Rose's Story

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

Monday, February 28, 2005

Part IX

Debbi Portnoy: Mrs. Skier, what was the first thing your uncles said to you when they saw you?

Rose Silberberg-Skier: They were amazed. They were amazed at my story. They were amazed that I could survive! That I could even escape! They couldn’t believe it! But they knew the terrain; they knew what I was talking about. And I said, that the aunt will come too. And I said there was another aunt, that will probably also come. And this policeman, Feder, will probably also come. And that’s what happened.

They all came, and then some other people…all total we were about seventeen people in that chicken coop. Can you imagine that? Unbelievable. Very crowded, but there was no choice.

DP: How did you spend your time there?

RS: My time was spent sitting doing absolutely nothing, because you were not allowed to talk. You were not allowed to move. Simply because she was living alone…and that neighbor, Dudwauka, was one in a million. She had nothing to do all day long. She used to sit at the window and watch the street. She knew everything that was going on on that block. And she disliked the Polish woman, Mrs. Cicha, particularly, because Mrs. Cicha was not Polish. She was Lithuanian. She was a Catholic, but she was Lithuanian.

And she was very modern, in that she was married, and her husband drank and used to beat her. So she divorced him. That was unheard of in Poland. Divorce?? So people said, “How dare you get divorced! When I get beaten up, and I don’t divorce my husband!” You know, they were really jealous of her. She was so independent!

And she remarried. The second husband was working in Germany. So she had no friends. So this Dudwauka, she hated her altogether. And she started to make these remarks like, “I think you have some Jews living with you…” This was the worst thing you could tell somebody. If you wanted to curse them, you would say, “You have Jews living in your house.”

And she used to say, “I don’t have Jews, because I don’t know any Jews. You have Jews but I don’t know Jews.” And this is how they used to fight. But still you had to be very careful.

So we were doing absolutely nothing. We used to whisper. It was very boring. My aunt told me (and I remember too), we had two slices of bread a day. That’s what we got. I used to cut them in a hundred pieces, each slice. And then, every ten minutes I would take a piece. So I ate all day long. And she was very angry, because she said, “If somebody knocks on the door, we have to hide, and they’ll find these pieces, and they’ll know somebody was here. Eat up and be done with it!” She had no patience just to watch me. Nothing doing. This was my occupation. Just to sit there doing nothing.

But in January 1944, suddenly, there was a knock on the door, and the Polish family that had taken my sister brought her back. And they said, they loved her, they loved her very much, but they said, “We have to bring her back, because she has brown eyes and brown hair. And that means she’s Jewish. And the neighbors are threatening us. They’re saying, ‘We’re going to call the Germans, you’ve got a Jewish child.’”

And this family said that this was a “niece,” because everybody knew that they only had two sons. “No, it’s a Jewish child, and we’re going to call the Gestapo.” And after a while they got very scared. So she was 4 years old, 4 ½.

Now, when she was taken away, at least a year and a half before, she was just a baby. But when she saw me, she ran over to me, and she said, “I am not allowed to say this to ANYBODY, but to you I will.” And right into my ear she said, “I’m Jewish, and my name is Malka. And you’re my sister Rozia.” She knew that too. I could flip out! She was so smart! I loved her! She was just amazing.

And she spoke (whispered) with a Polish peasant accent. The Jews never spoke like that. She sounded so cute! And she used to sing in a whisper. And knew all the words of songs, and everything.

I said later, even after the War, I said to my aunt, “How did she know that she’s Jewish?” A baby, of three? So my aunt said when she used to be the courier, she used to bring the money to pay off. Even when my father and mother were gone, they had left money, to pay for the Polish woman where we were hiding, plus for my sister. So she used to go once a month, and pay. And my aunt didn’t arouse any suspicion. She could move among the population. She was one of them.

So she said, “When I came there, once a month, I used to take her aside, and whisper to her a few things, like don’t forget who you are, and things like that.” Just in case we should all get killed, she should know one day. So she said she had like a booster shot.

DP: Did she recognize you when she first saw you?

RS: Immediately! She came over to me, she was running.

So this family…in fact they cried when they left, they said, “We’re so sorry!” And that Kazek, that boy, he was in tears. He loved that kid. “But we have to leave her, we cannot help it.” It wasn’t as if they had thrown her on the street. They brought her to her family, they brought her to the hiding place, and they left. And there she was with us.

Five weeks went by. In that time, the Polish woman brought us boxes, from cigarette cartons and we used to cut it up and make playing cards. These cards, my sister was sketching the animals, and I put the numbers in. Because she was like 4 years old. These cards were found after the war and they are now in the museum, and I will see them on Sunday. They are being exhibited.

At one time I remember she started to climb into the attic, back and forth, back and forth. This was just the day before she was caught, and I’ll never forget that I slapped her. And later I was so sorry that I gave her a big slap.

In February 1944 in the middle of the night, suddenly, there was screaming going on. The SS came to get us. At first, when she (Mala) was brought, there were two uncles, one from my mother’s side and one from my father’s side.

DP: What were their names?

RS: The one from my mother’s side was Samuel Klapholz, he’s the one from the NY Times (editor’s note: An article in the NY Times regarding life insurance policies taken out in pre-War Poland).

And I’d rather not mention the other one. Just that he was a Silberberg, but not the first name. This is what they did. They said just in case something happens, we have to make arrangements, as a precautionary measure. If someone knocks on the door, or the Germans come, that we should take care of these children. So Samuel Klapholz was going to throw me into the sub-bunker, and the other uncle was going to throw my sister. And then run off through the window. And close the bunker. And this they were even sometimes discussing with us. They said, “Look, if something happens, you go with Uncle Sam, and you go with this uncle. And they’ll throw you in.”

And this is what happened in the middle of the night in February. Terrible screaming going on. “OPEN UP OPEN UP OPEN UP!!” And the SS came in full gear, and just as they were coming, and we heard it (we were all sleeping, it was midnight), my uncle Samuel Klapholz took me, and threw me into that sub-bunker. He even took my Aunt Sara and another aunt into the bunker. And he ran out.

Now, the one who was supposed to take care of my sister panicked. He ran out, and he left her lying on the floor, sleeping.

We were in that sub-bunker. We could see everything through the slits. The SS came with full gear, with tremendous flashlights, and they were shining it right into her eyes and this is how she woke up. You’re talking about a four year-old child, waking up and looking at the SS, and she knew who SS are. And they said, “GET UP!!” And she saw this and she started to cry.

“Where is my sister!! Where is my Aunt (whom she knew)?? Where is my Aunt Sara, where is my sister??” And they said “Come on! You’re coming with us!”

