Joseph Silber (1915-2007)
Our father, Joseph Silber, was born in 1915 in Keidan, Lithuania. His mother, Rosa Sternfeld, was a dressmaker who had studied design in Paris; his father Hirsh Silber a violinist from Vienna who played for the silent movies. His parents met in the Jewish socialist circles of Paris and after his father served in the Austrian army during WWI, they remained permanently separated. He was raised by his mother in Keidan where they lived with his aunt Mere and his uncle, Moshe Finkelstein, a lawyer.
Although his mother and uncle were among the most educated people in their town, they were extremely poor. His mother ran a sewing school for girls, and years later in America, he was given a picture of his mother and himself with some girls of the sewing school, one of whom had kept it and gave it to a friend of his who had gone back to Keidan. It was the only picture he had of his mother and himself together.
Although he grew up in poverty, he received an extraordinary education. He was always an excellent student, who became fluent in 10 languages, partly because he had to help his uncle, whose eyesight was failing, write legal papers. He attended a Lutheran German-speaking kindergarten and later other schools taught in other languages. His knowledge of Torah and Hebrew was enormous too from his early years studying in Cheder.
Because his family was too poor for him to attend the Jewish gymnasium, he attended a Lithuanian public gymnasium, which was deeply anti-Semitic by that time. This proved to be a blessing, since by the time he graduated from gymnasium, the University in Lithuania was closing to graduates of Jewish schools. Dad said he managed at gymnasium because he was friends with a very large Lithuanian farmboy, who in return for Dad doing his homework, protected him from the boys who would have otherwise beaten up the little Jewish boy.
Being first in his class at Lithuanian gymnasium, Dad was able to attend medical school in Kovno, where he often slept on chairs pushed together at the home of his cousins. Upon graduation, Dad had the luckiest break of his life, although it certainly would not have seemed to be that at the time. Communists were in charge of Lithuania, and in June of 1941, Dad along with thousands of others were arrested; in his case for being a Zionist (in the summers, he attended the Zionist pioneer camp outside Keidan). Dad was sent to prison in Smolensk, Russia, which saved his life.
Within days of his arrest, the Germans invaded Lithuania, and soon all the Jews of Dad’s town, including his elderly mother, were killed by their Lithuanian neighbors. Dad’s mother, he later learned, had been killed when she tried to escape to the home of one of her students. She was identified by a neighbor as a Jew and shot in the street. She was 70. His elderly uncle, too frail to walk, was transported by wheelbarrow to the place that the Jews were killed. In Keidan, the Jewish community, a community that had been there for over 500 years and numbered approximately 3000, was entirely shot in a single day, August 28, 1941.
Meanwhile, upon Dad’s arrival in Smolensk, the prisoners were divided into two groups: educated (bourgeois) and uneducated (workers). The former group which included our father was sent to the stables. Dad thought he would be executed in the morning. That night, however, the Germans bombed Smolensk. He escaped with his life, and was found wandering days later, and saved again, this time by being deported to a more remote prison camp. However, since the war was underway, doctors were needed so Dad was sent first to an army hospital and then sent to join the army of General Zukov at the battlefront, as part of the surgical team for a tank brigade. Eventually, the brigade helped liberate several Polish cities, including Lodz.
Dad tells the story of becoming a surgeon in the Russian army. Dad said that when his superior officer told him that he was going to be a surgeon for the army, he replied, “But how can I be a surgeon? I just finished medical school, I haven’t yet done a residency. “ The officer said, “Son, when the Russian army tells you you’re a surgeon, then you are a surgeon”. So our father became a surgeon.
He not only was a surgeon but also a translator given his gift for languages. At the end of the war and after, he also served as a doctor to those displaced Jews coming out of the concentration camps and displaced person camps. When he went back to his hometown in Lithuania, he had found no trace of any of his family, and in all the houses of his Jewish friends and neighbors, were the relatives of their non-Jewish killers. Though he rarely spoke of it, he said that this was the bitterest period of his life. Because his mother was so beloved by the Lithuanian girls (all non-Jewish) that she taught, he thought that somehow she would have been saved. Nonetheless he continued his work as a physician with those displaced by the war.
Dad was stationed after the war in Berlin as an army officer, doctor and interpreter. In Berlin, Dad interacted with Americans (he was the interpretor for the famous German surgeon Sauerbrot who gave lectures to Russian and American doctors) and a US army chaplain let him know that if he chose to escape, he would be welcomed. One day, he made up his bed to look as though he were still in it, he put on civilian clothes (and hid his uniform) and he went by train from the Soviet to the American side of Berlin. Had he been caught, he would have been shot as a deserter.
In the American zone, dad continued his work as a physician screening refugees emigrating for Palestine/Israel and serving as chief medical officer of Camp Hof run by the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. Dad also worked for American Naval Intelligence where he helped train spies who came out of Harvard in the slang, jokes, drinking games and other habits of Russian officers so that they could pass as Russians
He made some of his life-long friends during this period, including some who had themselves come out of camps or served in the Resistance, and he reconnected with the Jewish doctors who he had gone to Medical School with in Kovno, who remained his close friends throughout his life. After they came to America, they all studied for their medical boards together, and although they all went into different fields of medicine, and lived in different cities, mostly in the New York area, they stayed in touch.
In America, Dad became an aneasthesiologist (a field that was just beginning), a competitive runner (he began competing in his sixties) and the proud grandfather of seven. However, he sometimes said that the first half of his life in Europe and the second half of his life in America were so different from one another that he thought one of them must be a dream. Joseph Silber died at the age of 92 in Englewood, New Jersey, survived by his wife, Thelma Bond Silber, his three daughters Joanne, Barbara and Sharon, and by seven grandchildren.
Written by Sharon Mary Silber, named for Rosa Shternfeld Silber and Mere Shternfeld Finkelstein.