Henry Silberstern was the only one, out of his extended family of 54 relatives, who survived the Holocaust. He was a prisoner at Theresienstadt, from where he was sent to the Czech Family Camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau. After being selected to live by Dr. Josef Mengele, he was sent to a sub-camp of Auschwitz where he was forced to work. He was finally liberated from Bergen-Belsen by a Canadian contingent of the British Army. The date was April 15th 1945, which happened to be Henry’s 15th birthday.
Silberstein was saved from certain death when he was selected to live by the famous Dr. Josef Mengele. He could have just as easily been selected for the gas chamber, since he was under the age of 15 at that time.
This quote is from an online news article which you can read in full here:
Silberstern said there were about 10,000 prisoners in the Birkenau section of the camp that he was in (the Czech Family Camp). One day in June of 1944, he recalled a selection process in which the German officers chose about 2,500 “able-bodied” prisoners to continue to do hard labor, while the rest were to be sent to the gas chambers and killed.
Silberstern was among the group that was chosen to perish.
“At the last minute, an order seemed to come through to Dr. Josef Mengele — whose main job was to send people to the gas chambers — and things turned out differently for me and a group of boys my age.”
Silberstern guessed that Mengele was ordered to select about 100 boys between the ages of 11-15 to send them to a nearby men’s camp instead of killing them. To this day, no one knows why Mengele made that decision.
“There were about 500 boys that fit this age limit,” said Silberstein.
“We were stripped naked and we trod by Mengele. He asked us maybe a question or two and then pointed to the left or to the right.”
Silberstern remembered that he didn’t know what to think. Was going to the left a bad thing? Or was it a death sentence to be told to go to the right?
Mengele selected 89 boys to be spared that day and sent to a nearby men’s camp to be housed in a “punishment block” that Silberstern described as a “prison within a prison.” Of the 89 boys, 45 survived the Holocaust. The group is now known as the “Birkenau Boys.”
The camp where the 89 boys were sent was Fürstengrube, a sub-camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau.
The following information is from this website:
Henry Silberstern was born in the small town of Teplice, western Czechoslovakia, in the year 1930. [...]
In 1942 Henry was sent to a camp for the first time. 1100 Jews were rounded up and sent by train to Terezin, a town which had been set up by the Nazis as a transit camp. He and his mother were selected to go; his father was too ill and his teenage brother had a work permit that allowed him to stay. When they arrived some were selected to be sent back, as the Germans only required 1000 Jews for their quota. Henry and his mother were sent back, much to the surprise and relief of the rest of the family.
It was only a temporary reprieve. In November, 1942 Henry and his mother were again transported to Terezin, this time to stay.[...]
In the spring of 1944 Henry and his mother were selected to be transported to the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp area, which was made up of several camps. They arrived outside the Birkenau camp in the dead of night, to guard dogs barking, searchlights flashing all around them, and Germans shouting commands at them constantly. They were lined up and marched to the Czech Family Camp for registration and processing. Henry received the serial number tattoo on his left arm which marked him as an inmate of an Auschwitz camp. He still has this tattoo.
The Family Camp was emptied at the end of June 1944. The able-bodied were removed for work camps. Most of the young who could not do adult work were slated to be killed. At the last minute, 89 boys were selected by camp doctor Josef Mengele to be spared. Henry was one of these few selected from thousands. He went to live in Block 13 of the men’s camp Frustengruber (sic), where he was trained as a bricklayer. While there he did construction work on the Auschwitz area camps.
As the tide of the war started turning against the Nazis, the German Command decided it would be best to eradicate as much of the evidence of their war crimes as possible. Henry was part of a crew that was sent to dismantle the Nordhausen camp, where the German V1 and V2 rockets were assembled, before the Russian line could advance any further.
Henry spent the last weeks of the war in Bergen-Belsen. During the last days the prisoners heard canon fire all around the camp; one night all the S.S. guards disappeared, leaving only the Home Guard (the reserves) in place to manage the camp. At last the Home Guard, too, disappeared, and the next day an Allied convoy came through. They were liberated by a Canadian contingent of the British Army. The date was April 15th 1945, which happened to be Henry’s 15th birthday.
You can read more about the selection process at Auschwitz-Birkenau on my Scrapbookpages website here. You can read about the liberation of Bergen-Belsen here.