I cannot tell you…I was there, just beneath…(breaks down)

This has haunted me all my life…I couldn’t help her…they were just grabbing her in her pajamas. They took her to prison…in February. You know what that was? She was just 4 ½ years old. I heard her say, “where’s my sister, where’s my sister” and she left.

They took the others too. They took Mrs. Cicha and they arrested her. And they took them all to Auschwitz. Except for my Uncle. After they had left, my Uncle Sam came back through the window, which was very brave, and opened that drawer for us and took us out. Because had he not done it, let’s say had he said, “Well why should I go back, if an SS man is waiting there?” Then we would have died there, we would have suffocated.

But he came. He was very brave. He opened it, and we all came out.

Now what happened to my sister, is that they were all going to Auschwitz. Mrs. Cicha was a Christian, so they separated the Jews from the Christians. She went to the Christian part of Auschwitz. They did not kill the Christians. Whatever they did, they definitely did not kill Christian children. This was never done that they would just round up [non-Jewish] children and kill them. They took the Jewish children with the adults.

But for a little while, for a few days, she was together with Mrs. Cicha. Before they separated, before they realized who was who etc. But the story goes, and after the war I heard from other people, and Mrs. Cicha, that an SS man heard that she could sing beautifully.

And he came, and he put her on the table, (and she was just a little kid), and he said, “Sing.” And she was singing. And he gave her candy. The next day he came back and he put her again on the table and said, “Sing.” And he gave her candy.

On the third day, he did the same thing. He put her on the table, he said, “Sing,” and as she was singing he took out a revolver and he shot her DEAD, right in the back of her head. He just blew her brains out. And he killed her. That’s what happened to my sister.


Saturday, February 26, 2005


So I was in those weeds, and I saw that I was a little further off, I said to myself, “I’ll cross the tracks. I’ll try.”

And I was about to go into the ravine which would lead me up. Some Polish teenage kids came with a dog, and screamed, “A JEW is ESCAPING from the GHETTO!!” If I tell you that I looked like a puny nothing. And the dog was barking and started to bite me. I was so scared!

But I said, “You are the JEWS!! You are the JEWS!!” I was like hysterical. And my aunt was still in the hospital, watching this. And the other people were watching it. It was like a show. They were all seeing what is going to happen to me.

Suddenly I saw a woman, dressed all in white, and she was approaching me. Where she came from, God knows. She didn’t come from the ghetto, and she didn’t come from the tracks. I don’t know. She was there.

And she was saying to the kids, “Get away from her! She’s a Catholic! Don’t you see that? Get away!” So they looked at her, and they got away from me. They went back to the Christian side. And she said to me, “Follow me. I’ll show you the bridge.”

So I said, “Can I take your hand?”

She said, “NO!”

“Can I go home with you?”

“Get away from me! Do you want them to get me too?? I’ll just show you the bridge.”

So I just followed her and followed her. And she was all dressed in white. And suddenly she said, “Go a little further up. To the left there is a bridge. Cross over to the Christian side.”

And I looked, then I looked back. She was gone. She was GONE! She just disappeared. My aunt saw this, and she said, “Where did she go? I was looking and she disappeared!” She said she looked like an angel from heaven! She disappeared!

Well, I continued, and I went to the bridge, and there was no SS. I crossed over to the other side and I was saying: “My father is going to be so proud of me! That I managed to do this!” And I started to pick flowers, a bunch of flowers.

Now this is all taking 5 hours, all total. Suddenly, the kids with the dog were there, and they were screaming, “She is here, the Jew is here! Let’s get her now!” They were on the Christian side. They belonged there.

And just then the streetcar came, I hopped on the car, and off I went. And they were left behind. I didn’t go inside the streetcar, but on the outer side. I was facing out, with my back to the people, because the back (of my dress) was not dirty. The front was very dirty. And people were still looking at me like this. There was something very strange about me.

I had a rash, because in those four weeks, we had so little water, and we couldn’t wash, and the sweat was all over, so I had a rash. And here I was so dirty. I looked disgusting. And I knew it.

So, 5 stops later I got off. At this point I totally blacked out. I had no idea where to go. I didn’t remember a thing. After what I had gone through already, I didn’t remember. What did she say to me? But I knew the address. I knew the street number, and the name was Ulica Dziewicza 29.

So I saw an old man. I figured, I’ll ask. I said, “Where is the street Dziewicza?”

And he looked at me and he said, “Are you a JEW?” So I was afraid already to discuss it, so I ran away. I said that’s it. I can’t ask anybody. And then he left.

I went back to that spot where I got off to remember the directions. She had said, “When you get off you do this and that…” I stood there. I was so desperate that I started to remember. And I went there, to the right house. The only thing is, they didn’t have numbers. G-d forbid they should have numbers! And I didn’t know the house. I had never seen it from the front. Always from the back door. But I figured I’d take a chance.

And I screamed, “Mrs. Cicha, I have alterations!” And I heard the dog barking. I figured that’s it, this is the right house.

She opened the door, and she looked at me like, “Oh my G-d!” She said, “Come in before anybody sees you!” And she brought me in. And she said, “What is going on??”

My uncles were there. One was my mother’s brother, and one was my father’s brother. And they said, “What happened, what happened??” And of course I told them what happened. Terrible things happened, that’s what happened. The whole ghetto was dissolved, everybody was practically dead…


Thursday, February 24, 2005

Part VII

Rose Silberberg-Skier: I was so petrified, so scared…that I fell asleep, standing up like that, in a trance. And he was screaming—I could hear the screams—but I just slept. And my aunt was shaking me. She said, “Wake up! Wake up! He’s going to SHOOT us!” So finally I woke up, and we went down.

And when we went down, they took us to an assembly place. It was formerly a hospital, within the ghetto. It was a ghetto in the ghetto. It was by itself. Overlooking the railroad tracks. He took us there.

And I remember, on the way, there was one SS man, his name was Donenberg. He hated that mother of the baby something vicious. He had a whip, and he whipped her so much it was unbelievable. And she said to him, “Let me go…will you let me go?” I don’t know—she was out of her mind by that time. And the more she talked, the more he whipped her.

He finally brought us all into that hospital. He put us on the 3rd floor. And when we got there, there were other people there who evidently also had been hiding and were caught. And they told us that every Wednesday, a van would come, sometimes buses, and take everyone to Auschwitz.

So this was Sunday. They said, in three days they’re going to come for us. Now, when we looked out from that window, since it was right next to the railroad tracks, we could see the Christian side of town. But there was nothing we could do since it was totally surrounded. That hospital was totally surrounded by SS, and the ghetto. So this is now the hospital inside, outside on every floor, and in the yard, and also on the tracks. I mean we were just totally surrounded.

