Leon Silberstein z"l

- Nothing Short of a Hero

While the Holocaust took the lives of over six million Jews, it also obliterated the dreams and innocence of the survivors left behind. For over sixty years, one survivor, Leon Silberstein believed his tormented past should remain a secret. Today, he wants to speak about the unimaginable events he observed and participated in to clear his conscience and validate his past. This is a tribute to a man, who displayed remarkable courage in the face of adversity and went beyond normal means to ensure the safety of those he loved.

The chronology of Mr. Silberstein’s experiences throughout the Holocaust is of less consequence than the recurring themes that still plague him. It appears that Mr.Silberstein still questions his own survival. “I shouldn’t have lived,” he mutters often. Despite his feelings of disbelief, he is still aware that he made conscious choices to shape his past. These choices are the root of remorse for him.

Behind the frail and soft-spoken man we see today, Mr. Silberstein was extremely talented and brave as a young man. Mr. Silberstein was born on October 28 in 1905 in the Polish city of Piotrków. He was born into a family of eleven children. His mother died when he was thirteen years old. In 1926, at the age of nineteen, he went to Palestine against his father’s wishes. In Palestine, he worked on a farm and declared himself a Zionist. Leon returned three years later to his family in Poland. He sought to return to Palestine, but was drafted into the Polish army.

As a soldier in the Polish army, Mr.Silberstein was stationed in the Polish city, Częstochowa, located southwest of Warsaw. The city was a wealthy industrial centre where Jews worked in many industries, including banking, trading, and crafts. While in Częstochowa, he married a woman named Rose and became a skilled mechanic. With his wife, he opened a three-storey factory that manufactured bicycle parts. Leon had patented many parts himself. While Leon was the mastermind behind the engineering aspect of the factory, his wife took an active role in the financial aspect of the business. His wife went as far as bribing a government official to require that all bicycles must have night lights. As the only bicycle factory able to manufacture such lights, the Silbersteins were able to capatalise on this law and become incredibly successful. Together, Leon and Rose had created the most modern factory in Częstochowa. Sadly, their money and influence could not save them from the wrath of Hitler’s regime.

The city of Częstochowa was invaded by the Germans on 3rd September 1939 and, the following day, more than 300 Jews were slaughtered. Subsequently, all Jewish property was confiscated and 1,000 young Jews were deported to labor camps in August of 1940.

On April 9 1941, a ghetto was created in Częstochowa and was sealed off on August 23. Twenty thousand Jews, from all over were packed into the ghetto. Eventually, the ghetto held more than 48,000 Jews. The ghetto consisted of a large part of the city that included many of the poorer Jewish areas of Częstochowa and few of the wealthier ones. Almost a third of the population had been pushed into an eighth of the city. Three to five families could be moved into two-bedroom apartments. The situation was bedlam. Fortunately, Mr. Silberstein was not limited to the confines of the ghetto.

When the war began, the Germans recognized Mr. Silberstein’s ability as a mechanic and untrained engineer. Although he was Jewish. the Germans had respect for his talent. The Germans dubbed him the “universal tradesman”. It was not long before the Germans had Leon opening safes that held important documents. Mr.Silberstein possessed the incredible ability to visualise solutions to difficult problems even if he was not trained in that particular field. His incredible craftsmanship enabled him to resist living in the ghetto and not carry a blue and white star that identified him as a Jew. This was indeed, a rarity.

Mr.Silberstein’s talent was employed elsewhere. The Germans wanted Mr. Silberstein to build a restaurant for German soldiers in an abandoned building. Before working on the project, he demanded to speak with the commanding officer of the restaurant. Everyone thought he was insane not to just take orders, but Leon thought it was important to understand his client’s taste, therefore making it impossible for the Germans to have qualms with his work. He asked the officer about his childhood and the region from which he was from. Leon deduced that the chief would be indubitably pleased if the restaurant reflected his home town. Besides this, Leon designed an incredible pulley system, where the dirty dishes and food could come up and down from the kitchen in the basement. As well, he sought to make the most cost-effective seating by using as little wood as possible to design tables and chairs.

