Fred Silberstein 1927-2009
(Eulogy for Fred Silberstein as given by Naomi Johnson at the funeral.)
This is actually Fred’s second funeral! Many of you here will know exactly the story I am referring to. In April 1945 Fred was seriously hurt during the American bombing of Nordhausen. On his release from hospital he returned to Nordhausen where his friends looked at him in astonishment. He learnt to his surprise that 40 people had attended his funeral and burial.
On this occasion we have far more than 40 people here to mark the passing of a much loved and respected elder of this community. Alfred, or Fred as he was known to us, was born on the 29 November 1927 in Berlin. Fred and his sister Hansi had a happy early childhood. Their parents, Berthold and Käthe Silberstein, owned a haberdashery business in central Berlin. They had a large extended family and lived a happy traditional Jewish life. This all changed with the rise of Hitler as life became increasingly difficult for Jewish families. At the time of Kristallnacht, November 1938, Fred’s father was arrested and sent to the concentration camp at Sachsenhausen. He returned 5 weeks later a broken man.
In July 1942 Fred was picked up by the SS on his way home from school and taken to the SS Guest house at Wannsee – this house later became infamous for being the place where Hitler and his men came up with the so called ?Final Solution?. Fred was put to work in the garden as well as cleaning and digging but eventually was transferred to the kitchen which ironically fitted in with his ambitions to become a chef. So this is where Fred’s cooking career first started.
I visited the ?Haus of Wannsee? in 2006 and was so surprised to find the Silberstein family story on almost every wall as it is now a museum. One of the questions posed to Fred was ?could this all happen again?, to which he replied ?Yes?, a belief he hung onto with good reason throughout his life.
At the age of fifteen and a half Fred was sent to Auschwitz. Before he left Wannsee he was offered the opportunity to renounce his Judaism and therefore be saved, but Fred did not do this. He wanted to see his family again and fervently hoped that by going to Auschwitz he might find his parents and sister Hansi. Many of you will have heard Fred’s story on arrival at Auschwitz – first he pretended he was older than he was and then when asked how many bricks he could carry, he replied 5. This saved him as he was sent to the men’s barracks on the basis that he would be capable of hard labour. Fred had a horrific time in Auschwitz, was a slave labourer for IG Farben and also had the nightmare experience of being experimented on by Mengele. In early January 1945 he became part of the so called death march trudging through the snow from Auschwitz to other camps and eventually arrived at Nordhausen from where he was liberated.
By this time Fred was 19 years old. Fred returned to Berlin and became an Assistant Policeman for the American Occupation Authorities witnessing at the Nuremberg trials. At that time Fred’s most fervent wish was to find out if any of his family were alive. You can imagine how overjoyed he was to discover that his sister, Hansi, was alive in Frankfurt. Neither had known how close they had both been, Fred being in Auschwitz and Hansi in the women’s camp at Auschwitz Birkenau. Their parents sadly had not survived, perishing at Auschwitz in 1944. Fred and Hansi decided to join family in New Zealand, Fred arriving one year after Hansi in November 1948 as a 21 year old.
Few people can imagine surviving all that Fred endured at such a young age. I don’t think any of us can fully comprehend the horror he experienced. For many many years Fred did not talk about it to anyone. Then Rabbi Ed Rosenthal encouraged Fred to tell his story and together they went to schools and Fred would teach the children the story of the holocaust, show his Auschwitz tattoo and talk about the need in this world for tolerance and respect. Fred continued talking to schools and adult groups for many years and made a strong impression on those who heard his first hand account of this shameful and horrific piece of world history.
In preparing this eulogy I listened to some TVNZ film clips on a new holocaust website under development and was once again amazed at how Fred could recount in such an unemotional detached way his Holocaust experiences. While on the exterior he could appear detached, the trauma certainly stayed with him all his life. I have always admired Fred’s wife, Billie, for her amazing understanding of Fred and how she protected him, as he grew older, when he was in hospital or under the care of new medical people.