But my aunt said to me like this: “Do you want to live?” I said, “Yes.” She said, “If you want to live, you must escape, because if you don’t, you’ll go to Auschwitz and you are a kid. You’ll die.”

Debbi Portnoy: How did they know for sure you’ll die? Did they know at this point?

RS: At this point there were rumors already coming through that people were dying. So she knew it. But she knew also that some people went to work. She was an able bodied woman. But children? No. So that’s why she talked to me like this.

So I said, “How can I escape?”

She said, “You’ll try your best. Try to jump around like a kid does from floor to floor. See if you can get down to the main floor.”

And then, she showed me there were weeds, very high weeds there, right outside the building. “See if you can just jump into the weeds, and stay like that. And little by little, in those weeds, start to get away from this building. Maybe it will take you a long time. Try to get out of the ghetto. If you can see at any point that there are no SS on the tracks, go on the other side.

“I have 35 pfennings (which was like cents) and there is a streetcar going on the Christian side. Once you hit the other side, there’s a streetcar. It’s 35 pfennings. I’ll give it to you. It’s exact. Get on it and go 5 stops. Get off.”
And she started to describe for me, from there, how to go to the Polish woman’s house.

Of course, I didn’t know what the house looked like from the front. But I remembered that she used to do alterations, and she didn’t have a bell. She did have a bell, but it never rang. She did it on purpose so that we had time to hide. And people used to call out, “Mrs. Cicha, I have alterations, open up!” Then she would open up, let them in. By that time, we were already in the chicken coop hiding.

So my aunt said, “When you go there, just scream out, ‘Mrs. Cicha, I have alterations,’ and she’ll open up for you.

Now this was the plan. Now the idea how to go down, this was another story. And we had 3 days to do it. So I started to skip and hop and do this, and the 35 cents I was holding on. And each time I started the SS man would say, “UP! Upstairs! What are you doing here! Go up again!” And it was no dice.

But one Jewish Policeman, his name was Feder, saw me doing this. And he realized that if I’m trying so hard, and my aunt is trying so hard to let me escape, I must have somewhere to go. I must have a hiding place. Because what’s the use of escaping? A little child going nowhere?

So he approached my aunt, and he said, “Look. I have a feeling that you have a hiding place on the Christian side. If you do, if you let me know where it is, I have a wife and I’d like to escape with my wife to a hiding place. I will let your niece somehow go. I will talk to the SS man, and I will make it so that his attention will be diverted, and she can skip back and forth until she can go down and hide in the weeds.”

Now this was a very iffy situation. First of all, in that bunker, already my other uncles were there. My other uncles had escaped there. We knew that they were there. Secondly, what if he was a traitor, and he would just betray the bunker? She was scared. She didn’t know the man. But somehow, he sounded so sincere that she thought she would take a chance.
So she said alright, and she gave him the name of the woman and the address. She really had palpitations when she did that. And he said, “I’ll let you escape too.” Because she also had to escape.

And he did. How he did it, I don’t know. But I remember when he said, “Move,” I moved. And I went fast as can be. And the SS were here and there and he was taking me by the hand as if he were leading me somewhere, as if under the SS auspices. And I jumped into the weeds, and I was in the weeds.

Now the SS were all around. They were on the tracks. They could really see the weeds. But I was so skinny, after those four weeks of eating practically nothing, that I was just covered by the weeds, like a rabbit. And they didn’t see me.

Now my aunt also told me something else. She said, “Listen, first of all, go like a mile approximately, then there is a little bridge. If there are no SS on the bridge, cross over. And when you go on the other side, start picking flowers, and you have to have flowers to cover the dirt. Because this was Sunday, and the dirt was such from the weeds and everything, that I would arouse suspicion. Because this was a Catholic country. On Sunday, all children were clean and going to Church. Nobody was running around, dirty, filthy like this, a kid alone someplace on a streetcar. Nobody. They would know that it’s a Jew.

So she told me what to do. She didn’t give me a time limit, but within reason. Pick flowers, get on the streetcar, go. So I was in those weeds, and I saw that I was a little further off, I said to myself, “I’ll cross the tracks. I’ll try.”
And I was about to go into the ravine which would lead me up. Some Polish teenage kids came with a dog, and screamed, “A JEW is ESCAPING from the GHETTO!!”


Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Part VI

Rose Silberberg-Skier: I remember that my father said, “In case you cannot leave, here is a piece of paper with an address. There is another bunker in the ghetto. It’s in an attic, with the entrance hidden by a chandelier. Try to get there and hide. And when the ghetto is dissolved, try to escape and go back to the Polish woman.”

So we went to that bunker. That place had about 16 people there. There was a ladder there, on the side, and she (aunt Sara) was knocking. And he gave her, I think, a sign how to do it. Because nobody was in that apartment. And they opened the chandelier and we just went up.

Debbi Portnoy: Can you describe how the chandelier opened?

RS: It came down. They had it in such a way that from upstairs they would lower the chandelier. And you could go in, and then they would take it up again and evidently hook it up inside. I would imagine. 100% I am not sure. This is how I remember the chandelier opened up. And we went in.

And it was Hell on Earth in that place. It was so Hellish. It was so hot. It was an attic and it was summer. It was terrible. And there was no water. They had stored some water, but basically they were counting on rain, which normally it rained, but it did not rain. It was a drought. Very little food. The food was mainly dried beans. And I remember that they had bread which was so moldy it was blue.

And that was it. Because actually it was made in such a way, just to wait out until the ghetto was dissolved, say 2 or 3 days. And then, get out of there. So we stayed there, and somehow the ghetto was still going on, it wasn’t dissolved completely.

Actually, the people were deported, but they had about 800 people, Jews, who worked as commandos under the SS. They used to go from house to house, and pack up everything that the Jews had left behind, and these things were being shipped to Germany. It was looting, plain and simple. Furniture, bedding, clothes, you name it. Household goods. And these 800 Jews, as long as they had this work, they were safe. They knew that eventually they would be the last ones, but they would go also.

So they used to pass our place, and we used to hear (because we couldn’t see anything) but we used to hear them pass, and the Germans shouting, and the dogs and all that. But they never caught us because they weren’t looking for us. We were inside a house.

I remember, suddenly a couple came in, also like this, out of the blue. With a baby. The woman had long reddish hair; it went really up to her waist. A very pretty woman with green, green eyes. The man was dark haired. She was 24; he was 26. And the baby was blond and blue-eyed, like a little doll. She was eight months old. She was cute as a button. But the mother had no milk, and the baby started to cry bitterly. Cry and cry. And she used to rock that baby and rock that baby. There was nothing you could do. That baby was so hungry. And there was no milk. And they waited, they said maybe it’s going to rain and she could have some water. Nothing doing. And that baby cried and cried.