Mr.Silberstein’s ability as an engineer proved successful and was thus put to work on several projects for the Germans. Hitler’s birthday was approaching and Leon was commissioned to prepare a stage for the band to play on. He was faced with the problem of creating the illusion of a larger space. He did this by using two different colours for the curtains; the lighter would be in front of the darker creating the illusion of depth. His plan was successful. During the project, however, he faced anti-Semitism from a Pole who complained to the Germans that a Jew should not undertake such a project. Leon told the Germans that if the Pole did not stop harassing him he would abandon the project. The Germans sent the Pole away. It was obvious that the Germans could not help but respect such a clever man as Leon.

While Leon’s talent as an engineer was praised, so was his talent for relating to others. Mr.Silberstein was in charge of heading up a group of talented artisans each day, who were highly specialised in various fields. He would pick up twelve to fifteen men and women and take them to work. Work involved clearing furniture from Jewish homes and decorating new German residences. Workers constructed new furniture and buildings. Many served as electricians as well. While he assisted Germans, he was neither servile to the Nazis nor abusive to Jews. For instance, his German officer, Werner once told Mr. Silberstein to whip the Jews that he commanded. He refused and rather picked up a shovel and joined them.

Mr.Silberstein wore two faces as he would like to call it. Not only did he work for the Germans, he worked for the Jewish underground, which was considered at the time to be unthinkable, as the Jews became increasingly few in number and strength. Many of the artisans which Leon commanded were also members of the underground. Oftentimes, they could cover up work they were completing for the Jewish underground, as work they had to do for the Germans. As well, they could get access to German equipment that they could not otherwise use.

One of the recurring stories that haunts Mr.Silberstein is that of his nephew, Jerzyk, who like him, was involved with the Jewish Underground. The Jewish Underground gave orders to Leon to kill a German pilot. It was necessary to obtain the pilot’s clothes in order for the Underground to steal a German plane. Leon asked for volunteers to kill the pilot. The boy who offered was his nephew, Jerzyk, a young scholar, not older than nineteen. Jerzyk was anxious to kill a German to compensate for the death of his father, who was hung at Treblinka. The plan was for Jerzyk to kill a German pilot in a nearby park where they met prostitutes. That night, the pilot arrived on schedule around nine o’clock and was seduced by a Jewish woman disguised as a prostitute. Jerzyk came up behind the pilot seated on a park bench and strangled him with a rope. from behind. Jerzyk fled to the forest with six other boys involved with the Underground.

Leon was well aware that the Germans were spying on his operations. It was necessary for him to relocate the boys. He found a deserted warehouse where he hid the boys and Jerzyk. A few days later, a woman and her two sons came from Warsaw to find some money. Leon recognised that they were Jews and told them not to look for money and to stay in the deserted furniture warehouse in the meantime. One of the small boys decided to look for money anyway. He was found and captured by a Pole, who delivered him to the Gestapo, the German police. It is apparent that Leon was near the scene of the arrest and the little boy called out that he knew Leon and where others were hidden. Leon adamantly denied knowing the boy and having the key to the furniture warehouse. While Leon was not taken for investigation, the warehouse was discovered. All of the boys, including Jerzyk, were forced to confess to the murder of the German pilot. They were all killed. The Germans were in such disbelief that a Jew could kill a German, ten other Polish people were forced to die for the crime.

The story of Jerzyk is of great significance and still troubles Mr. Silberstein to this day. Jerzyk’s choice to kill the officer was in essence an opportunity to commit suicide. Both Mr.Silberstein and Jerzyk knew that the punishment of death was inevitable. While Mr.Silberstein has never wished that he was killed, he feels responsible for giving the command and not protecting a family member. Today, a monument in honour of Jerzyk stands today at Beersheva University in Israel.

There were other times that Mr.Silberstein’s life was spared. Once, Leon knew a German officer, who was in love with a Jewish girl. The officer had Leon take the girl out of the ghetto and bring her to him. Leon warned the girl of the danger of the situation, but she was convinced that their mutual love would protect them. This however was not the case. The Gestapo found out and the officer killed the Jewish girl. Despite the cruelty of the officer’s actions, he felt gratitude towards Leon for delivering the girl. A few days later there was a selection for Jews to be killed in the middle of town. This officer grabbed Leon and told him to take his wife out of the selection. They were both saved.

