“What do you want people to know about you after you’re gone?” Maureen asks. Henry pauses, then says, “I think in some instances, the positive influence I had on their lives. That goes mainly for my grandsons.”
Henry Silberstern wrote a book for his four grandsons, called “Lost Childhood.” It’s a memoir about the holocaust, his survival, and new life in America. “They wanted not just a history so they have a background to hook into, but something more, to know that they didn’t come from nothing,” he says. “That there was something very positive there.”
When Silberstern was 12 years old, the Nazis tore him from his home in Prague.
He was separated from his mother and brother, and later became known as one of the Birkenau Boys: 89 boys chosen out of 500 to be spared from death, but put into slave labor. At the age of 15, he was liberated from the concentration camps, a boy heading into adulthood – with no family left. “I had no concept about what I would do or can do, or what’s waiting for me,” he says.
Silberstern eventually moved to Toronto, attended college in Buffalo, and settled there to raise a family. Nearly 20 years ago, he moved to Rochester. In that time, he has shared his story with thousands of local students. ” I don’t want to sound noble,” he says. “But life has been good to me. And I feel like I owe something. You may not agree, but I feel like I owe something to the community at large.”
The community at large is responding. The Jewish Community Center is undergoing a major project to honor the hundreds of holocaust survivors who made Rochester their home.
In the courtyard there’s a memorial to loved ones who perished in the holocaust.
The addition will bear the names of holocaust survivors who came to Rochester and built new lives.
The project will include an educational component, with witness testimony from survivors.
At the age of 84, Henry’s testimony is more important than ever. But his commitment is also to his family: His wife, his daughters and sons in law, his grandsons, and now, their children too.
“Family is most important to me,” he says.
“When you look back over the last 50 years, 60 years, 70…” Maureen asks him. “I shouldn’t be here,” Henry says. “That’s a gift.”
The Holocaust Survivors Memorial Committee of the JCC is asking the community to help identify survivors who currently live or previously lived in the Rochester community. If you have any information, please contact Rose Bernstein, Committee Chair at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information on Henry Silberstern’s memoir, “Lost Childhood”, click here.
To contact the Jewish Community Center, click here.