And it was not only in New Zealand that Fred would talk about his story. He was invited to Berlin on a number of occasions to speak at various significant events. When I was in Berlin in 1995 I was reading the newspaper over breakfast one morning and what did I find on the front page – a telephone interview with our Fred. It was the 50th anniversary of Germany’s defeat and Fred was the person they spoke to. You can imagine how surprised I was. Not too long after that Fred went to Berlin, his first trip back, for the unveiling of the Steglitz memorial. He was horrified to find it included his name, so the records from the funeral at Nordhausen had obviously not been erased.
It is not uncommon for people to tell me the impact Fred made on them. I am sure Fred, himself, would not have been really aware of this. He inspired so many people. Helen Schamroth recently told me that it was listening to Fred talk that inspired her to start her own journey in expressing her feelings about the holocaust and the losses in her life through her art. People who heard Fred talk never forgot his stories. Stuart Reuben told me that when Fred went to Invercargill to talk at the time of the exhibition down there of the ?Art of the Children of Terezin?, despite there being a couple of feet of snow on the ground Fred spoke to a full audience in absolute silence. So many were turned away that night that Fred agreed to spend an extra day in Invercargill, speaking at a number of high schools there. Fred was awarded the Queen’s Service Medal for his community work, and in particular for his holocaust education speaking in schools, an honour well deserved.
Going back to Fred’s story, Fred became a cabinet maker in his early days in New Zealand and then he became a trained chef working in restaurants and hotels, fulfilling his ambition from his young days. Fred married Billie in 1965 and together they ran the BBQ Restaurant in Dominion Road for 22 years. After selling the restaurant Fred worked at Winstones and Fletchers until he retired.
Fred joined Beth Shalom in 1979 and in recognition of his significant contribution to shul life Fred was made a life member. Fred was further recognised for his huge contribution to Beth Shalom as a volunteer by being awarded the UPJ Ner Tamid Award in 1999. Fred was on the Burial and Benevolent Society committee, looking after the Kiddush and pesach wine and helped many people through the Burial and Benevolent Society, for many years was an excellent shammos, was on the Ritual Committee and helped out wherever he could. I am not sure that the word retirement can actually be applied to Fred. His voluntary work extended outside Beth Shalom to Shalom Court, the CAB, Birthright and Friends of the Court. His QSM was indeed well deserved.
The past 3 years have been very hard years for Fred as his health failed. Billie has been the most devoted wife any man could wish for. Ian Morrison recalls Fred saying ?when I met Billie and started to trust people again…? Billie was by Fred’s side at Glenburn hospital every single day. Fred was a real family man and was a much loved and respected father to Dallas and Tania, father in law, grandfather and uncle.
I will always remember Fred as a very dignified and generous man. If he took a position on a committee, he could be relied on implicitly to do the task in hand. One last story to conclude happened quite recently. I saw a request on the net from an artist in Los Angeles, a child survivor herself, for photos of people with Auschwitz tattooed numbers. Her plan is to turn the photos into a collage. I asked both Hansi and Fred if I could photograph them and they both obliged. Fred’s number was quite hard to read so I gently asked him if he remembered what the number was.Well for a man who had been talking only in a whisper, he blurted. Billie took a step back she got such a surprise as did I. When I thanked Fred for his co-operation, he said ?it is my privilege?. How many times did we hear Fred say that?I know I have heard it many times as his humble way of acknowledging another’s gratitude.
These are my memories of Fred, I am sure all of you sitting here will have your own memories and stories of this man who touched the lives of so many. In preparing this eulogy a number of people emailed me with their lovely stories of which there were too many to include. We will be leaving a memory book in the foyer at Beth Shalom for as many of you to record your special memories of Fred which I know will be treasured for years to come by Fred’s family.
With the passing of Fred it really feels like the end of an era. Fred will be very sadly missed by all those who knew and loved him.
Zichrono l’vracha, may Fred’s memory be a blessing.
25 November 2009