Helen “Halina” Silber owed her life to a series of what she called “miracles,” and to one man, German industrialist Oskar Schindler, whose defiance of Nazism resulted in his sparing the lives of 1,200 Jews from extermination.
“I was among the few lucky ones to be on Schindler’s List and the way I came to be on the list was one of the miracles by which I survived,” Mrs. Silber said in a 2018 address before the Interagency Remembrance Program at Washington’s Lincoln Theatre.
Mrs. Silber, who ran a successful fabric store in Roland Park and Randallstown for 40 years, died Oct. 25 in her sleep at her Pikesville home at the age of 93.
The daughter of Abraham and Golda Brunengraber, owners of a successful furniture business, Silber was born into a family of seven in Krakow, Poland.
In 1939, the Germans occupied Krakow, and a year later, announced that the city was to become free of Jewish people, and that those who remained behind would be forced into a ghetto, or relocated to Slomniki, a small village not far from Krakow, which was established for the Jews.
The family moved to Slomniki, and while living there, Mrs. Silber’s older brother and sister were taken and sent to Krakow-Plaszow, a forced labor camp. In 1942, the Nazis closed the villages, explaining that they’d become overcrowded and the Jews would be sent to a “better place,” she said.
“No one knew where the better place was because not a single person came back to tell us about it,” Mrs. Silber said. “They simply vanished without a trace.”
Because the Germans suspended education for Jewish students, Mrs. Silber attended school only through the third grade.
When word of Jews being targeted for resettlement reached Slomniki, her mother packed a suitcase for her daughter, told her to remove her Star of David armband, and hitchhike to Krakow and volunteer in the camp where her two siblings were being held.
She was only 13, and her mother advised her to lie about her age and tell the Nazis she was 16 in order to be accepted as a volunteer camp worker. Although hesitant to leave her family, she listened to her mother, who urged her to leave because of the Nazis’ impending arrival. Her mother told her there would come a time when it would be too late to save her.
“I went on the road, I stopped a truck, and as I was climbing up the steps, I saw my mother from far away waving goodbye,” she said in her talk. “Little did I know that this was going to be the last goodbye, that I will never see her again, nor the rest of my family.”
Not long after she began her journey, her parents and two younger siblings were murdered.
After arriving at Krakow-Plaszow, which was operated by the SS, an elite guard of the Nazis and Adolf Hitler, she was given a job in the laundry. She worked there until a German officer came in one day and selected a few women, Mrs. Silber among them, and informed them they had been selected to work in Schindler’s enamelware factory, also in Krakow.
Mrs. Silber’s job was to carry heavy pots and pans to an oven after the enamel had been applied to be baked. The work was heavy and the heat unrelenting, and she worried about not being able to survive. One day, Mr. Schindler noticed her struggling and came onto the factory floor.
“He came in walking very slowly, looking around, and then he stopped, observing me,” she recalled. “I became frightened because being observed by a German was a dangerous sign. And so, when I saw him coming toward me my heart pounded with fear. I was afraid that he probably is not happy with the way I carry out my job and thinks how to punish me. … But he came up to me and asked, ‘Would you rather clean our offices?’ I was stunned because it was so unusual to be treated by a German in such kind manner.”
When Amon Göth, a concentration camp commandant who had a reputation for killing Jewish prisoners daily, came to inspect the factory camp, an internee was tardy in returning to his barracks from the latrine. Mr. Göth turned to an aide and said, “Shoot him.”
Mr. Schindler intervened and told the commandant, “There’ll be no shooting in my camp. I will take care of him myself.”
“Amon Göth and Oskar Schindler were both Germans; one chose to kill, the other one chose to save, and they were both Nazis,” Mrs. Silber said.
When Mr. Schindler moved his factory to Brünnlitz, Czechoslovakia, in 1944, Mrs. Silber and her co-workers were told they would be following and their names were on a list. After boarding a train and thinking they were going to the new location, a few hours later it stopped, and they found themselves at Auschwitz.
Languishing in the concentration camp week after week, hope began to evaporate, and talk of Mr. Schindler and Czechoslovakia ceased, and it “really looked like our last destination,” she said.
“But a miracle did occur. Schindler intervened and a couple of days later, a German officer came by on a motorcycle with a list in his hand, reading out our names from Schindler’s List, which was a unique treatment because in Auschwitz we didn’t have names anymore. We were identified by our numbers,” Mrs. Silber said.
Mrs. Silber was number 16 on the list.
Finally arriving in Brünnlitz, they were greeted by Mr. Schindler who turned to a group of SS forces and told them, “Get rid of your whips because you won’t be using them here.”
He was able to protect his Jewish workers by bribing the Nazi hierarchy and officers with money and luxury goods purchased from the black market. Mrs. Silber and the others wondered why Mr. Schindler, a noted womanizer and drinker, put himself at such personal peril when it came to dealing with the Nazis.
“For us, the answer was very simple: He was just a decent man who could not tolerate human injustice. To save 1,200 lives was his kind of victory for which the world will remember him,” she said. “I repeat what my late husband used to say, ‘One does not have to be a saint to do saintly things.’ For us, Schindler was an angel sent by God to save us.”
When the war ended on May 8, 1945, Mr. Schindler’s “life as a German was in jeopardy,” she said. He was removed from the Russian occupation area to the safety of the American zone, and before leaving, in gratitude for what he had done, the workers presented him a ring.
“It had an inscription of our ancient saying: ‘Whoever saves one life saved the whole world,’” she said.
After the war, Mrs. Silber was reunited with her brother and sister in Krakow, and then emigrated to the United States in 1951. While living in Kansas City, Missouri, she attended a Jewish social event where she met her future husband, David Silber, from Lodz, Poland, who survived Auschwitz. The couple married in 1956 and later moved to Baltimore.
In 1967, Mrs. Silber, who was an accomplished dressmaker, opened Boutique Fabrics in Roland Park, and later moved the business, which she operated for 40 years, to Randallstown.
After novelist Thomas Keneally published “Schindler’s Ark” in 1982, Mrs. Silber shared her wartime experiences with her children for the first time in her life. She later became a consultant for “Schindler’s List,” an Academy Award-winning movie directed by Steven Spielberg in 1993.
Before Mrs. Silber introduced the Hollywood director at the Holocaust Museum in Washington in 1993, he leaned over and whispered to her, “I made this movie for you,” recalled her daughter, Fran Silber Pruce of Pikesville.
In a 2019 interview with The Jerusalem Post, she said the movie was “very, very accurate. I was not sure if I was here [in the movie theater] or back in Poland.”
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When she introduced Mr. Spielberg and Ben Kingsley, who in the film portrayed Itzhak Stern, she said: “The film you have made will carry our voices for eternity, and for that we are very grateful.”
“She always said that her life had been a series of ‘miracles with improbable ends and that God was with me all the way,’ and he was until the end of her days,” her daughter said.
Mr. Schindler, who died in 1974, is the only member of the Nazi party to be buried in Mount Zion Catholic Cemetery in Jerusalem.
Mrs. Silber had been a member of the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation.
Her husband died in 2005.
Funeral services were held Friday at Sol Levinson & Bros. in Pikesville.
In addition to her daughter, she is survived by her son, Dr. Harry Silber of Pikesville; five grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren. Another son, Gabriel Silber, died last year.