David Silberman — A Witness for Our Time

by Roland Binet (Belgium)

David Silberman was born in Latvia in 1934. As a Jew of young age when the war came upon his country of birth, he was fated to die.1 Because, when the Germans conquered Latvia in June and July 1941, spontaneous as well as induced pogroms developed in different parts of the country with thousands of Jewish victims. Then, as early as July and August 1941 ― in bloody actions by Einsatzgruppe A as well as by autonomous Latvian self-proclaimed guardians ― the Jews began systematically to be killed, even long before the decision of the “Endlösung” (Final Solution) of the “Jewish problem” had finally been taken in Berlin.2

At the end of June 1941, as the Germans were approaching David Silberman’s hometown of Preíli (Yiddish Preyl), and the Red Army soldiers were in complete disorderly retreat from the German invasion, this mere seven-year old boy had a terrible prophetic dream in the guise of a nightmare. He thought that he, his elder brother and sister, his entire family would meet a fate worse than death. He implored his parents to flee immediately. His father decided to do so. They left the town on June 27, 1941, one day before the Germans entered it.

And that is certainly why I can say that David Silberman was born under a lucky star because nearly all the Jewish inhabitants of Preíli were killed on August 8th with the help of Latvian henchmen.

His second meeting with fate transpired in Moscow, during two hectic days, starting on March 10, 1971 when he and fifty-five other Jews from Latvia organized a sit-in within the Reception Hall of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR in order to hand a petition to the Secretariat with a request to permit Latvian Jews free emigration to Israel. The stalemate continued over two days. And, in the end, despite threats by the militia and KGB thugs, thanks to the determined spirit of this courageous group of Latvian Jews and their continuous sit-in within the building of the Secretariat of the Presidium, after a time, Jewish families or individuals in Latvia received permission to emigrate to Israel.3

As a result of that spectacular action in Moscow by Jewish activists, David Silberman received permission to emigrate to Israel on April 9, 1971, after having been denied that elementary right for seven years. He even served as a reservist during the Yom Kippur War, first on the Lebanon border, later in the Sinai. Lured by the dynamism of the United States, a country he had already visited a number of times, he finally decided to go and live there in 1977. In order to be able to practice his profession as an engineer (he had received his diploma of engineer in Tallinn, Estonia in 1957), he had to study hard during the years 1981-1982, and passed his exams successfully.

That he is still practicing his profession in New York in 2011, aged 77, tells us much about the sane and tough core, the vital stamina, the endless determination, the basic courage of this person who would already have been considered exceptional due to these two outstanding events in his life: his timely premonition that in fact saved his entire family during World War II and the sit-in in Moscow he helped to organize to a successful end and with no harm to any of the participants.

But, would this be sufficient to be writing an article about him?

After having completed university in 1957, David Silberman became a member of a collective of intellectuals and artists ― Jewish activists ― in Riga where he came to live. By the beginning of the 1960s, with other kindred spirits, David Silberman began to meet survivors of the Holocaust in Latvia, and in so doing, little by little he had the opportunity to collect valuable historical material, testimony and documents. He was thus fortunate to meet three out of the four known survivors of the Rumbula Forest Massacre.4 He heard their testimony, and, being creative with a talent for writing, he finally drafted the memoirs of two of these very fortunate women and had these books published at his own expense.5

From the very start of his research on the Holocaust in Latvia, what had in fact motivated him, as well as many others who collaborated in that project, was first to tell the truth about what really happened in their country of birth, and, secondly, to fight against the rampant antisemitism which still shrouded day-to-day life in Latvia as a seemingly eternal scourge.

Needless to say, these activities were carried out in total secrecy as Latvia was a so-called independent republic under Soviet control and as such projects (including the point of making a distinction between Jewish and Soviet victims of World War II) might have led him to be questioned by the “Organs”. It is known that the political climate at that time was conducive to producing historical Soviet orthodoxy, an orthodoxy approved by the Kremlin that was officially taught, written and told in the USSR. That the fate of the Jews was not unique, all the fallen were in fact Soviet citizens…).6

That period, though, was ideal for the collection of memoirs from Jewish survivors of the Holocaust in Latvia and territories close to it. First and foremost, the memories of the painful events these fortunate survivors had had to endure were still fresh in their minds. And, furthermore, these memories were still unpolluted by the reading of other memoirs or historical narratives of these atrocious years of fear, torture and death, as, at that time, no historical works of worth had yet been published about the Holocaust in Latvia.7

I met David Silberman quite by chance. And, I must say, it was also a lucky star that led me to meet such an exceptional individual, someone who never ceased to fight for freedom of thought and expression, someone whose whole being was anchored in telling the historical truth no matter what the difficulties and obstacles might be, someone who deeply believed it was his destiny to bear witness about what he had heard from survivors of these terrible times in his country of birth.

