Rose's Story

My mother, Rose Silberberg Skier, tells the miraculous story of how she survived the Holocaust

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Prologue: Pre-War Poland

Debbi Portnoy (interviewer): Tell me a little bit about the Jewish Population of your town (Jaworzno).

Rose Silberberg-Skier: I don’t know exactly how many people were there (I was very young), but I’d say at least half were Jewish. Probably between 10,000-15,000.

DP: What about on your block, your local area? How many Jews lived there?

RS: Actually it was integrated. Jews and Non-Jews lived together. And my particular block was a highway going towards Krakow, which was about 15 minutes away from where I was born, and it was named Jagielonska Street, after King Jagielon.

DP: Describe your home.

RS: It was an apartment, like 2 bedrooms, a kitchen and a spare room. And a dining room, some storage upstairs.

DP: Who lived in your home with you, before the war?

RS: My mother, my father, and a maid. My mother’s name was Felicia, and my father’s name was Moses.

DP: And the maid’s name?

RS: Maria.

DP: Tell me a little about your father.

RS: My father was extremely handsome. Tall, with green/blue eyes, and kind of quiet; they used to call him “the diplomat” because he always thought before he spoke. And didn’t make stupid remarks (laughs). And he was a Chassidic Jew, very Orthodox.

DP: Which Chassidic group did he belong to?

RS: The Kielce Chassidim. And, well, he was killed when he was very young, but at that point I remember him still as a very young man. Nice. Pleasant.

My mother was a sweetheart.

DP: I just want to go back to your father for a little bit. What kind of work did your father do to support the family?

RS: He was a partner with his father, my grandfather, and his brothers, in a printing press. They had 3 businesses there: a printing press, a bus line, 6 buses going all around southern Poland, and a store. A store with stationary, which was part of the printing business.

DP: What was your best memory of your father, growing up, before the war?

RS: I remember he took me on vacation. I was very young, four and a half.

DP: Tell me about that.

RS: I remember that we went on vacation, and when he took me, he brought me a big bunch of grapes, and in Poland that was a novelty, because we didn’t have this, it had to be imported. And he said “You can eat as much as you want.” And I was eating until I got sick (laughs). But I remember that.

DP: Where did you vacation?

RS: Zakopane, which is in the hills, the mountains, of Poland. Far away. Very Nice.

DP: Was your father involved in any type of organizations or societies?

RS: Just Mizrachi, that I know of.

DP: Tell me about your mother.

RS: She was a sweetheart. Very outgoing. Happy, go-lucky. She was 11 years younger than my father; she was very young. She was twenty years older than I, that’s all. And she used to sing and she loved to dance. She used to always grab my father and say, “Come, let’s dance!” He used to say “Oh, please.”

But this is the type of person she was. She loved to read; I remember my mother always reading books. She also worked in the printing press. She was the proof-reader, because she was such a great speller in Polish. So she used to work for them. Not that she needed to work, but she did work.

I remember her as very pretty, very slim, very pretty legs, always dressed beautifully and always in high-heels. In the house too. High-heels. Great mother, very affectionate, loving.

DP: Tell me about your best memory of your mother, before the war.

RS: I remember that she used to show off with me. I used to lisp. She liked that very much. So she used to take me around to relatives and friends and she used to make me sing a song, which was a very cute song (“Mazula (luck) is the main thing”). As soon as I finished she used to applaud me, and people were…forced to do that too, she put them on the spot. I loved her.

DP: You mentioned that there was a maid that lived with you.

RS: Yes.

DP: Tell me about the maid.

RS: Well the maid used to take me…you know, my mother used to work on Sundays, often, and then the maid used to take me with her to her little village. She used to go Sunday to Church, and she used to take me to Church.

Now, I was very Orthodox, I came from a very Orthodox family, but I was very little. But she used to give me candy after Church. And she’d say, “Don’t tell your parents about this, let me just take you.” And I loved going with her to church because it was beautiful. They used to sing, and they had statues, and I thought these were dolls. I used to love the dolls, there were all kinds of statues. And it wasn’t a great hardship, because after an hour or so we used to go out, and then I got all the candy.