And finally—I wasn’t privy to it, they discussed these things privately, in a corner—they decided that the baby has to be brought down, because if the SS come with the commandos all around, they’re going to hear the baby cry, they will say where is this crying coming from…they will look for us.

So they implored the father to bring the baby into the garden. As soon as it rains, then she’ll start to drink, she’ll have milk for the baby, then we’ll bring the baby back, then maybe we’ll escape from this place, etc.

Very reluctantly, he brought the baby down. He put the baby in the garden, he came upstairs, and he drilled a hole in the wall of that attic, in the side. It was like a lookout. All day long he sat at the hole, watching that baby. The baby was crying. On and off, because sometimes it went to sleep. It was dehydrated.

For three days this baby cried like that. Suddenly, the crying stopped. So he ran down to see what happened. The baby was dead. This man came, he went berserk when he came up. And he was saying, “What did I do! And what did you make me do? My baby was killed!!”

So we weren’t sure if that baby had died of “natural causes” or hunger, or whether it was slashed, because the SS used to come through and slash kids like that. Whatever it was, he said, “I don’t want to live in this world anymore! I want to give myself up!” And he said, “I’m not going to be able to live with myself, what I did to my baby! She died all alone!”

So his wife, her name was Frieda, said, “What are you going to accomplish? Don’t give yourself up! What is done is done! You can’t help it now!”

He said, “I don’t want to live and I’m giving myself UP!” And he lowered the chandelier and he jumped out. And he ran.

Now, evidently he was followed, or spotted. Somebody saw him coming out of that house. Probably an SS man. Because 4 weeks had gone by already, and the ghetto was dissolved for 4 weeks. Where did this man come from? He had to be hiding somewhere. I know that he would never go and deliberately denounce us.

After a few hours, we heard noises downstairs. And they opened the chandelier just slightly to see, and a man was running there, back and forth, and then the SS came. We heard screeeaaaming… "Jews!! Open the chandelier and come out! We know you are in there! Do it now or we are going to shoot you all!!”

And we opened the chandelier and there were dogs, and those dogs were barking. It was horrifying. And when they opened the chandelier, I remember that I went to the opening, and as I looked down, I saw an SS man pointing a gun, right at my eyes.


Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Part V

Rose-Silberberg Skier: And as far as going back to the ghetto, as I was saying, the last time that I left her place was with my aunt. My aunt came to get me, and we went through back ways.

It was a Friday, for the Sabbath, and my birthday. And when I got to the place, we were so happy to see each other, my mother and I.

That night, was when the Germans surrounded the ghetto with SS men. Practically, from what I could see, every yard. The whole ghetto was surrounded. And when we got up Saturday morning—we were like in a little valley, and there was a hill above, we had no curtains—and they were looking at us with guns pointed at our window. And our windows were open. And we thought, “What is THIS?” And then my father went and he said the whole ghetto is surrounded. And not only that, but they didn’t let my father go to the synagogue. They didn’t let anybody out. Everybody had to stay indoors.

And then they came with loudspeakers:

“All the Jews have to go to the railroad tracks. You’ll go to work. You’ll be fine. Don’t worry about it.” Something like that. It was very bad.

So my father had made a bunker even in that ghetto. And it was in the stove. They dug out underneath. So it looked like you were going into the stove. And underneath was like a cellar. It wasn’t much, but it was better than nothing. So my father said “let’s go in there and hide.”

But of course, what they didn’t realize, is that the SS could see everything. We had no way to hide, really. And they saw us going into that bunker. And they came running from that hill. And they were saying, “JEWS!! Get out! Get out of that stove!” And we were lucky that they didn’t shoot us. Just then they weren’t in the mood for shooting.

So we got out. And they said, “OUT! And go to the railroad tracks!”

Now my father and my mother were saying this was terrible. But what’s more, they realized that children would probably not go to work, but be killed. There was already the rumor. So they felt bad that, here, I’m only one day here, and they made me come, and I probably won’t survive, under normal circumstances.

(click to watch video)

But I know that my father was very religious and he took me aside and he said, “The Torah says, that in cases of peril or emergency you should ask a small child for advice. I’m asking you. Do you think we should go to the railroad tracks, or should we try to hide in this ghetto, and see if we could get out and get back to the bunker? They say we are going to go to work.”

So I remember what I said. I said: “If you think you’re going to work, go to the tracks. If you think that they will not give you work but will kill you, stay here and look for a bunker.”

So my father was thinking and he said: “You know what? I will go with your mother to the tracks, because we are young and we will probably go to work. You stay with your aunt.” Because my aunt Sara had Aryan papers. And she said she would try to get out of the ghetto legally, because she had these Christian papers and she looked very Christian, so that was no problem.

He said, “Let her take you out, as a child, and try to go back to Mrs. Cicha, to the bunker. And then we’ll probably all survive.” And this is what happened. So they went to the tracks, and suddenly they’re back. The trains were so full, they said you have to come tomorrow. So it was kind of a hopeful sign. Maybe that’s it. Maybe they’ll change their minds. They did not.

That night, I remember my mother said to me, “Come, I’m going to cut your hair. Because I don’t know when I’m going to see you again. I don’t want you to get lice.” (I had long braids). And she cut my hair, and she told me, keep yourself clean, and all this, and probably I’ll see you again. But it was very sad when she was cutting my hair. It’s something that stayed with me. (cries)

DP: Did she say anything else to you?

RS: She was just hugging me and kissing me…but the next day my father said: “I want to talk to you.” He said, “Always remember that you are a Jew. Whatever happens, remember that. And whatever happens, remember you name. Because I hope we all will survive. But in case you don’t see me, and you survive, go to Jerusalem, because we have a cousin there, and his name is Tzemach Silberberg. The street is Alfassi 31, Jerusalem.”

And he made me repeat it many times. I was nine years old so I could repeat it. Alfassi 31 Jerusalem. “And you tell him your name is Silberberg, and you tell him who you are, and he will take you in.” That was so sad for me (crying).

Then we got dressed. My mother I remember put a kerchief on, which she normally didn’t wear a kerchief. She put a kerchief on, and she left the hut with my father. And we actually left together. My aunt and I, and my father and mother. To the tracks was to one side, and to go to the gate where the SS were standing guarding the ghetto was another side, just the opposite direction.

And I remember my father turned around, and I turned around to look. And I wanted so much my mother should turn around—but she didn’t. She just walked straight away. That was the last time I ever saw them.

After that, my aunt and I went to the gate. And as we were approaching the gate the SS man was screaming, “Get away from here! Go back into the ghetto!”

And my aunt said, “Look! I have papers!” And she took out the papers. “Look! I’m a Christian! Take a look! Take a look!”

