Henry Silberstern - Czechoslovakia / Terezin / Auschwitz-Birkenau
Henry Silberstern was born in the small town of Teplice, western
Czechoslovakia, in the year 1930. He remembers Teplice as a "nice little town",
and his growing up there as very pleasant. He says he experienced very little
anti-Semitism as a child, although he doesn't doubt that some anti-Jewish
prejudice existed. Henry attributes this to the Czechoslovakian Constitution,
which was modeled on the American, with its assurances of freedom and equality
under the law for all. Another possible factor is that Czechoslovakia was a
young country, existing in that form only since the end of World War I. The
country assembled a number of different ethnic peoples into one national entity,
again not unlike the United States.
Young Henry's life began to change in 1938, when France and Britain signed
the Munich Agreement. This agreement ceded an area of Czechoslovakia called the
Sudeten Land to Germany. His parents recognized the danger of a Nazi invasion
and moved the family, which included Henry's older brother Rudolf and his
maternal grandparents, to Prague. A year later the Germans took the rest of
Czechoslovakia. They occupied Prague. As in every territory they held, the
Germans began instituting Racial Laws -- first of all ghettoizing the Jews and
isolating them from the rest of the population. Bicycles and radios were
confiscated. Food was severely rationed and a curfew was created. Jews were made
to consolidate housing - three families per one small apartment. Public school
was forbidden to Jewish children, which effected Henry greatly. He learned how
to count and read but lost the skill of writing for many years. As public parks
and other facilities were denied to Jews, the only place Henry and his friends
found to play was among the stones of the Jewish cemeteries.
Henry's parents had been planning to emigrate west, even as far away as
England. His father was a lawyer, even as his own father had been, but he
realized he would have a hard time practicing law in a strange country, so he
became a teacher. His mother, who had previously only stayed at home, learned
the profession of hairdresser in preparation for their new lives. Later they
packed up most of their possessions and sent them in a large crate to London.
The final step was obtaining the necessary exit visas. This was done, but these
permits only became valid the following week after they were issued.
Unfortunately, that week the Germans invaded.
Henry remembers having to wear the yellow Star of David on his clothes,
although at age 11 years he didn't comprehend why. He only knew that life under
the Nazi regime was very unpleasant for everyone he knew -- and it would only
In 1942 Henry was sent to a camp for the first
time. 1100 Jews were rounded up and sent by train to Terezin, a town which had
been set up by the Nazis as a transit camp. He and his mother were selected to
go; his father was too ill and his teenage brother had a work permit that
allowed him to stay. When they arrived some were selected to be sent back, as
the Germans only required 1000 Jews for their quota. Henry and his mother were
sent back, much to the surprise and relief of the rest of the family.
It was only a temporary reprieve. In November,
1942 Henry and his mother were again transported to Terezin, this time to stay.
Children ages 10-14 were separated from their
parents and had separate quarters. The boys lived in what was formerly a large
school, each room with maybe 10 three-tiered bunks. Each room had a leader, a
young man who was responsible for the rest. Each room of boys tended to adopt
the character of its leader. If the leader was interested in sports, or
politics, or art, the boys tended to follow his lead. One room put together a
weekly handwritten newspaper called "Vedem" (To Lead), which reported on camp
life. Copies of this newspaper still exist today.
Conditions at Terezin were not pleasant. The
discipline was strict and there was a chronic shortage of food. However, Henry
and others would later look back on the experience with some fondness; many
strong friendships were formed, and the treatment was not as brutal as they
would later receive at other camps. Henry's job was to tend a small vegetable
Once a month they were permitted to receive a
care package from home. Once inside one such package, Henry found a concealed
message that read, " 'Fabulous's father has died." 'Fabulous' was Henry's
brother's nickname. Their father died in 1943 of a long illness. Henry didn't
tell his mother of this for a long time. He thought she would become too
When people would be sent to other camps, there would be rumors of death
camps that killed everyone by use of poison gas. No one wanted to believe it was
possible; the Germans were such a cultured people, they could never be so
barbaric. But it was true that no word ever came back from any of these places
to confirm or deny.
In the spring of 1944 Henry and his mother
were selected to be transported to the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp area, which was
made up of several camps. They arrived outside the Birkenau camp in the dead of
night, to guard dogs barking, searchlights flashing all around them, and Germans
shouting commands at them constantly. They were lined up and marched to the
Czech Family Camp for registration and processing. Henry received the serial
number tattoo on his left arm which marked him as an inmate of an Auschwitz
camp. He still has this tattoo.
The Family Camp was emptied at the end of June
1944. The able-bodied were removed for work camps. Most of the young who could
not do adult work were slated to be killed. At the last minute, 89 boys were
selected by camp doctor Josef Mengele to be spared. Henry was one of these few
selected from thousands. He went to live in Block 13 of the men's camp
Frustengruber, where he was trained as a bricklayer. While there he did
construction work on the Auschwitz area camps.
As the tide of the war started turning against
the Nazis, the German Command decided it would be best to eradicate as much of
the evidence of their war crimes as possible. Henry was part of a crew that was
sent to dismantle the Nordhausen camp, where the German V1 and V2 rockets were
assembled, before the Russian line could advance any further.