But it happens that she did me a great favor when she did that, because later on, when I was on Aryan papers, all these songs and things that I learned and some prayers, that I got used to, came in very handy later on.

DP: Describe a typical Shabbos preparation.

RS: My mother used to do all the baking and cooking, I remember, even though she had help from the maid too. And my sweetest memory is Friday in the afternoon she used to bake Challahs, as the maid used to wash the floor, just a few hours before Shabbos, and my mother used to pick me up, put me on the table, and take a knife and open the challah up, and give me a tremendous slice with butter and strawberry jam. And she’d say “Eat.” So I wouldn’t be so hungry when the evening rolled around, I’d be there for the Sabbath. But I remember that, and it has always been my favorite thing to eat a strawberry jam (on challah) till today, because it reminds me of my mother.

And she used to make Cholent…the usual. And usually my father used to go to shul. Women didn’t go. Very seldom, except on Holidays, or Yizkor maybe. So he used to bring home some poor people who didn’t have where to eat. I remember this, that we always used to have somebody at the table.

DP: Did you have any job to prepare for Shabbos?

RS: No. Well, as she used to make the Challah, she used to give me a little piece of dough and I used to make the Challah with her, and little noodles. At that time they didn’t buy ready made noodles like here, so we used to chop them up and make little noodles. She used to let me go next to her, and I used to be the helper.

DP: Which was your favorite Jewish Holiday, and why?

RS: I cannot really say that I had a favorite. As I said, the holidays came on every now and then, and on the Sabbath I didn’t go to the synagogue. The men used to go, and they used to take the sons. The girls used to stay behind, as a rule. So that I really couldn’t say that I had a favorite, no.

DP: What about Passover, tell me a little about that one.

RS: It was never in my house. It was always in my grandfather’s house. And the whole family used to be together. And all the uncles and cousins used to come…tremendous crowd. And I know that they used to make us children sleep before the seder started, so I used to have a nap. We used to all just sleep on the floor, because there just wasn’t enough room for everybody. We used to lie down on the floor, and then sleep, and then wake up, and it was a joy. I remember this too. Because, in fact, from other towns as they came, we finally knew all the cousins. We all got together. It was very nice.

My grandfather was not there. He had gone to what was then Palestine, so I don’t remember him in the house. I remember him visiting later on, but not really living in the house. But his unmarried children lived there. So we used to go out and say “Let’s go to grandfather’s house,” even though he wasn’t there.

DP: What type of schools did you go to before the war?

RS: Well, before the war I didn’t go to any school, because when the war started I was 5. During the war, in the very first year, when I was 6, I went to a Polish school. And only for six months, because then as they got rid of the Jews of the town that was the end of that schooling too.

But in the afternoon, we used to have Hebrew school, so even though that school that we went to was a state school, and it was basically also Catholic, because the children who were Catholic used to pray in that school, they used to start with the prayers in the morning. And the Jews used to just stand up, and listen. And in the afternoon we used to have Hebrew classes in another place.

DP: But for the time that you were in school, do you remember if you had a favorite subject, or what you liked to do?

RS: I don’t remember any favorite subjects because it was just reading, writing and arithmetic. It wasn’t much. But I do remember that I liked to spell. I was always a very good speller. Till today, even though I only had six months of schooling in Poland, I can spell perfectly in Polish. I have a girl working for me and I left her a letter, because I had to leave, and when I came back she said, “How did you learn how to spell like this?” The schools were excellent in Poland. Because once you were there for six months you could read and write and spell.

DP: In those six months that you were there, did you experience any type of anti-Semitic behavior in the classroom?

RS: Very much so. The first day of school, and that stands out in my memory. My mother had bought me (or maybe she had it made) a new coat. And when I was there, that first day, it was during intermission that I put on the coat (we were in the yard), and the non-Jewish children, the big kids, started to spit at me. And systematically, they were spitting, and then they went around in a circle and spitting and spitting, all around my new coat.

The teachers (these were non-Jewish teachers) were all standing around laughing. They were encouraging them by laughter. They didn’t say, “Do it,” but by not stopping, by just laughing, they thought it was so funny, they encouraged it. And this is the environment we were living in. I didn’t think there was anything wrong with it. I was just used to it. It was better than being hit.

