Silvia

This short story was written by Larry Salomon about his sister, Sylvia. Both were born in Herborn. We thank Larry for sharing his grief and memory with us.

My twin sister, Silvia, died when she was eight, in an extermination camp, Sobibor. She was my opposite: a sunny child. I envied her and I loved her. I envied and loved her brightness, in contrast to my gloominess. We were five years old when last I saw her.  The difference between us shows up in a photograph our parents had taken when we were perhaps a year old. Open eyed wonder and warmth exudes from her, something else – colder, examining, incomplete – from me.

This picture was taken too early to capture her slenderness and loveliness as we grew into our fifth year, only her sunniness. She was destroyed, probably when she was eight or nine, along with my parents and surviving grandparents, by the ever blowing cosmic swirl.

The last that I saw Silvia and my father and mother was through a train carriage window
on a Frankfurt a/m railway station platform (as it transpired a month or so before the outbreak of the Second World War). All the methods used by my parents to get me to agree to be sent away from them and to take a seat on that train have faded from memory, although I remember two of their tactics. First, they tried to threaten me with induction in the German army.  How different our states of mind were! I saw no problem in being taken into the German army. Already my parents had had to forbid me to join in a march through our town, Herborn, of those wonderfully uniformed Hitler Youth. Soldiers also had uniforms. I proposed that Silvia be sent to away instead. They agreed; Silvia would be sent to away instead. That did the trick. That I would miss out on the adventure they were painting (I’ve forgotten its details) in favor of Silvia? I couldn’t accept that. With mixed feelings, I asked them to send me to somewhere instead.

I would learn that the choice of which twin to send was neither mine, nor theirs.  Somewhere was the British Isles. An organization had been created to ship Jewish children out of Germany and to place them with Jewish and other families in England.  Both Silvia and I had received placements, but Silvia’s family had changed their mind.  My parents knew how to get me to agree to go; they also knew that Silvia had no family willing to take her, and that she would accept what they decided.

What would make any parents want to send their small children to live with total strangers in another country–another country with which one’s own country might soon be at war? My father was a decorated veteran of Germany’s First World War army; he must have understood that his service record might mean little or nothing. The cosmic wind had changed direction. It had changed so violently that many Jews tried to get out of Germany in 1939 even when this meant abandoning everything material except their clothes. My father’s sister, Rose, had left for America with her husband, Max, and son, Manfred, in 1938. When my parents – for reasons unknown to me – were unable to leave themselves, they decided to part with their children.

We lived in a farmhouse on the edge of Herborn. There were stables with horses in the back, and chickens. Our fields where my grandfather, Sally, mowed hay were further out of town, separate from the house. I don’t remember Sally’s wife, but both my mother’s parents lived with us. Grandfather Sally died before I left; his is the last grave in the town’s Jewish cemetery. Among my few memories is the smell of my father’s spit. He owned at one time a car, a black Ford, and at another time a motorcycle. (I suppose the car came first and then – I guess, probably because of the barriers being erected against Jews – came the motorcycle)  He took me on his motor cycle out of Herborn, perhaps on a business trip. (He had been a cattle dealer by profession.) I vomited. He stopped the machine, took out a handkerchief, spat on it and wiped my mouth, rather roughly. I also remember his anger, although I had no idea what may have been on his mind after Hitler came to power. I had seen in a shop window a red toy car that a kid could get into and pedal and had demanded that my parents buy it for me. My father said he didn’t have the money. I knew that he had a tray full of coins, indeed many quite large coins.  When I pointed this out, he said that the coins were no good to buy anything with. Disbelieving, I carried that wooden tray filled with large and small coins to the toy shop; needless to say I left that shop pedaling nothing. The coins weren’t current currency, perhaps they were not even German coins. The store owner summoned my father and turned me over to him, along with the tray of coins

I can count my memories of those years on my hands, perhaps on one hand. Silvia and I were moved into our parents’ bedroom. There are two disturbance memories here. One is of waking to noises coming from my parents’ bed, including sounds as if my mother was being hurt, and of me rising from my cot and uttering threats to my father. I don’t remember how I was lulled into calmness, but I was. The other memory of being in my parents’ bedroom is of waking to the sound of windows being smashed on the floor below and of strange voices yelling. Then–that same night–of being held in my mother’s arms while she opened the bathroom door on my father, now fully dressed, crouching as if hiding by the sink. Then of her opening the front door on a yelling mob with me still in her arms and Silvia trailing on foot, and of me, feeling totally secure in her arms, voicing threats to that very mob. I don’t remember what I shouted, but my mother said things that must have calmed the rock throwers. Somehow morning came. My father left the house and he didn’t come back for a period of time which I now understand must have been months, and when he did come back his head was shaved.