Henry spent the last weeks of the war in Bergen-Belsen. During the last days
the prisoners heard canon fire all around the camp; one night all the S.S.
guards disappeared, leaving only the Home Guard (the reserves) in place to
manage the camp. At last the Home Guard, too, disappeared, and the next day an
Allied convoy came through. They were liberated by a Canadian contingent of the
British Army. The date was April 15th 1945, which happened to be Henry's 15th
They were free but not out of danger. A typhus epidemic was raging, spread by
the lice that infested the camps. Thousands died in the next few days of this
alone. When the Allied troops saw the shockingly starved condition of the
inmates, they gave them all the food they requested. It turned out that this act
of kindness was too much too soon. Their famished bodies were too unaccustomed
to large amounts of food; many died from system shock. Soon the camp was
evacuated and burned down to prevent the spread of disease.
Henry sent word over to the women's camp at Bergen-Belsen requesting any
information about his mother, who had been interred there. He was very pleased
and surprised to receive an actual handwritten reply from her. She had survived
the war and waited anxiously to be reunited with him. Although she had survived,
she had caught the Typhus. Six weeks later she perished from it, although she
Henry returned to Czechoslovakia and attempted to discover the fate that had
befallen members of his family. His brother Rudolf was discovered to have been
killed in the Buchenwald camp in February 1945. The rest of his family was gone
too. Out of an extended family of 54 relatives, Henry is the only one to have
survived the Holocaust.
Henry emigrated to Canada in 1948. When he got married in Toronto the rabbi
who married him turned out to have been one of the Canadian troops who liberated
him at the end of the war.
In the summer of 1994, Henry returned to
Czechoslovakia and visited the places of his former captivity, including
Auschwitz-Birkenau and Terezin. Out of the 15,000 boys who came through Terezin,
only 150 survived the Holocaust. Henry is one of them.
This letter was written to Henry's father, on the occasion of his
father's Bar Mitzvah, by Henry's grandfather. It expresses very eloquently the
message that Henry would like to impart to everyone regarding the Holocaust.
To My Dear Boy Hans on His Thirteenth Birthday
Teplitz, June 27, 1908
On the assumption that you are not yet in condition to grasp the reach of
my words, I wish to express to you on this birthday my desire in writing. In
four days we memorialize in the usual fashion the death of your mother--who,
alas, had been so early torn from us. But today we must remember her as
recompense for the rich measure of true and proven love that she has preserved
for us all. You must above all, out of love for her, make the firm resolution to
do only that which would have her approval.
From the lengthy preparations you perceive that to the celebration of the
thirteenth birthday is attached special significance. According to the view of
our ancestors, the time of childhood ends with this day and simultaneously a
period begins in which you yourself are responsible for all your deeds and
omissions. This becomes evident in today's religious festivity. Up to now your
attachment to Judaism resulted independently from your will. But today you have
taken a vow in a consecrated spot that you want to be a Jew.
To be a Jew does not mean to adhere to dietary and ritual regulations. To
be a Jew means to act as a man toward his fellow men without regard to religion
or race. That is possible only through strict performance of formulated moral
laws of the Jewish religion. To be a Jew means to support the weak, to help the
needy and to provide recreation and comfort to the suffering and the despondent.
To be a Jew means to strive for and to promote with one's own will, the good and
the noble. To be a Jew means not to deviate a hair's breadth from the right, and
to avoid even the slightest injustice. To be a Jew means to try to spread these
moral laws by one's own example, by one's own deed, and to make them the
commandments of all humans--so that these commandments of the Jewish religion be
made the commandments of all mankind.
With your solemn declaration given today, to
want to be a Jew--you have assumed above all the duty always to bring your life
in harmony with these moral precepts. If this be realized, you will with exalted
joy call yourself a Jew. And you will endure, lightly and without any grief and
with a feeling of pity for those of other faith who through ill will, envy and
ignorance, do the Jew wrong.
Through the knowledge of such deficiencies in others, you will guard yourself
not to fall into similar errors. And you will also acquire deep humility and
keep yourself far from vanity. If in addition you will try to become a useful
member of human society and seek to possess a rich knowledge, then you would
grow into a complete man-as your blessed mother would not less ardently have
desired than your fervently loving father,
|ABOVE: The inside page of Henry (Norbert)'s Czech
Related Resources for this Speaker:
I Am A Star: Child of the Holocaust
Auerbacher, Inge. Prentice Hall, 1987.
A concise, child's-eye view of the Holocaust, given by the author, who was
interned in the Terezin ghetto in Czechoslovakia. Recommended for younger
I Never Saw Another Butterfly: Drawings and Poems From Terezin
Volavkova, Hana. Schoken Books, 1993.
A collection of collages, paintings, drawings and poetry created by the
inmate children of Terezin 1942-1944. These works are the only testament left by
many of the children who came to the ghetto. There is also a video of this
material by the same name.
Theresienstadt: Gateway to Auschwitz
The story of the 15,000 children (of which 150 survived the Holocaust) who at
various times inhabited the ghetto city of Terezin, called Theresienstadt by the
Lost Childhood: The Story of the Birkenau Boys
Rich Newberg's award-winning film on the boys who worked at the
Auschwitz-area camp Birkenau. Features the personal testimony of our speaker
Henry Silberstern, one of the subjects of the film.
More information on this video: SVE &
|Stills from the video "The Birkenau Boys"