But when I came home, my mother couldn’t get over it. She was crying. She said, “My God…” You know, it was just like, “Poor kid…” But that’s it. So yes, definitely.

DP: What year was that, the approximate date?

RS: It had to be…probably 1940, because I must have been six.

DP: You mention that your family was from a Chassidic background. I wanted to explore that a little bit with you. Tell me if you recall any time that your father might have gone to the Rebbe.

RS: Well I know for instance, that my parents were married by Rabbi Twerski. So he was the Kielce Rabbi. And when he came to the town in order to marry them, and they were married on a Friday, I was told, he had to stay somewhere. There were no hotels. And he stayed in the house of my grandfather. It was a great honor for my grandfather, because it meant that he trusted the kashrut, etc etc.

(photo from Sara Silberberg's first wedding. Sara is Moses's sister. Her husband perished)

And for him to just come to officiate at a wedding was unusual. Maybe in Krakow he’d do it where he was usually staying, but to come to another town…it was a great honor.

DP: Please describe…what was your best game or toy that you liked to play with?

RS: Well, the best toy I liked to play with was a doll that my grandmother bought for me. And that was called the Shabbos doll. Only for the Sabbath. I was not allowed to play with it otherwise. And it was in the box, the original white box that it came in. On the Sabbath my mother used to take it out, and give it to me, and the doll, when you put her down, she closed her eyes, and when you put her up, she opened her eyes and said mama, mama, mama. This was the seventh wonder of the world. They didn’t have those dolls at that time, so my grandmother, who was very well off, went to Krakow, especially to look for such a special doll. Later what happened to the doll is another story…if you want me to tell you?

OK, when the Germans raided the whole town and took away Jews on the way to Auschwitz (that must have been 1941), my father had made a bunker, like a hiding place in a closet, a double closet. So when you opened the closet, there were some clothes, but behind the clothes there was another door, an invisible door, where we used to go and hide in case of a raid. And the doll was in the closet, outside (of course, we’re not hiding the doll).

So when the SS men came, I remember they were opening the closets, and they were screaming, “WHERE ARE YOU! WHERE ARE YOU!” And one said to the other, “They must have gone away; they're not here.” And then they left.

After they left and it got quiet in the town, we went out of the hiding place. And she opened the closet to take a look around, and she said:

“Guess what? The SS men took the doll!”

So evidently when he took the doll with him, he must have had a child that age, because otherwise, he’s not a crazy man. I was very sad about that, but the strange thought was, can you imagine a man who comes to kill a Jewish child, and then takes a doll because he has a child of his own? He seems to have separated himself from reality. This is my child, OK. The other kid, I can kill. Normally one doesn’t feel that way. When one has a child, one feels for the other. Very strange. This is the type of mentality that they had.

DP: What type of a child were you?

RS: I think I was a very good kid. But I was a little bit of a nag. And I know I was a nag, because my mother told me so! But I’ll tell you why I was a nag, now that I have children of my own I realize, because I didn’t get enough attention. I was not nagging until the war. When the war started, and my parents were so preoccupied with what was going on, just to stay alive…that my mother at that point just didn’t have so much patience for me anymore. And I was spoiled before that, because I was the only child for 5 years. And then my sister was born.

So here I was used to all the attention, I was never jealous of my sister, but I just needed the attention that my parents couldn’t give me because they were just trying so hard to survive. So she said, “You’re nagging, you’re nagging.” But other than that, I was a good kid.

DP: Tell me about your sister. What was her name?

RS: Malka, or Mala, in Polish. She was absolutely magnificent. She was beautiful. She had dark eye, and dark curly hair. Very pretty, and dimples when she smiled. Smart as a whip. And jolly, happy go lucky, and everybody adored her. You could talk to her as if she were a grownup. She was very mature.

And what happened to her is just horrible. Horrible.

DP: What year was she born?

RS: May 1939.

DP: So that was about the time when things started to change for you.

RS: September was the invasion of Poland already.



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