He said, “What? You’re a Catholic? And what are you doing in this ghetto? I’m going to shoot you!” And he pointed a gun to shoot. And we went back. We couldn’t get out.


Monday, February 21, 2005

Part IV

DP: So, describe the first day that your parents took you to the bunker.

RS: When they took me to the bunker (it had to be 1943) they stayed with me. As long as my parents stayed with me, what happened was, that sometimes we left the chicken coop, and went up to…she had hay up on top, in an attic or something. And as long as we stayed in the hay, she had a little lookout. We could see the outside. Barely, but we could see the outside. So we used to look there and see what’s going on in the world.

And at that time, I remember my parents used to teach me how to spell, they used to teach me how to multiply. Not only it kept me busy, but it also taught me things. So I wasn’t even behind, practically.

But when my parents left, it was nothing but loneliness. I used to just sit there. But even though I was lonely, I became the type of person that, later on, could be always alone. My kids say, “Oh, you like to be alone.” Really I don't like to be alone, but I know how to be alone. I just…daydreamed. And I used to sit and daydream for hours. And this stayed with me later on, many years later on. Whatever happened, if I was sad, I used to daydream. And it kept me alive, because otherwise I would have been just crying all the time.

DP: Did you have any information about what was going on outside the bunker or outside the ghetto?

RS: Not when I was alone. When my parents were there, then the Polish woman would discuss with them, “I heard such and such is going on.” Or sometimes you could hear the shooting and all this. Or there’s another transport that left for Auschwitz, something like that.

DP: Mrs. Skier, we were talking about the bunker. Please describe if you took anything with you when you went into the bunker.

RS: My mother took clothes. And she took some books. This is all that could really be brought in. Not only because there was very little room, but because you couldn’t just carry things around, because it would arouse suspicion. Plus we didn’t have much. But whatever we could was there. And even when my parents left to the ghetto, they used to leave stuff behind. And sometimes bring a little more.

And as far as the Polish woman went, Mrs. Cicha, she had a real problem. Because she had to buy food on the black market. You couldn’t normally buy food anyhow. And she had to buy enough for all the people. For us, later on some others. And bring it home without the neighbors being suspicious: “What is she carrying all this for? Who is there?” Because she was all alone.

So I must say that I remember those hardships that she had. Naturally, when some people left the hiding place, it got easier for her. When I was there alone with her, there was no problem at all.


Sunday, February 20, 2005

Part III

Debbi Portnoy: You talked about how you were surrounded. Describe the guards and how they surrounded it.

Rose Silberberg-Skier: Well, I’ll describe the guards a little later on, because what happened…Let me tell you this. I was with the Polish woman, basically, most of the time. My parents used to go from there, into the ghetto, to get some supplies, and to get some clothes, and to see the relatives, and to just get some fresh air. Because in the Polish woman’s place, we were not allowed to move. We had to sit, in our bare feet, and not talk at all, because she was ‘alone’, and the next door neighbor—you could hear everything there that was going on—the next door neighbor was very very anti-Semitic.

Had she known that Mrs. Cicha had Jews, she would have instantly gotten the Germans. So in order not to make noise, in order for her not to hear any voices, we had to be totally quiet all day long. And we couldn’t go out.

In fact, when we came to the house, we went through the back way. I never saw the house from the front. I didn’t know what it looked like. I only knew the chicken coop. I knew that she had pigs in the back yard. I never saw them but I heard them. And she had rabbits inside, that we could see. We could go out from the chicken coop, into the kitchen when nobody was around. As soon as somebody came, of course, we used to hide and close the door.

So in a sense, if you went to the ghetto, and just got some fresh air, it was a novelty. I know that even when my mother took me once in a while, just for a day, it was like…people are actually on the outside, and talk loud?! Because in the ghetto you could talk loud…you could get killed…but you could talk loud. So sometimes you needed that.

When they left, I remember, then I stayed, and the last time when they left, they left in June, and in July was my birthday. And there was an aunt with me in that bunker. Her name was Sara. She had Christian/Aryan papers.

She looked very Polish. Natural blond hair, grey blue eyes. Skinny. And spoke just like a Pole. She was typically a Pole. She was like no other member of the family. She was like out of…somewhere! And this aunt took me by the hand and said, “Come, we’re going to the ghetto because your parents want to see you.”

July 1943. And it was a late Friday afternoon. When we got there, my mother was so happy to see me, and I was so happy to see my mother. It was wonderful.

(Click to watch video)

Now, mind you, there was still another story about my sister. Originally, my sister had been also in the hiding place, but she was very little. And my parents were afraid that you could not tell a child, “Don’t talk, don’t sing, don’t jump…” And here you had to sit still. It was a 2 1/2 year old, almost 3 year old child.

So my father knew another Christian Polish family he was friendly with, and he got around to them, and he said, “Would you like to take my child for the war?” And he was going to pay them, also. They liked her very much, and they said yes.

But, there was a condition: After the war, she would become a Christian. Also, they knew the family, and one of the sons (his name was Kazek) was crazy about my little sister. He said, “I’ll marry her!” So they said, “I want your permission, that when she becomes a Christian, that one day he’ll marry her, in case something happens to you.”

I remember that scene, because it took place in Mrs. Cicha’s house. My father consented, under duress. It was either having her there and who knew what would happen, (or if you had to escape suddenly, what would you do?) or saying yes. Now, he was very Orthodox. For him to say, “Yes, my child will not be Jewish anymore after the war, if she survives…” It was traumatic.

And I had never seen my father cry before, but I remember when he said yes, he cried (breaks down)…I remember when he said yes…he cried…he said “Allright…she’ll be a Christian…” And they took her. He never saw her again.

But they were good people, and we knew she would be safe there…they would treat her well. So…that was as far as my sister went.

So then my parents went back to the ghetto for a little while. And my aunt took me to the ghetto, and that was July 1943.

DP: You talked about how your parents went from the ghetto to the bunker, from the bunker back to the ghetto. How were they able to get back and forth so freely, what happened?

RS: At that time there were gates, but they knew little places where you could sneak through. People used to sneak through just to go to the Christian side to buy food on the black market, because there was so little there in the ghetto. So only the Jews knew where to do it, of course. If someone got caught, they got shot.

But they didn’t do it that often. Maybe two times or so. But I remember this because when my parents left I was very lonely, at that point, and I used to write them letters. And I used to stay with the Polish woman, especially after my sister left.

DP: How much time did you actually spend, originally, in the ghetto?

RS: Probably about 2 months.

DP: So during that two month timeframe, how did you spend your time?

RS: As I said, I went to school, for a few weeks, until they started to take the children in the vans. And after that, I was just playing with my cousins. Everybody was all together, and we were 17 people in two, three rooms. As far as children…children are children. They play. We were playing with each other. I had company, my cousins were there. Each of my uncles had children.