Additionally, his life was spared due to the profound trust and appreciation Leon established with others. Once the Germans wanted to buy coffee, which was only sold on the black market. The Germans asked Leon to carry out the order of purchasing the coffee. Leon was caught carrying the large bag of coffee by the Polish police. He was arrested and taken in for investigation. It was known however at police headquarters that Leon would never confess. He would remain loyal, even if he worked for the Germans. After being imprisoned for a day, a Polish Major confronted Leon. Rather than kill Leon, the Major told him that he needed a Jew, who was as clandestine and loyal as himself. He made Leon work for him.

A few months later, Leon and members of the Eldestenrat (Council of Jewish Elders appointed by the Germans to handle internal Jewish affairs) in the city were given the opportunity to exchange all of their money and goods to go to Palestine. Leon prepared false identification for himself and his wife in order for them to be transported safely. The day on which they were supposed to leave, a German officer made Leon work and complete various projects. Leon was concerned that he would miss the chance to leave, but he was forced to finish. When he was done, he went to pick up his wife to leave for Palestine, but he saw in the centre of town a bunch of opened suitcases with old clothes coming out. Everyone who had signed up to leave for Palestine had been slaughtered. It is still unclear if the German officer intentionally saved Leon and his wife that day by making him stay later. These are questions that Mr. Silberstein can never answer.

In May 1942, there were orders to kill Mr. Silberstein. A German officer named Lasinski told Leon that he had received an order from a high official to kill him. Lasinski told Leon that if he could find another person with the last name, Silberstein he would pretend that he killed Leon. Leon knew another Jew, Igenia Buca, who commanded a squad of Jews for the Germans. Ingenia Buca had a boy under his command with the last name Silberstein. Leon paid Igenia Buca to tell Lasinski that he had killed the boy with the last name, Silberstein. In the meantime, Leon was not safe despite the deal he made with Lasinski and Ingenia Buca.

Leon went to Werner with the news that Lasinski had to kill him. Verner wanted to save him and thus allowed Leon to stay in his apartment for the night. Leon was able to go home to his wife the next morning, who had not seen him since the morning before. Lasinski came to Leon’s house and told him that the ordeal was over. As payment, Leon made his wife give Lasinski linens. It was her job to sew linens from the cloth of Jewish families that was confiscated by Germans. Once again, Mr. Silberstein was in the position where his life had been spared.

Mr.Silberstein was able to conquer the pitfalls of being a yes-man to Nazis, by always defending his family, and using his power to save other Jews. One of the most apparent cases where Leon displayed unthinkable courage was in the perpetual defense of his nephew Sigmund, the younger brother of Jerzyk. The first time, he saved Sigmund’s life occurred when the ghetto was liquidated in May 1942.

When the ghetto was liquidated, Jewish social, cultural, and political activists were seized and killed. Thirty-nine thousand Jews were deported to the concentration camp, Treblinka in packed freight cars. Children and the elderly were often automatically killed and only two thousand Jews managed to escape or hide in the city.

Sigmund, who was only eleven at the time, was called to be deported along with his mother and Leon’s sister. Sigmund’s father and brother were considered able-bodied and thus allowed to remain in the city. The day on which Sigmund and the others were to be deported out of the bus depot in the centre of town, Leon’s sister spotted Leon working. A brave young woman, Leon’s sister walked into the area where Leon was working and demanded that the Ukrainian guards allow her to speak with him. Although the guards were furious, Leon spotted her and quickly pulled her in along with Sigmund and his mother. He took them to a hiding place where other workers were hiding their relatives. Remarkably, the three had been saved from the awful fate that lay only a couple hundred yards away.

Subsequently, Leon kept Sigmund and the others in a hiding place and eventually transported them into the small ghetto, which was the northeastern part of the ghetto. That section held some five thousand able-bodied Jews. Sigmund worked with the rest of the Jews Leon headed up and fell under the care of Leon and his wife when the rest of his family was eventually exterminated in concentration and labor camps.