I don’t remember his actual return. Instead I see him at our kitchen table sitting with a number of other men with shaved heads, all eating soup. My mother and her mother were serving the soup in soup plates under which–to my awe– flat plates had been set. During the time that my presence at table, also with soup, escaped the men’s notice I gathered that they had to move around on a circular wooden platform in the place where they had all been, a place called Buchenwald. I was then ejected; my mother brought my soup and established me elsewhere.

I have learned since that the night when our windows were smashed was Kristallnacht and that my father surrendered himself the following morning at the town police station where he was known and was well treated and where he was processed forward to the concentration camp at Buchenwald. Amazingly (in view of what was to happen), an agitation developed in Germany which resulted in the release of Jewish war veterans from the camp. Thus the celebratory soup lunch with the extra plates.

Before or after that lunch–I don’t remember which–my grandmother, whose chin on one side was swollen, was grasping Silvia and me each by a hand. We were crossing the bridge over the Dill River, returning from shopping in town, shopping bag handles across Grandmother’s wrists. A man, addressing a crowd of people by the bridge, called on them to throw us in the river. I was frightened but not terrified because grandmother, staring straight ahead, squeezed my hand and drew us along without changing her pace.  I was further reassured by her ever present swollen chin, which was a solid mountain of permanence.

They are gazing at me from the station platform: father, mother and Silvia.  It was still almost a game. I could walk off the train. I did not walk off; I wasn’t tied down. They could beckon me to get off. I stayed in my seat knowing that I would never, ever, see them again. Why did I remain in that seat? The carriage began to move. Through the blur of my tears I watched them as long as possible.

I am eighty-three years old, so it’s been seventy-eight years since then.  What happened to them?  The fuzziest outline: someone informed my aunt, my father’s sister, Rose, who had come to America in 1938, that all of them including my grandparents had been arrested in 1942 and sent east. A soldier from Herborn who had known my father had reported having seen him working on a road in Poland. There was a report that he had been seen dying of starvation. In 2001 when I visited Herborn, the town archivist, Rudiger Storkel, gave me a little publication, Verfolgung, Vertreibung und Vernichtung der Herborner Juden (Persecution, Deportation and Annhilation of the Herborn Jews) that had been prepared by a youth group in the neighboring town, Dillenburg.  It included some documents and remarks relating to specific members of my family.  One referred to Silvia, then eight years old. The SS had only to pay German Railways a child’s half fare for her deportation to the East. Another reference, a photostated report on stationery of the office of gauleiter and dated 10 June 1942 lists 13 items collected from my family on this day, the day of their “evacuation”:

2 hundredweight potatoes
1 pail preserved beans (taken from a pot)
10 jars canned beans
1 jar canned red beets
2 jars cucumbers
3 jars canned sauerkraut
1 jar canned red currents
2 jars raspberry syrup (without sugar)
12 small bottles raspberry syrup
11/2 lbs. coffee-ersatz
1 jug vinegar
11/2 liters alcohol
2 bottles lamp or small stove oil

These items, the report states, were handed over to the Herborn National Socialist Welfare Office. I suppose there were other possessions which couldn’t be taken along. Their identity and the identity of those who wound up with these articles was not reported.

A separate document deals with my grandmother, she with the swollen chin who had taken Silvia and me across the bridge from which we were not thrown.  She had been hospitalized in neighboring Dillenburg.  A doctor there reported to the police as follows:

Dillenburg, June 8, 1942
Dr.’s Office Expert Report
By arrangement with the local police authority, I have as a result today examined Mrs. Julchen Sara Stern from Herborn, born 12/12/1882, to determine whether any health objections exist against transport to the East.
Results: ht. 155 cm., wt. 51.0 kg.,medium strength, internal organs [c.P or o.P.]
Opinion: No misgivings exist against transport East.

