night, they each got a piece of bread, maybe with a pat of margarine or a spoonful of beet jam. That's all.
The unending sense of hunger, Henry explained, could drive people to do things that under normal circumstances they wouldn't even dream of doing. A father would steal food from his son. A mother from daughter.
Getting more food was practically impossible.
"I remember one occasion, I was working at the railroad siding, when a new transport of prisoners was arriving. And many of the people, particularly in 1944 when they brought in the Hungarian prisoners, they brought in suitcases full of salamis and stuff that you couldn't bring into camp. But we sure did gorge ourselves at the railroad siding. ...food was a bargaining chip, food and cigarettes.
"I think as many people died from the effects of starvation as they did from whatever other causes there were -- brutality, and so on. So being hungry was a constant part of your life. Even when you worked outside the camp, in a field for example, if you stole a potato, when you got back to camp, they found it, they took it away from you, you got punished.
"I've eaten my share of raw potatoes. That's not exactly something you look forward to, they taste pretty bad. But you do what you have to do. ... People ate grass if they could ... nothing was off limits, so to speak."
"Did you travel in cattle cars?"