Mr.Silberstein saved the lives of many others that bore no relation to him, other than the fact that they were Jewish. Once a girl asked Leon to bring her cousin to a boat that would take him to Germany. The boy had false papers to leave safely, but needed the assistance of Leon, who could travel the city freely. Leon thus manned a horse wagon and hid the girl and her cousin under hay in the back. They were able to get outside the ghetto unscathed, but once they arrived at the boat, the dock master demanded more money from the boy. Leon sensed that trouble would ensue and told the two that he would return them to the ghetto. While on the way from the boat, Leon was stopped by an official, who noticed the girl’s coat on top of the hay in the wagon. The official asked why Leon had such a nice coat and demanded that Leon abandon the wagon and let him drive it to the ghetto. Leon was able to convince the official that the coat meant nothing. Before returning to the ghetto, Leon deposited the coat and the boy’s false papers in a burnt-down house, and return the two safely. Once again, Mr. Silberstein had risked his reputation and life for others.

Mr.Silberstein’s ability to reason with the Germans assisted him in saving the lives of others. Mr.Silberstein once saved an entire family from the Nazis. The Rosencweig family had managed to hide underground in a shelter they built. The family consisted of many children and elderly persons, who would surely be deported to death camps or killed on the spot. Eventually they were found out and taken for investigation. Leon had known the family for years and was able to get the family pardoned by providing a service to a German official. The service was protecting the official from being killed by the Jewish Underground.

Mr.Silberstein’s name was well-regarded by this point and could work alone to save other Jews. At one point another selection occurred, but this time in the small ghetto, to weed out the “undesired”. The Jewish intelligentsia, which included professionals and academics were supposedly to be exchanged for German prisoners to go to Palestine. Leon however learned that no such exchange would take place and that the intelligentsia would in fact be taken to a cemetery and shot to death. Leon also learned that some friends that worked under his command were going to take part in the exchange. Leon rushed to the deportation site and picked out the people, thus saving their lives.

In the midst of this heroism, Mr.Silberstein had to participate in many dramatic and heart-wrenching experiences. The most significant was his participation in the murder of a Jewish traitor. For years, Mr.Silberstein has been hesitant to discuss this portion of his experiences. While he does not regret his actions, he has feared that such an act may be misinterpreted and reflect poor judgement on his part. As well, it is unthinkable that such betrayal occurred between Jews and Mr.Silberstein worries that others may doubt the validity of his story.

The Jewish ghetto eventually was separated into male and female living arrangements. Where the boys lived, a tunnel existed that went from the basement out of the ghetto. In the basement German clothes and arms were collected. One day, someone told the Germans that the tunnel and basement existed. As punishment, forty-three young boys were killed. The Jewish Underground asked Leon to find out who told the Germans the secret of the tunnel. Due to Leon’s connections with the German officials, he simply asked who revealed the secret. The Germans told him a man with the last name Rosenberg had tipped them off.

Rosenberg was a Jewish policeman, who patrolled the ghetto at night with other policeman. Leon knew that a traitor could leave the ghetto with no problem and he noticed that Rosenberg did. Leon was not fully convinced that Rosenberg was a traitor and did not want to act rashly. Leon asked a Sergeant in the Jewish Underground to let him know when Rosenberg was leaving the ghetto. When Rosenberg left the ghetto, Leon followed him to the train station with the Sergeant. Leon worked out an arrangement with the Sergeant where if he raised his hand that indicated Rosenberg was guilty.

Mr.Silberstein approached Rosenberg and saw in his attaché case the blue and white cap that Jewish policeman wore. Leon grabbed the hat and said to him, “You are a Jewish policeman who is not allowed to be alone. I have to take you to the ghetto to be shot.” At that moment, a German official overheard, kicked Leon in the spine and told him that the policeman was not his concern. When the German official came to the defense of Rosenberg, Leon knew that indeed he was a traitor. Leon then lifted his hand to the Sergeant.