DP: What did you play with?

RS: Oh not WITH! We just played with each other! We used to just take a little…rock, and play with a rock. Throw it, and this was a ball…we had no toys. We had nothing. Or sometimes we used to make games. Like from paper, you know. But otherwise, nothing. Just playing with each other, mainly. Running after each other, screaming, hollering like this. “I’ll catch you. You catch me.”

DP: You talked about making games. What games did you make?

RS: Well, what we used to take at that time, I started to learn how to do it, from cigarette boxes and cartons of cigarettes, because there was no paper to be had, we used to make playing cards. And on these cards we used to sketch something. And I knew how to write numbers..1, 2, 3 etc. And make a king, a queen, and so on. And that’s how we used to play with each other on the ground.

DP: Which card game did you play?

RS: I don’t know exactly, but I think we called it “bridge.” Probably it wasn’t. We called everything “bridge.” We were very funny. Bridge—six year olds!

DP: What did you eat in the ghetto?

RS: I remember that my mother gave me potatoes, which was something terrific for me. I was a poor eater before the war. And she used to beg me, run after me in the streets, and I was spoiled. But at that point, I was hungry. And when she said come and eat, I ran!

But I do remember one thing. That there was so little food, and I realized it, that I never asked my mother for food. I never said, “I’m hungry.” Only when she said, “Come sit and eat.” So mainly it was potato. We didn’t have any meat anymore. No vegetables either, not fruits. Potato and bread, more or less. That’s what it was. But I was very aware of the fact that there was just so little of it.

So she used to say, “Are you hungry?”
“” And I remember that.

Now my mother used to teach me manners. She used to say, “If you go to your friends (which was like on the block) and they say, ‘do you want something to eat,’ always say ‘no thank you.’ They DON’T have it. If the offer you because they’re giving it to their own children, it’s because they’re polite. Always say ‘no thank you,’ no matter how hungry you are. Unless you’re so starving. If they offer you three times, on the third time you can say yes. Then they mean it.”

DP: Tell me about the religious observance in the ghetto?

RS: We did observe everything the same way. I don’t know if my father went to the synagogue, but I know he used to pray at home. He used to put on tfillin. And they had minyans there because everyone was so crowded together, so there was no problem with that. They definitely observed everything.

DP: Do you remember any types of Bar Mitzvahs, or anything else going on there?

RS: Oh, no no no. There was nothing, nothing, nothing. Don’t forget, mainly, that they had started to deport the Jews already. We were not deported yet, by sheer accident. So once this started to happen, the ghetto was depleted, people were just crying. Because either the sister, or the mother, or somebody was taken away. There was no joy there, nothing. It was tragic.


Thursday, February 17, 2005

Part II

Rose Silberberg-Skier: Now in Sosnowiecz, very shortly thereafter, they also made a ghetto. This was the first time I had heard of a ghetto, and there was a real ghetto, and it was called Srodula. It was a very poor suburb of Sosnowiecz. Mostly peasants lived there. And what they did was transfer the peasants into Sosnowiecz, into the Jewish homes, and they took the Jews and transferred them into the peasant’s homes in Srodula. But they used to bunch us up. We were, like, 21 people in one room.

Terrible conditions. Huts. Very little food. And by then, it became a ghetto that, even though it wasn’t with barbed wire, we were not allowed to leave the ghetto. So if anyone was caught wandering around in the Christian part of town, he was shot. But definitely you never heard from them again.

Also what the Germans did, was they used to “target shoot.” They saw Jews walking, so they used to shoot. So you never knew if you went out, even in the ghetto, if you ever were going to come back. If you saw them, you better hide.

DP: When did you first arrive to Sosnowiecz?

RS: I would say 1942. And Srodula started probably the beginning of ’43. That, I have a great memory of already.

DP: Where did you go when you first arrived to Sosnowiecz?

RS: We had a little apartment. And again, the same story happened. The Jews had to go and register. And when they registered, the Germans had a few different registration forms. And cards with different colors.

If you got a certain blue or green, then that meant that you would get coupons for food. If you didn’t, that meant that you were probably going to be deported, that you would NOT get the food.

So everybody naturally wanted to get certain colors, etc. And in order to do that, my parents wanted to show that they were young, that they could work if necessary. They got dressed very nicely. Everybody used to get dressed very nicely, so that the Germans would figure, “OK, these people are on the level.”

Of course we didn’t realize that it made no difference to the Germans if you were dressed or not dressed or WHAT. But nobody knew that, so naturally you wanted to make a good impression.

I know that my parents went, and they got the cards, and they came back and said, “good, I think we’re lucky.” Later on it turned out it meant nothing.

But this was in Sosnowiecz.

But very shortly thereafter, my father realized that he has to do something about his family. The family was definitely going to suffer, or who knows what else. So he had someone he knew, a Polish woman, a Christian woman, and he went to see her, and he said: “How about if we make a bunker in your house, and we hide?”

And he did offer her money, which was understood, and also he said he would sign over the house in Jaworzno to her, which he meant. And she said, “Alright, fine.”

Now, she was alone. Her husband went to work in Germany. He was taken by the Germans, but not into a concentration camp, just labor force for the Germans. And she had no children. She had just pets. She had a dog, a cat, rabbits, pigs. But otherwise she was alone.

And she lived in a house which was a two family house; it was attached. And she said to him, “You know what? It’s OK.”

Now when she said OK, he said, “I also would like to do as a precaution, make a sub-bunker, before we move in.” Because what she was offering him was a chicken coop. She said she’d get rid of all the chickens, and board up the little window that was there, and this would be our bunker.

So what he did, was he opened a wooden floor, and he made like a grave, it would be probably the size of a grave. And after that, he put a drawer on top of it, and potatoes on top of the drawer. So that it was sliding back and forth. If you wanted to go in, you would slide it and go in.

The problem was that you needed somebody on the outside to slide it back, so it would be closed. We always figured she would do it. Her name was Mrs. Stanislawa Cicha. If we had to hide suddenly, then she would slide the drawer back. And then open the drawer when the peril was over.

So this was very important what my father did. After he finished digging and all that was done, then they put some clothes there, and some food, whatever, something that could be held. And we moved there.

There was my mother, and my father, and I, and my little sister.

DP: Before you moved into the bunker, I wanted to go over some information about the ghetto itself. Can you describe your living situation in the ghetto itself? You talk about there being a lot of people there, but what kind of facilities did they have there for your bodily needs?

RS: None. I mean, the toilet was on the outside. No running water. The water you had to bring from some kind of a well, or barrels, in pails. So everybody used to go up to the mountain and bring water down. Food? Very little food. Only what you got on coupons, or on the black market.

