Geneseo Hillel brought Holocaust survivor Henry Silberstern to campus to speak about his experiences in recognition of Holocaust Memorial Day on Monday April 22. Silberstern was born in Czechoslovakia in 1930 and in 1938 his family moved to Prague, hoping to avoid the brewing problems in Germany. Unfortunately, Germany invaded Czechoslovakia.
There was a transition period before Silberstern was sent to a camp, during which he was not allowed to attend school or go to parks or shows, but had to wear a yellow star and move into designated housing.
“One of the worst things for me was being taken out of school,” Silberstern said. “It has affected me all my life.”
Silberstern first entered the camps when he was between the ages of 11 and 14 when he was sent to Theresienstadt with his mother - his older brother followed after their father died. Due to an upcoming Red Cross visit, all three were “resettled” to the larger camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1944.
“We thought that conditions in that camp were pretty horrific, but every time we were sent to another camp the previous camp looked pretty decent,” Silberstern said.
When a Red Cross visit never materialized at Birkenau, all able-bodied men and women were sent to other camps and the other 10,000 people were killed. Silberstern should have died with the other children, but was lucky enough to be picked by a doctor as one of 89 healthy boys that were saved and sent to a mining camp.
As the Allies got closer to the heart of Germany, Silberstern was sent to Bergen-Belsen where he was liberated on April 15, 1945. His mother died shortly after liberation of the aftereffects of starvation, malnutrition and typhus. Silberstern made his way back to Prague to find his older brother only to discover that he, too, had perished in the camps. Silberstern was sent to an orphanage until he immigrated to Canada in 1948.
According to a biography Hillel distributed about Silberstern’s life, out of 54 relatives he was the only one to have survived the Holocaust.
“It’s sometimes hard for people in my generation to wrap our minds around the travesty and what people went through,” Hillel President junior Ayelet Harel said. “I feel more connected to someone telling their personal story. It makes it very real and helps with the understanding and wrapping your mind around something that horrible.”
Immediately following the talk, Hillel hosted a candlelight vigil in front of the Integrated Science Center. The vigil included a reading of various literary tributes to all those who suffered in the camps and died as part of the Holocaust.