Mr.Silberstein returned to the ghetto and calculated a plan with the Jewish Underground to murder Rosenberg. The Underground staged a fight and Rosenberg being a policeman came to break it up. The Underground grabbed him and took him to the basement where they forced him to reveal his crime. Afterwards, they gave him water with cyanide. He was buried in the basement.

Despite the severity of this story, Mr.Silberstein always made prudent judgements. This was the case in the closing of Mr. Silberstein’s life in the Holocaust.

Before the concentration camps and cities under German control were liberated in 1945 by the Russians, tens of thousands of people were killed in the final days that led up to the liberation. People often died on “death marches” that took place from camp to camp or in final acts of brutality by the Germans, who tried to cover evidence by exterminating remaining prisoners. The night before Częstochowa was liberated on June 16 1945, Leon got word that the Russians were coming. Leon knew that there would be danger. Already Sigmund was about to be deported to a labor camp with others. Luckily, Leon was able to take him out of the selection. That evening, Leon gathered a group of about a hundred and twenty people. On his authority and self-assurance, he led the group out of the camp around nine o’clock at night in freezing temperatures. They walked 3-4 hours in the direction of a Jewish cemetery in Auschliter where there was an air field. The circumstances were dangerous as German tanks were to the left and right of them. Eventually, people started complaining about the freezing temperatures. Leon turned the group around and by that point the Russians had begun liberating the city. Leon’s group were among the first Jews to be liberated. When the Russian army liberated Częstochowa, there were as few as 5,000 Jews in the area versus the 28,500 Jews that occupied the city when World War II began.

Mr.Silberstein’s nephew, Sigmund Rolat, compares this story to Moses leading the Jews of Egypt. This is a fine analogy to the courage and leadership Mr.Silberstein displayed when he took his own people and remaining family out of danger, risking his life. Despite Mr.Silberstein’s amazing fortitude, he could not save the life of his son. A tragedy which still looms large in his mind.

Mr.Silberstein and his wife had a son named Zygmuś prior to the war. Zygmuś was an incredible child. Advanced for his age, he read at the age of four. Like his dashing father, he was very handsome. Throughout the war, the Silbersteins were able to protect the child through Leon’s influence. However, towards the end of the war, they believed that they and their child would be killed eventually. Therefore, they left Zygmuś in the hands of a Polish doctor and his wife. When Leon would visit, he gave the doctor money and jewels in exchange for caring for Zygmuś.

After Częstochowa was liberated, Leon went to the doctor’s house to find Zygmuś but he was not there. For 6-8 weeks, Leon looked for him each day. With each passing day, he gave up hope. Finally, they found out that Zygmuś had been killed. A few days prior to liberation, Leon believed that he and his wife would surely be killed. He therefore gave the Polish doctor huge sums of money and jewellery including a three-karat diamond. Leon figured that if he and his wife died, their son would be better protected and at least live with a wealthy family. The doctor, however, in awaiting their death and believing he had received the majority of their wealth, did not feel he could expect any more money in the future. He had drowned Zygmuś in a river.


Leon and Rose
(2nd and 3rd from the left),
with friends, celebrating
Rose’s service as
Secretary of the
Częstochowa Relief Society
of New York- Brooklyn Branch

Mr.Silberstein continues to question his action to surrender the majority of his wealth too quickly in the end. He believes that this final donation prompted the doctor to kill Zygmus. Although Leon and his wife survived the war a large portion of their spirit had been destroyed, leaving permanent sadness in their heart and home.

It is terribly sad that Mr. Silberstein’s soul will never be at rest. He can never forget the pain and terror that he witnessed or go back on fateful decisions he made in the past. This is a great tragedy as Mr.Silberstein has exhibited more strength, courage, sensitivity, and love than anyone could in their lifetime. While he has lived his life serving others, he is too distraught and too modest to realize how he has acted as a great giver to humanity.

Leon Silberstein is nothing short of a hero.

Submitted by:
Leon’s son

Alan Silberstein.

It was written in 1995
Jill Tanen
a young college student.

Sadly, Leon passed away
a year later, just short
of his 92nd birthday.

This piece was published in
Ben Giladi’s
The Voice of Piotrków