Looking at haunted, skeletal prisoners and smelling the odor rising from a crematorium at the Auschwitz concentration camp in which she was briefly imprisoned during World War II, Halina Silber said she thought all hope was lost and miracles were an impossibility.
But the decision of one man, the Nazi industrialist Oskar Schindler, who came to put Silber's name on his now-famous list and protect her and 1,200 other Jews at his factories during the Holocaust, changed the course of her life.
"Schindler, with his kindness, gave us help ... and most important, he gave us our dignity," she said. "For us, he was an angel sent by God to save us."
Silber, of Baltimore, spoke to hundreds Sunday at Beth Sholom Congregation as part of a memorial service for Yom HaShoah, otherwise known as Holocaust Remembrance Day, for the roughly 6 million Jews killed by the Nazis and their collaborators during the Holocaust.
Born and raised in Krakow, Poland, Silber said in 1939, when she was 10, the Germans invaded Poland and, shortly thereafter, the education of Jewish children was stopped.
She said she remembers vividly the fear and anxiety of her parents at the situation. In 1940, the Germans established a Jewish ghetto in Krakow. Her parents decided to move from the city to a village nearby, called Slomniki, where Jewish people could live for a brief time. In 1942, the Germans began to liquidate the Jews in similar Polish villages, and word came that they planned to resettle the Slomniki residents, she said.
Her mother packed her suitcase and told her what to do next. She said she was to take off the Star of David patch, a symbol denoting the fact she was Jewish, from her arm, a removal which was an offense punishable by death. Her mother said to hitchhike back to Krakow and volunteer in the labor camp where her brothers and sisters were already working, and to say she was three years older than she was.
Silber said she remembered stepping into a truck on the road to Krakow and looking back at her mother waving at her.
"Little did I know this was going to be our last goodbye," she said. The next day, Germans surrounded the village and all the Jews there were deported. Her parents and two siblings were murdered by the Nazis at the Belzec extermination camp.
When she arrived at the labor camp, she said, she was asked for her identification. She couldn't provide it and was jailed for a few days. She said she was still thinking of a way to get back to her parents when the Gestapo told her she would be accepted at the camp.
Shortly thereafter, a German officer informed her she'd been chosen to work at Schindler's enamelware factory in Krakow.
Silber said at first that she had to carry pots and pans to be baked. The weight and heat associated with her job made her fearful for her survival in the factory. One day, Schindler approached her and, to her surprise, asked if she'd like instead to clean the offices of the factory.
"I was very touched by his kindness and thought I was lucky," she said. But as she came to learn more about him, she realized she was no exception.
Another worker was at her post when a machine stopped working, Silber said. After her manager said she'd have to explain what happened to Schindler, she began to cry in anticipation of severe punishment.
But Schindler just told her not to worry, that they'd get the machine fixed, Silber said.
Another time, a Polish and Jewish worker got into an argument over a business deal, Silber said. The Polish man threatened the Jewish man he'd turn him over to the Germans, a virtual death warrant for the Jewish man, she said. When Schindler found out, he told the Polish man he didn't care what happened in the business deal, but that the man would regret it for the rest of his life if he turned the Jewish man in. The Polish man then apologized and said he wouldn't turn him in.
When the polish factory was closed, Silber said she and others were taken to Auschwitz. The first day, she and others were told to go to the showers. People there told her it could mean they were about to be murdered.
Instead, she and the other prisoners had their hair shaved and their clothes and possessions stripped from them.
Schindler intervened a few weeks later and had a list of people, the eponymous list that is the title of Steven Spielberg's 1993 movie, to retrieve from the concentration camp to take to his new ammunitions parts factory in the Czech Republic.
Schindler told his workers, most of whom had no experience making the parts to be produced at the factory, they'd be safe at the new factory, she said. He gave them extra rations purchased with his own money and yarn for extra clothing.
After the war ended, the factory closed and Schindler's life was in danger, so his former workers helped him escape, she said.
People may question just how or why Schindler decided to defy Adolf Hitler's orders and risk his career and his very life to save them, Silber said. The best answer was that he simply could not endure injustice.
Bert Gold, who attended the memorial service, said Silber's talk left him feeling overwhelmed.
He said both of his Hebrew school teachers growing up were Holocaust survivors and their stories of those events left him with sad memories, not the kind of uplifting story Silber had to tell.
Warren Better, a Beth Sholom member, said he found Silber and her story remarkable.
Better had lost family in the Holocaust, and Silber's talk had him in tears.
Dr. David Summers attended the event with his wife, Lorna, and their daughter, Noah.
Noah Summers said she is among the last generations to be able to hear the stories firsthand from Holocaust survivors, though it's up to her generation to pass them on so that people will never forget what happened.
David Summers said standing up and doing the right thing is as important as ever, particularly in a world where cultural relativists sometimes seem to believe that because everything is OK, nothing is wrong.
Though he and his family are Christians, Summers said a group such as the Nazis would have to come through him and his family first before they would let something like the Holocaust happen again.
"We're not going to let it happen again," he said. ___
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