According to The Memorial Book of the [German] Federal Archives for the Victims of the Persecution of Jew under the National Socialist Tyranny in Germany 1933-1945, following their arrest in Herborn on June 10, 1942, all five (Silvia, parents, grandparents) were among 1,253 deportees on a train that left Frankfurt am Main on June 11, 1942 and arrived two days later at its two destinations in Poland, Majdanek and Sobibor. My father, holder of the Iron Cross, Second Class from the First World War, was killed at Majdanek, my mother and sister at Sobibor. German researchers were unable to determine which of the two extermination camps claimed my grandparents.  Perhaps they died on the train.  The Memorial Book’s entry about Silvia reads:

Salomon, Silvia Sylvia
born on 15th November 1933 in Herborn / Dillkreis / Hessen – Nassau
resident of Herborn
Deportation destination:
from Frankfurt am Main
11th June 1942, Sobibor, extermination camp
Date/Place of Death:
Sobibor, extermination camp
officially declared dead

Somehow my parents decided in 1938 or 1939 to try to send their children out of Germany, the country for which my father had fought. He had been awarded the Iron Cross, Second Class, the same decoration initially won by Hitler. Neither my parents nor anyone else –no German–could have foreseen the ugliest forms that the future would take…. or were there incidents where calls to kill children, as had happened to grandmother and us on the bridge over the Dill, had been carried out?  Whatever brought them to their decision to swallow the bitter draft whose taste they must have carried from that station after my train pulled out, also may have left a spark of joy, flickering on and flickering off, in their spirits. Losing me, they must have comforted themselves they saved me. But there remained Silvia, who brought a different bitter sweetness to their lives, from which the sweetness must have drained on their transport East in 1942.

I remember nothing of my train journey, who my compartment mates were, whether or not I annoyed them with my crying, only that at some point I was being transported within another country, Holland; then I was on a boat which was somehow linked to other tub-like boats like a string of children’s bath toys. Somewhere during this journey, during transfer from train to boat, or in the boat, an angry man picked me up and set me down by my ears which gave me another reason to cry. But there was also on that boat a kind nurse or perhaps she was a sister in her gray and white habit and headdress, though what she did to comfort me I no longer remember.

Next, I am sitting on my trunk in a vast, enclosed, naturally lighted cemented area, probably a pier, an area filled with groupings of all kinds of items of luggage and spacing’s between the groups of luggage and young and older children from the boats.  Adults kept arriving and the spaces between the groups of luggage grew larger and the number of children became fewer. I kept my eye on a girl my own age who was also sitting on a trunk. I desperately wished that she might remain sitting on her trunk when I disappeared from the scene rather than the other way around, as almost all the luggage had gone and the empty cement spaces had become enormous. But the next adults came for her. I wished her the worst; had I known then about sticking pins into dolls, I would have done it with her in mind. I, alone, sat there, angry at her luck.

Not long thereafter I was approached by a young adult wearing a hat and an overcoat who took me to London and after a day or so there put me on a train with emphatic instructions (which must have been in German) that when the conductor put me off that train I was to stand holding a white handkerchief (which he supplied) in my hand.  Thereby, he explained, the man who was to take me into his family would identify me.  But when, after a train journey across the waist of England, I was deposited with my trunk on a station platform (Newport, Monmouthshire), I could not bear to follow the instructions: to stand on a platform holding up a handkerchief, especially a white handkerchief, was effeminate, I thought. Perhaps in the future, drugs or other means will be discovered to open memory paths to the origin of particular thoughts, but I now have no idea whence came that thought. The combination of fear and stubbornness did not prevent me from being identified as there were not a hundred other five-year-olds- with- trunk standing on that platform, not even one other.

The man who arrived to meet me was not a forceful man. Had I known the word I might have said he was nondescript, a condition emphasized by his short stature, his thin greyish coat, and his air of distance. He spoke a little German. I don’t remember his words, but it became clear to me–absolutely clear–that I had all but arrived at ‘somewhere’. This person was now my future. Somehow, he managed me onto a bus seat.  Again, I surrendered myself to uncontrolled grief for the second time since Frankfurt. As the bus chugged wheezily and smellingly up what I learned later was the Sirhowy Valley from Newport to Tredegar, I cried so loudly and ceaselessly, punctuating my crying with screams in German for my mutti, that the other passengers were disturbed and tried to fasten their annoyed eyes on the eyes of the man who had me in his charge. He did say something to them in what must have been English, but this did not stop their looks of annoyance because, I suppose, the cause didn’t cease. Rabbi Schwartz, the man who was bringing me to the end of my journey, sat silently wearing a slight, pained smile. When we descended from the bus, I stopped crying. Never again did I cry for my family. I did not understand why but I knew that a page of time had turned.