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Holocaust survivor provides a lesson in perseverance

Families torn apart, the arduous and frightening life behind barbed wire, emaciated bodies and then the death march as Russian and Allied forces moved in.

Sam Silberberg spoke with precision as if the events were still fresh. He paused at certain points to let his audience process what he was telling them.

Silberberg, 86, had the rapt attention of fourth- and fifth-graders at Top of the World Elementary this week as he shared what life was like in two Nazi concentration camps and his subsequent escape.

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It was the first time Silberberg, a Laguna Woods resident, had spoken to an elementary school audience, and so he needed to tailor his content.

But in a way it was fitting that he talked to this age group, since Silberberg was 10 and living in Poland when the Germans entered the country in 1939, intent on cleansing the land of Jews.

During the next six years, the Germans shipped the Silberbergs and other families to ghettos, compounds where they weren’t allowed to leave without permission and thus could not work to make a living. Many starved.

The Germans eventually eliminated the facilities and sent the people to one of two camps, Silberberg said. The Nazis grouped able-bodied men in one camp, relegated to forced labor, while invalids, women and children were shipped immediately to gas chambers in Auschwitz.

“There was a lot of crying and agony,” Silberberg said of families being torn apart, not knowing if they would see each other again. Silberberg’s father, Solomon, decided it would be best if the family split up to maximize each person’s chance at survival. Silberberg and Solomon stuck together while Silberberg’s mother, Baila Siegman Silberberg, along with his two brothers and sister, remained a group.

Silberberg, then 13, and Solomon, a devout Jew who held to the tenets of his faith, were standing among a crowd as an officer began assigning people to camps.

Fearing his short stature would lead Nazi officers to consider him a child, Silberberg found a concrete block and stood on it so he would appear taller. When the guard asked him what he did for living, he said he was a mason’s helper.

The Nazis shipped Silberberg and his father together to a camp called Blechhammer in present-day Poland. The Germans assigned each prisoner a number, a striped uniform, a canister and sack that officers filled with each day’s food — a few slices of bread, margarine and cup of “watery” soup, according to Silberberg.

Handcuffed prisoners walked to their work assignments. Silberberg assisted a welder piecing together beams.

Over time, paltry amounts of food took their toll. Silberberg said he saw emaciated men’s rib bones sticking through stretched skin. If they became ill and could not work, German officers killed and cremated them.

Curious students occasionally asked Silberberg to explain certain terms, such as “ration.” Silberberg also involved students by asking them if they understood specific words.

Much of the time the children simply listened as Silberberg, invited to speak by teacher Marie Bammer, continued with his story.

Silberberg longed to escape the confines of a building surrounded by a barbed wire fence harboring electrical currents, but his father urged against it.

Silberberg admired his father for his devout Jewish faith, but ruminated over and at times became angry with God.

“I told him, ‘You pray to God,’ yet the Nazis claim God is with them,” Silberberg said. “What is the point of living if all we do is work for the Germans?”

Silberberg recalled his father’s words: “You’ve got to have faith. Be an optimist. God controls everything.”

His father’s encouragement resonated with Silberberg as he found himself hopeful of an escape in the midst of a death march. With the Russian and Allied armies hot on the Germans’ tails in early 1945, the Nazis evacuated the camps, sending prisoners back to Germany.

Prisoners marched in deplorable conditions, with no food or water during the entire duration of the march. To get water, prisoners filled canisters with snow, which they pressed to their bodies in hopes the warmth would melt the snow.

Many collapsed along the side of the road and died. On the fifth day with no food or water, Silberberg, who later wrote a book about the experience called, “From Hell to the Promised Land,” said he reached the breaking point.

Then on Jan. 26, 1945, Silberberg capitalized on an opportunity. While walking along a road with German soldiers guiding French prisoners of war, Silberberg noticed a German officer had turned his back for a split-second. Silberberg, wearing two sets of clothes, took off his striped uniform so others could see him dressed in a woolen sweater and cap emblematic of a French POW.

Silberberg said he had gotten the woolen sweater and cap while at Blechhammer, where English and French POWs were stationed.

With these clothes, Silberberg had the freedom to approach a roadside camp where a French cook nurtured a kettle of soup. The cook gave Silberberg a large slice of bread with melted cheese and soup, a meal Silberberg called heavenly.

Horse-driven sleds traversed the area, thus Silberberg grabbed hold of the back of one sled until he got to Neisse-Neustadt. A bridge that crossed a river led to the Catholic convent where Silberberg knew his mother worked in the geriatric center.

A German guard stood at the bridge’s entrance, thus Silberberg needed to create a believable story that he was from the area.

In a thick French accent, Silberberg told the guard he was working for a German farmer and the two lost each other while running into the fields during a Russian air raid. Silberberg pretended he could not understand the guard and said all he wanted was to go to the employment office and be assigned to another local farmer.

“Finally he got tired of me and motioned with his arm across the bridge telling me to go ahead,” Silberberg said in the book.

This was just the break Silberberg needed as he eventually reunited with his mother. The rest of his immediate family, including his father, died at the hands of the Nazis.

Of the 1.3 million people shipped to the Auschwitz camps between 1940 and 1945, 1.1 million died, according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

When asked how he made split-second decisions, such as using the cinder block to stand on, Silberberg replied, “When you are under stress you have a choice, either succumb or fight. By the way my instincts were honed, I was able to do it.”

Silberberg’s talk coincided with a unit on survival that Bammer teaches. Bammer had invited Silberberg to speak after attending a conference on anti-bias at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles.

“I’m always drawn to the World War II stories to bring history to the kids ... to share stories of survival and perseverance,” Bammer said.

Students wrote thank you letters that the teacher will deliver to Silberberg.

“The kids adored him,” she said. “The favorite part for some was how he reconnected with his mom. A lot [of students] talked about realizing they could get through anything after hearing his story. They learned he has been through so much, they can get through things too.”

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bryce.alderton@latimes.com

Twitter: @AldertonBryce


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