DP: At this point how old were you?

RS: Well, it was 1943, so…eight.

DP: What did your parents tell you about what was happening in the ghetto?

RS: I was in the ghetto too.

DP: What did they tell you about that?

RS: They didn’t have to tell me a thing. I saw everything myself. I saw what was going on, and people used to talk freely. My parents didn’t hide anything from us. We children had to know. We were very wise to what was going on.

And I remember, while I was in the ghetto, two SS men walked in unexpectedly, and took two of my uncles—they came with German Shepherds—and they said, “Everybody into the yard!”

We went into the yard, and they said, “Everyone sit on the ground.” We sat down, and they took two of my uncles and told them to run back and forth, and they made two of the German Shepherds run after them. One of them, they opened his head, the dogs, and the blood was streaming down. It was so horrible. You have no idea. And we were shocked. Shocked.

And then they took my father and put him into a…ditch there, and they were going to shoot him. And I remember my mother went over and spoke—in German—because the Jews knew German, because Yiddish and German were very similar—she begged him, “Don’t shoot him!” And he looked at her…and said, “OK.” And they left.

And when they left, my father came out from the ditch, and this uncle, who was a young boy (20 or 22), his head was open, and they said to me, “Go away, go away!” I shouldn’t see this.

In fact, this uncle had a brother, and his brother survived the war. I...I never told him this. Because I figured, why should I tell him this? He’s dead, the other one’s dead. Why tell him such a terrible story. I never told him that. But it was something to behold.

DP: What was the uncles name, that got killed?

RS: Moses Wachsman. And there was another one who was also running back and forth, because they took two men, and he survived the war. Because he had all the wounds, all the bites, but somehow he survived. The other one didn’t.

In fact, my mother had sent me to school. They had a school there. And what happened, is the children would go to school, and like once a week, the vans would come, and they used to put the kids into the vans, and drive them off to Auschwitz. The parents would come for the children, and there were no children there. It was terrible, the wailing of the mothers. So finally, my mother said, “You’re not going to school anymore. That’s IT. Finished. We’re going to the bunker, and we’re going to hide. We’re going to go into Sosnowiecz, to the Polish woman, and hide.”

DP: What was the approximate size of the ghetto?

RS: That, I don’t know. As a child, I don’t know. But I know one thing. In the Holocaust museum in Washington there is a big plaque, and a description of the Sosnowiecz ghetto saying it was the second largest ghetto in Poland. But I don’t know the details.

DP: What type of boundaries did the ghetto have?

RS: The boundaries were such that they had a railroad track, and where the ghetto was there was a ravine, then came the railroad track, and then there was another ravine, and then there was the Christian side of town. So if you wanted to go to the Christian side of town, normally one had to go to a bridge and cross, under normal circumstances. But since they didn’t allow the Jews to go to the Christian side, if somebody could sneak out over the railroad tracks, then that was it. But nobody could, because usually there were SS men watching. So we were totally surrounded.


Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Part I

Debbi Portnoy (interviewer): Tell me how things started to change for you and your family.

Rose Silberberg-Skier: Before the war started there was no change. Everything was just normal. The first day of the invasion it started to go haywire.

DP: Tell me about that.

RS: First of all, when the Germans invaded in 1939, they took my maternal uncle, who was 18 (his name was Yehudah Klapholz), my paternal uncle, Menachem Silberberg, who was a married man, but a young man, and other uncles and cousins, and they put them against a wall and shot them dead. This was in the city of Trzebinia. Because when they invaded, some people ran to Krakow, a little bigger town, figuring the Germans had already a name that they would be looking for. To just hide. But they rounded them up.

I understand that when they saw my uncle Yehudah Klapholz, he was walking in the street. The SS came over and said, “Are you of the Chosen People?” And he was startled…he must have said yes. And they took him and they shot him dead.

DP: How did you know that?

RS: Well, as far as what happened, I know from my uncle, who is his brother, who is alive now. And there is a book written about this town and how my uncle was killed. Exactly. In fact, from the book, as I was reading, and from people who were eyewitnesses, who were not shot. Women were not killed at this time. Only men.

They used to call them the Einzatzgruppen. These were just “death squads.” They used to come with the soldiers, and round up the males, and shoot them.

DP: So that happened to your uncle. What about to you yourself. How did things start to change for you?

RS: Well I remember my mother, whose brother was murdered like this, how she cried, and my grandmother. And I remember how they had to go and identify the bodies, because they were all in one pile. They just left them there like dead, to bleed to death. And some were not even dead yet.

And my grandmother, who was a widow…it was a major tragedy for the whole town, because everyone was going there to look for the dead people. And who were the people? Young people. A boy of 18. This was a son who was murdered for no reason whatsoever.

In fact, I understand from my aunt, who was in that town last year, that this mass grave is there in that city of Trzebinia. So it was already a terrible thing to see my mother cry for her brother. And I remember him because he used to give me piggy-back rides. He used to give me little chocolate fish with green paper wrapped around it. And then I hear 2 or 3 days later that he’s dead.

It just was horrible, horrible. It was the beginning of all the misery.

DP: What went through your mind when you first heard that he was killed?

RS: I…You know, when say “killed” when you are 5 years old or 6 years old…it still doesn’t make that much sense. It’s just that I realized that I’ll never see him again. I couldn’t believe it. And then, of course, he wasn’t the only one. There was another uncle and another uncle…terrible. Because from both sides of the family they were grieving.

DP: Were any anti-Jewish laws put into effect at this point for you?

RS: Oh, absolutely. First of all, the Jews had to give everything up that they had. They had to give up furs, or diamonds, or any kind of money, or foreign currency…

DP: How did you hear about that?

RS: That I heard as they were discussing it. And they used to go to a certain point, to a certain place and give everything up. And if you didn’t give it up and they found you that you had it, you were shot. So it was just like that. And then what happened was, we were living near the highway going to Krakow, all the Jews were evacuated from the highways, from the main places, and put into the inner city.

So that we were moved from our apartment. Everything was lost. The furniture too. Everything was gone, out. And we moved to my grandfather’s house. That was really in the middle of the town. That was his own house, three stories high. So the whole family, all the uncles, brothers, so on, all moved to the same spot. And even though the house was nice and spacious when my grandfather was there, but still, when you had a few families, it became very crowded.

DP: How many people were you in the house, approximately?

RS: Well, I know that I was in one room with my mother and my father and my sister, so just one room. And a few of his brothers and sisters and families, and there were also some single brothers and sisters…maybe 20 people? But on the main floor there was a store, and then in the back there was a printing press which was still running…run by the Germans, taken away from the Jews, but still running. And the stores too.

So it wasn’t just that it was an apartment. There were apartments there. But still, it was very crowded.

