April 15, 2024
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Helga Marx Silbermann Shares Her Terrifying Holocaust Experience at Teaneck Commemoration

Even at age 92, 77 years after her ordeal, Helga Silbermann has nightmares and frightening memories when she readies herself to address audiences about her Holocaust experiences. “I don’t want to do it but I know that it is something I must do.” Ms. Silbermann has addressed young and adult audiences numerous times over the course of many years. Her objective is to spread the word by enabling her audience to turn to their children, grandchildren, neighbors and friends and say, “I heard firsthand from someone who was there.”

Helga Silbermann addressed the 34th Teaneck Community-Wide Holocaust Commemoration at Teaneck High School on Wednesday, May 4. Preceding the program was a reception for Holocaust survivors and their families in the Media Room of Teaneck High School. Fittingly, the Media Room houses over 500 volumes of Holocaust memoirs and diaries donated by Teaneck families in honor of their loved ones who perished. A sculpture by local Teaneck artist Milton Ohring as well as student artwork enhance the collection.

The Teaneck Holocaust Commemoration Committee, chaired by Steve Fox, Heidi Fuchs and Felicia Grossman, has worked for many months to organize the evening marking Yom Hashoah. The pool of speakers has greatly diminished over the past few years, which makes the selection process quite challenging. But Grossman said, “When we saw a clip of Helga’s presentation at my home many months ago, we were all astonished at her courage and determination. She was our absolute first choice.”

The Committee is tasked with organizing mailings to synagogues and individuals, formatting the actual program and locating candle lighters and their families, but it has become a real challenge to find survivors and their descendents to represent the Teaneck community. As we see in the audiences, fewer survivors are with us as the years go by.

Welcoming remarks were made by Bruce Prince, Co-President of the Jewish Community Council of Teaneck, followed by a somber tribute to recently, tragically deceased Mayor Lizette Parker, who had wanted to read the Proclamation to the Victims of the Holocaust as is traditional. Tearfully, Elie Katz, Deputy Mayor of Teaneck, proclaimed May 1 through May 8 2016, “Holocaust Remembrance Week, to recognize all victims of the Holocaust and to continue within the Teaneck community to strive to overcome intolerance.”

A video, prepared by Steve Fox, co-chairman of the Holocaust Committee, whose Father OBM was a survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto, was debuted. Through it Fox expressed the belief that “our uppermost agenda is to teach the next generation the lessons of the Holocaust.” In keeping with that mission, Fox was pleased to show the architectural plans for a memorial that the Township of Teaneck has approved to be constructed on a portion of the Municipal Green. The memorial will incorporate an extensive outdoor educational component, utilizing state-of-the-art technology, to provide young and adult visitors with a meaningful and enriching experience.

Greetings from the committee were offered by Felicia Grossman, who also introduced the keynote speaker. Helga Marx Silbermann was born and raised in Bonn, Germany, into a privileged life. Her parents left Germany in 1936 and 1938 leaving her in the care of her grandparents, who owned a lovely home from which she attended fine German schools. In 1938, her life plummeted when she was forced to leave her German school and attend a school designated for Jewish children ages 7 to 18. On the night of November 10, 1938, her personal nightmare began when the doorbell rang and Oberkommando Miller stormed into her grandparents’ home demanding that they come with him to witness the burning of the local synagogue and its contents. If they wanted to save any of the holy scrolls, they would have to come with him immediately. So into the ominous Black Mercedes Helga and her grandparents went only to be horrified at the flames shooting out of their beloved House of Prayer. Unhesitatingly, her grandfather ran in with little Helga in tow, to rescue a Sefer Torah that was already being singed by the encircling flames. For Helga, her most nightmarish vision is that of her grandfather’s little beard lit up in flames as he embraced the Torah in his arms. She instinctively brushed off the little flames from his beard with her hands but has been haunted by this image for seven decades.

“That very night,” as Helga attests, “at age 13, I became a woman, when Oberkommando Miller moved into my room. Surrounded by rifles on either side of the bed, I was in danger at every turn.” Somehow, even at her tender age, Helga knew that she was placed in this precarious position to serve as a savior for her people, which she did by conveying names she overheard of Jews scheduled for deportation to her grandfather on little slips of paper, which he then flushed down the toilet after alerting the victims.

For two years, Helga lived this hellish existence. “I pretended to be the best little wife ever despite my disgust and humiliation.” In the mornings, her supportive grandparents never let on that they knew what she was being subjected to. Even though they were offered their freedom several times throughout those two years, they refused to leave Helga. Instead they led her to believe that she was “a gift from God.”

At the end of the two years, Oberkommando Miller escorted her, her grandparents and their salvaged Sefer Torah to her father and stepmother at the Dutch border. The monstrous Miller took leave of little Helga by kissing her left cheek, “where her heart lay,” and declaring his perpetual love for her. So ended her physical ordeal, leaving her to deal with the tragic emotional trauma of her young life. She relocated to the US with her parents, and half brother and sister, with whom she remained close.

The precious salvaged Torah was re-written by the Riverdale congregation where it now resides. It is used in synagogue services, often at Bar and Bat Mitzvah celebrations. A few years ago Silbermann brought it with her when she addressed the students of The Moriah School in Englewood.

Looking around the audience at the conclusion of Silbermann’s presentation, it was quite evident that her courageous saga would be passed along and long remembered.

The evening continued with musical renditions of Es Brent and Ani Maamin by pianist Jonathan Rimberg accompanied by violinist Stephanie Kurtzman. The Yavneh Academy choir, under the direction of Marsha Motzen, offered several selections including an inspirational rendition of the Partisan Song.

Rabbi Moshe Stavsky, Rav of Bais Medrash of Bergenfield recited Tehillim 23, followed by the reading of the names of family members of people in the Teaneck community who perished in the Holocaust. During the emotional reading out of the names by Rabbi John Krug and Arline Duker, six survivors and their descendents ascended the stage to light memorial candles to the memories of their beloved. The evening concluded with the Kaddish and the Memorial Prayer chanted by Rabbi Yosef Adler of Congregation Rinat Yisrael.

As part of this year’s programming, both the Teaneck Public Library and the Bergenfield Library were host to an exhibit of student artwork from Teaneck High School and Yavneh Academy expressing the students’ emotional reactions to this tragic period in Jewish history.

The Teaneck Holocaust Commemoration stands out as one of the most meaningful events in the Jewish Teaneck calendar. To learn more about how you can be involved in this committee and in the planning of the Holocaust Memorial go to www.teaneckyomhashoa.org.

By Pearl Markovitz

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