Henry Silberstern was born Norbert Henry Silberstern on April 15, 1930, in Teplice, Czechoslovakia, to Jan and Edita Werner Silberstern. He and his older brother, Rolf, born in 1926, lived a comfortable life in Teplice, surrounded by loving parents and maternal grandparents until October 1938, when the Nazis took over northwestern Czechoslovakia in an area known as the Sudetenland, where Henry's family lived. The family moved to Prague where they believed they would be safe from Nazi threats.
By March 1939 the Nazis had occupied the rest of Czechoslovakia and their lives changed drastically. Jews had to carry ID cards stamped with a J; his father could no longer practice law and there were limited job opportunities for Jews. By 1941, they were forced to relocate to designated Jewish housing and wear a yellow star marked with the word “Jude” for Jew. Henry and his brother could no longer attend public school. Henry’s grandfather, Max Werner, died in 1941, while his grandmother, Adele Langer Werner, was sent to Terezin in 1942, never to be heard from again.
In November 1942, Henry and his mother were sent to the Terezin Ghetto where Henry was assigned to a boy’s dormitory, L417 with three tiers of bunk beds and a separate area for eating and sleeping. There Henry found companionship with the other boys who were taught in secret. Terezin was different from the other camps. Cultural activities were encouraged as the Nazis wanted to create the illusion that the inmates at Terezin led normal lives. They allowed concerts and a popular children’s opera Brundibar to be performed. Henry for a time sang in the chorus. In Terezin, prisoners were also permitted to receive mail and parcels with additional clothes and food. In March 1942, Henry received a package with a note inside notifying him of his father’s death.
In April 1943 Henry’s turned thirteen. A group of boys and men gathered secretly with Henry in the dormitory attic to celebrate his Bar Mitzvah. His mother, unable to attend the ceremony, made a cake from the sugar and shortening Henry received as a present. A few months later, on July 5th, Henry’s brother, Rolf arrived allowing the family to spend a little more time together.
The Red Cross was expected to visit Terezin in the summer of 1944. To relieve overcrowding, a large number of prisoners, including Henry and his mother, were transported from Terezin to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Arriving May 19th, they were immediately sent to the family camp established there in anticipation of a follow-up visit to Auschwitz by the Red Cross. By this time Henry was tattooed with an identifying number, A1843. By early July, when it became apparent that the Red Cross would not be visiting, the Nazis disbanded the family camp, selecting 2,500 of the prisoners to survive as laborers, Rolf and Henry’s mother among them. The remaining family camp residents were slated for the gas chamber.
On July 6th or 7th, 500 boys, aged 12 to 15, were lined up for a special selection. Dr. Mengele chose 89 of the 500 to work for him in the camp. The remaining boys were sent to the gas chambers. The 89 boys later would call themselves the “Birkenau Boys.”
In the fall of 1944, six boys, including Henry, were selected for slave labor laying bricks in a sub-camp of Auschwitz called Fürstengrube, a mining camp run by I.G. Farben. The following year, the Germans began to close camps and send the prisoners on forced marches to neighboring camps. On January 19, 1945, one thousand prisoners from Fürstengrube, including Henry and the five boys, were marched to Gleiwitz, Poland. and from there transported on open cattle cars to the Dora-Mittelbau, a sub-camp of Buchenwald, where Henry was assigned to deliver machine part to various assembly points. There he heard rumors of sabotage by the prisoners in the manufacture of short-range ballistic missiles. In February his camp was evacuated and he and the boys were transported to Bergen-Belsen where conditions were worse, with overcrowding, disease and scare food supplies, as the war was nearing its end. On April 15, 1945, the day of Henry’s 15th birthday, Bergen-Belsen was liberated by the British who set up a DP Camp for the former prisoners.
Henry inquired after his mother and was overjoyed to discover that she was alive and in Bergen-Belsen’s women’s camp, working as a translator for the British. Happily he received permission to visit her. On his last visit, however, he was informed that his mother was quarantined with typhus. They continued to communicate through letters until she succumbed to her disease.
Henry returned to Prague where for a short time he lived with his cousin and then with his uncle in Teplice where he finally went back to school. Later he returned to Prague where he was able to live in an orphanage and attend a gymnasium. By 1947 with the Communist takeover, he found that the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) would assist orphan children under 18 to emigrate. He chose Canada. Arriving in Toronto on August 3rd, 1948, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) arranged his room and board with a family and assisted him in finding a job. He later rented a room with the Donn family who embraced him as their own.
A friend introduced Henry to Beneta Bregger, whom he married on September 7, 1952. Their first daughter Edie was born the following year. In 1953 In 1954, they moved to Buffalo, NY, where their second daughter, Jan, was born. In Buffalo Henry worked with an aircraft subcontractor, where he was first introduced to computers. He later became a systems analyst, and this skill, along with the help of a friend, landed a job in 1963 at Rosewell Park Memorial Institute, for Cancer Research where he worked for 30 years, rising to became Director of Information Services. In the late 1960’s Henry received an equivalency diploma (GED) through Bennett High School and enrolled at Millard Filmore College, an evening division at the University of Buffalo.
Jan and Edith eventually married and moved to Albany and Rochester respectively. Each has two boys. In 1998 Henry and Beneta relocated to Rochester to be close to their daughter Edie and her family. There Henry became an active volunteer for CHAI speaking to over 3,000 students a year about his experiences during the Holocaust, traveling with them to the US Holocaust Museum and eventually with students from Nazareth and Hobart William Smith Colleges to Germany and Poland. Henry recently became a great grandparent of three boys and one girl. One of his twin great grandsons bears his name. On October 25, 2016, Henry passed away at the age of 86.
Biography written by: Brittany Smith, Nazareth College