And then they had to have coupons to buy food, and there was very little food already. There was rationing. And you had to stand on line for the food. Which before the war, there was no problem with food in Poland. If you had the money, you could buy it.

And also, you could not go anywhere out of town. So for instance, the six buses that my grandfather had, which were his buses, his business, that was taken away. And the Jews were not even allowed to board them.

DP: Describe a typical scene where because of the crowding, people were having difficulty getting along.

RS: I had one uncle, he was a single boy, and he was maybe 18, 20 at that point. His name was Motl Silberberg. And he used to pick fights with his sisters and brothers who were all adults already, because of the nervous situation that was there. And I remember my father used to say, “Stop it.” My father had never used to live with him at this point, except now we had been there together. He used to say, “Stop it, stop it, stop it.”

And then, I remember what happened to him. The Germans came, and that was the first action they started in this town, must have been the end of ’40, ’41? And they came and they took away my aunt. Her name was Goldie Silberberg, she was very pretty. And because this Motl, who was the brother, used to fight so much with her, for no reason at all, suddenly he felt very bad about it, and he went down to the Germans, to the market place where they were all assembling there and said, “I want to give myself up, and give back my sister.” Of course they took both of them. Nobody ever heard from them again. They were taken to Auschwitz.

DP: How did you know they were taken to Auschwitz?

RS: Because it was known later that all transports were going to Auschwitz, and we were only ten miles from Auschwitz. That’s where we were born. So it was just 1-2-3. And there was a railroad track there. They used to go by rail.

DP: At this point, in ’40, ’41, did you know what Auschwitz was?

RS: Not at all. Just we thought they probably went to work. Because that’s what they used to say, the Germans. “You’re going to work.”

DP: You talked about having to wait on lines with coupons for food. Did you ever have to do that?

RS: No.

DP: Who took care of that for your family?

RS: My mother, because at that point there was no more maid. Because we had to move away, but also because the Germans forbade Christians to work for Jews. So she had to quit even though she wasn’t happy because she needed the money. But she had to quit, so my mother used to do everything after that.

DP: Were you able to stay in contact with her (the maid) at this point?

RS: No. Because she was in the Christian side, and as they put us in the inner city, then they got rid of the Christians, and they moved the Jews in. It wasn’t a “ghetto,” but still it was already a separation, and you couldn’t go to the other side of town.

DP: How did you take care of religious activities if you were kind of constrained like that?

RS: The synagogue was still within that part of town where the Jews were living. There was only one. So there was no problem there.

DP: Were there any type of curfews set up?

RS: Absolutely. I remember, even before we had moved to my grandfather’s house, that I and a cousin of mine, were walking around 7 o’clock. And it was Friday, and we totally forgot the time, and we were playing, and right after that we realized as we were going home that an SS man was following us.

And we were just little kids! 5, 6! And he was following us right into my house. And as we came home, the door was open, and my father was making Kiddush. And he had a beautiful voice.

And the SS man stood, and waited till he finished, which was unusual. And then he said, “They broke the cufew. Next time this happens I’m going to take them away. You’ll never see them again.” And my father was thanking him. I remember that.

Of course, when he left, the SS man, my father almost hit me. “What did you do! That’s all I need!”

DP: Was there any type of schooling that you attended at this point?

RS: Well, it was in my home town. As long as I was in my home town…up to the six months. After that, no, because the Jews were not allowed to go to school. Because these were schools that were Christian schools, basically. And there were no Jewish schools. The Jewish schools were shut down.

DP: What happened after that?

RS: After that, I remember that we were…my father heard from a Polish man who told him that he had overheard Germans (because he was working for the Germans, in a hardware business or something) that they will come the next day, and dissolve the whole town and take all the Jews to Auschwitz. When he told this to my father, I remember my father hired a wagon with a horse, and a driver, and we all got in that wagon and we went to another town called Sosnowiecz.

At that time, since this was still not a ghetto, we could do it. We could just drive off. And we did. And the following day, true enough, the whole town was gone. Our home town of Jaworzno. And we were in Sosnowiecz.


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.



I first got the idea for posting my mother's story while participating in Israpundit's Auschwitz Blogburst. My original thought was to exerpt the book, "Hiding to Survive," by Maxine Rosenberg, which contains a chapter about my mother. But I found that the story was a bit too short, and factually wrong in places.

My next thought was to have my mother type the story, and mail it to me. She suggested instead that I write the story myself, based on the interview that she gave Spielberg's Shoah Foundation. I had planned to rewrite it as a narrative, but in watching the tape, I realized that I would never be able to improve on my mother's own words.

The testimony is not a story. It is an interview, conducted by Debbi Portnoy, on September 11, 1997. She asks excellent questions which help to focus the testimony in a logical, sequential manner. It will become clear that in truth, I don't think my mother required much guidance, but it did encourage her to be more complete in areas that would otherwise likely have been skipped over.

The interview is 210 minutes on two video tapes. To facilitate my transcription, I transferred it to my computer. I had thought to edit it in places, but I could not find much that was excess. While I considered skipping the Prologue, which takes place before the war, I realized that this was perhaps the most important piece of the story. It may seem mundane, but the description of life in pre-War Poland, of her family and home, was vital to gaining a true appreciation of the horror that she and the rest of European Jewry had to endure. Without a description of the normality of life before the invasion, this would be reduced to the stereotypical depiction of the Holocaust. Endless scenes of men with beards being herded onto cattle cars; shaved-headed skeletons walking into gas-chambers.

You have to know the people before the War, if you are to appreciate the loss caused by the War.

It is fitting, too, that the day that I officially start this project is the 7th day of Adar. This is the yahrtzeit of my grandfather, Moses Silberberg, a man who died more than twenty years before I was born, and for whom I was named. He was also born on this day, as was Moshe Rabbeinu, for whom he was named.

(In the transcript that follows, DP is Debbi Portnoy and RS is Rose Silberberg-Skier.)


Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Rose's Story

My name is Mark Skier. I was born in Brooklyn in 1966. I had a normal, happy, American Jewish childhood. 30 years before my birth, the situation was quite different for my mother, who was a Polish Jew and who lived through the Holocaust. Her entire immediate family was murdered by the Nazis, and she survived with the help of her aunt.

Many second generation survivors state that their parents are uncomfortable or unwilling to share their experiences with their children. My mother was quite different. She is very eloquent and eager to share her story, not only with her family, but with the world. She has been the subject of articles and books, and has spoken publicly many times.

Her story is quite frankly unbelievable, but the sad truth is that it is not uncommon enough to be fiction. In 1997 Steven Spielberg's Shoah Foundation interviewed her for their archives. I recently received a copy of this testimony. What follows here is my transcription of her interview.