By: Theresa Schempp, Staff Writer
On Wednesday, Holocaust survivor Halina Silber spoke to students about her life as a member of the Jewish population saved by German industrialist Oskar Schindler, who would become famous after Steven Spielberg’s film Schindler’s List, during the early 1940s.
“While Jews across Poland and Germany were being exterminated, Schindler gave us the best of care within his factory,” Silber said. “He fought all the obstacles to protect us from hard until the very end of the war, and succeeded in saving our lives. The lives of 1,200 Jews.”
She was invited by the Department of Early Childhood Education as a guest in honor of Holocaust Remembrance Day, and gave a recount of her life during the Holocaust.
Sibler was born in Krakow, Poland, and after the German invasions of 1939 her family of seven, moved to a small village hoping they would avoid being placed in the concentration camps. As the Germans began to go to each village and take away Jews, her mother began to lose hope.
“[The Germans] told us that they would be going to a better place,” Silber said. “We did not know because no one came back from that better place.”
Her mother, not wanting her to go to a concentration camp, packed her bags and arranged for her to work at a forced-labor camp outside of Krakow. Silber did not want to go, but her mother told her she had no choice.
“When I turned around I saw my mother waving goodbye to me,” Silber said. “Little did I know that was the last goodbye. To my mother and the rest of my family.”
Shortly after Silber left home, her parents and two of her siblings were taken to the Belzec Extermination Camp, where they were killed.
Silber worked at the forced-labor camp, until she was selected to work at a new factory run by Schindler. Schindler was a member of the Nazi Party, but once he saw the cruelty enacted on the Jews during the Holocaust, refused to be any part of it. Instead, he opened his factory with the intention of ensuring that the Jews who worked for him would be safe under his jurisdiction.
“Schindler gave us protection and care,” Silber said. “But most importantly, he gave us back our dignity.”
During the time that Silber worked for Schindler, she observed the different actions he took to ensure their safety. She said that he bought additional food and yarn with his own money so that his workers could make sweaters and socks to be warm during the winter. He also gave the men guns in order to protect themselves and the other workers should Nazi soldiers ever invade the factory.
However, despite all of his interventions, Silber and other workers were sent to Auschwitz. Silber vividly remembers her time there, and believing that she would never leave.
“I thought to myself there is no room for hope,” Silber said. “There is no room for miracles in this place.”
Silber mostly remembers when it was time to shower, because a shower could also mean they were being led to gas chambers. Nazi soldiers would lead them into the rooms, where they were stripped of all of their clothes and belongings.
“I remember the horror of waiting.” Silber said.
After a few weeks, a list saved Silber.
“Schindler intervened, and a man on a motorcycle came the next day with a list, calling off our names,” Silber said, who was number 16 on that list. “It was unusual because we no longer had names, and just used our numbers.”
Silber and others returned to Schindler’s factory, where Schindler gave a short speech conveying that they would be safe. They remained and worked at the factory until liberation. Silber said that many questioned why a Nazi would save over a thousand Jews.
“For us, the answer was very simple,” Silber said. “He was just a decent man who could not tolerate nor be cruel to human life.”
Once the war was over, Schindler was wanted as a Nazi and would be hanged. The Jews who worked at his factory helped him escape in the middle of the night.
“One does not have to be a saint to do saintly things,” Silber said.
After recounting her story, Silber stressed the importance of Holocaust Remembrance Day and said how these stories and others must never be forgotten.
“You are the last generation having the opportunity to listen to our words of suffering and how we survived the Holocaust,” Silber said. “So when the rest of us are gone, you will keep reminding the world of our past.”