A “Schindler’s List” survivor shared her story of desperation and perseverance during the annual Holocaust Days of Remembrance observance at the Myer Auditorium April 27.
Hosted by Team APG and the U.S. Army Research Laboratory, Dr. Laurel Allender, the director of ARL’s Human Research and Engineering Directorate, introduced the event’s guest speaker, Silber, and said she had an “amazing story of survival.”
“Of course part of that story is of all those who did not survive, who were victims of the Holocaust,” she said.
Halina Silber, from Krakow, Poland, said she is alive today because of the courageous acts of Oskar Schindler, a German businessman and member of the Nazi party who saved the lives of more than 1,200 Jews during the Holocaust.
“Schindler gave us back our dignity,” Silber said, of the man whose actions were famously portrayed in the 1993 Steven Spielberg film “Schindler’s List.”
Silber, who is now a Maryland resident, said she was just 10 years old when the Germans occupied Krakow in 1939.
“I remember from the very beginning the stresses, the fears, the restrictions that my parents had to deal with daily,” she said. “Education for Jewish children was stopped.”
Silber said her mother sent her to volunteer to work in a forced labor camp in the summer of 1942. At the camp, she was eventually selected to work for Schindler in an enamelware factory in Krakow. According to Silber, he always treated the prisoners with kindness and compassion.
“Schindler chose a different mission,” she said. “Instead of killing, he made it his mission to protect and to save Jews. He was using his power to that end, and as a result of this mission, I am alive today.”
Sent to Auschwitz
In 1944, Schindler’s polish factory closed, and Silber and other Jewish prisoners were sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp in Nazi Germany.
I saw the crematorium, the smoke coming out of the chimneys, I could smell the stench of burning death,” she said. “Then looking at the inmates, the walking skeletons waiting to be liberated by death, I thought there is no more room here for hope, there is no more room here for miracles.”
Silber recounted the time she and other inmates were stripped of their belongings, had their hair cut and sent to the showers. At the time, Silber was not sure if water or gas would come out of faucets.
“I remember the horror of waiting, finally, miraculously, water came out, very cold water,” she said.
According to Silber, “by a miracle” Schindler intervened and a few days later a German officer read off the names of the prisoners on Schindler’s list that would be sent to work in his ammunition factory in Czechoslovakia. Silber’s name was number 16 on the list.
“He greeted us and held a short speech conveying to us that we would be safe here,” she said. “And then facing the group of SS [a paramilitary organization under the Nazi Party] men and women, said to them, ‘get rid of your whips because you will not use them here.’”
Silber said Schindler risked his own life to ensure the safety of the Jews, and would frequently bribe Nazi officials for extra food or clothing to give to the prisoners. “He was an angel sent by God to save us,” Silber said of Schindler.
The gift of freedom
After World War II, Silber immigrated to the United States, where she was given the “most precious gift” the “gift of freedom.” Unfortunately her parents and two siblings did not survive the Holocaust, they were murdered in the Belzec extermination camp, in Poland, she said.
In closing, Silber challenged the audience to tell future generations about the horrors of the Holocaust.
“You are the last generation to have the opportunity to hear our voices of suffering and the miracles by which we survived the Holocaust,” she said. “Many Holocaust survivors have already passed away, so when the rest of us will be gone, we hope you will keep reminding the world of our past.”
Silber encouraged the young people in the audience not to take their education or families for granted.
“During six years of war, at the most important formative years of learning, I was stripped of the right to continue of my education,” she said, “stripped also of the joys and the experiences of being a teenager.”
The strength of the human spirit
The event reflected the national Days of Remembrance theme, “Learning from the Holocaust: The Strength of the Human Spirit.” In addition to remarks by Silber, the program included the national anthem sung by Rachael Acevedo, with the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command. Cadets with the Freestate ChalleNGe Academy lit candles in memory of millions of Holocaust victims, led by Rabbi Gila Ruskin, from the Temple Adas Shalom.
“May we have the courage to believe that life can be better, may we have the ambition and the strength to make this world a better place. May we have the serenity to accept the things we cannot change and the courage to change what can be,” Ruskin prayed.
After the program, attendees viewed posters and educational displays in the lobby. Freestate ChalleNGe Academy Cadet Nicholas Stutzer, 19, said he was honored to participate in the candle lighting ceremony.
“It’s great to meet someone that has been through so much in her life. Her words will influence us,” he said. Stacy Matassa, of the U.S. Army Test and Evaluation Command, described the program as “very powerful.” Matassa said she was inspired by Silber’s story.
“I was moved by her calmness and by her conviction,” she said.