As a West-European goy knowledgeable on the matter of the Shoah, what I had read, seen and thought before actually going on a trip to Riga, was centered on the Polish form of the Holocaust, i.e. mass deportations of Jews packed during days on end into death trains, forced into death camps and mass exterminations in gas chambers, as well as the confinement of Jews within ghettos, Warsaw being the absolute evil symbol. We, the goyim, grew up with the story of Anne Frank, never having realized before that Frieda Michelson, Ella Medalye, Semion Peyros and his son Misha, had also endured a unique fate worth knowing.

One day in Riga while visiting the Museum of the Jews of Latvia and having seen a number of horrific pictures of the shootings of women, the elderly, children and adults, of poor, terrorized and semi-naked Jews helpless in the horrifying moment just prior to their death by bullets, I decided to look for books on this subject of which I was totally ignorant. So, I came to buy И ТЫ ЭТО ВИДЕЛ (I Ty Eto Videl) by one David Silberman (the Russian version of And You Saw It).

Reading it was a harrowing experience for me. For example, a passage I found to be one of the most horrible I had ever read, yet quite symbolic for the fate of the Jews in Latvia (and in this special case it described the survival of a Jewess from Ukraine):

“My mother held me in a painful manner and did not release me. Beneath us, in the pit, a crowd was pressed body upon body. With a demented cry, I jumped down the steps on the naked backs mixed with still living persons. An SS was walking on the bodies and shooting the wounded. He told us to lie down, head down. ‘Don’t cry, Jena, lie down’, cried Mother, ‘I will hold you !’ And the last thing that stayed in my memory was that, lying head down alongside Mother, I felt that she held my hand strongly and somehow hid my head. Above us, there was a sound of thunder and it was as if I fell into an abyss without end.

“Waking up, during a long time I could not comprehend where I was: I felt a huge weight on me, there was a sickening smell in the air. I felt all slippery and wet. I managed, by forceful and harsh movements, to creep from under corpses. I stared around and saw that I did not lie near a corner where my mother and I had set down, but nearly in the center. The pit had not been filled up. It seemed to me that the pit trembled and moaned. I felt ill. I could not look at the corpses any more. I looked upward. Wet snowflakes were falling, stars were shining in the dark sky.

“I sat upright and stared around, trying not to notice the heaps of corpses: there weren’t steps any more, the gigantic pit had gone up alongside its corners. From afar, I still could hear shots and dogs barking. In the wall of the pit I found protruding roots, cut down by shovels, I seized some of them and began pulling myself up, slid down, fell and, again, I hoisted myself upward. In the end, I succeeded. What must I do ? I am standing naked in this freezing night in front of a horrible tomb, my hair is glued into a continuous bloody lump. I begin to be feverish…”8

There were also other harrowing tales with, often, near miraculous feats of survival. Stories of people who were not so lucky and were killed by the Germans or by Latvian Nazi collaborators. All accounts were equally poignant, well written and in a manner that enthralled the reader, forcing him to go further with his reading. Ella Medalye told the story of the first day of the invasion by the Germans when Latvian neighbors came to her apartment, led her husband away, a husband she never saw again because he was killed outright, one of so many victims.

There was also the story of Semion Peyros and his son Misha. Semion Peyros took upon himself to keep his son Misha close to him during the entire occupation by the Germans, to protect him although, it seemed, the die were cast against them surviving together. It is a quite remarkable feat of survival and endurance. The story of Janis Lipke was also told in that book. Lipke, a Latvian who by himself saved between fifty and sixty Jews, fated to die, helping them to escape from the ghetto or places of forced labor, sheltering, feeding, protecting and sometimes even arming them.9

I found that small book quite remarkable, well crafted, a book that got me an insight into a matter I was completely ignorant of. At the end of 2009, I wrote my impressions to David Silberman, lauding him for what he had done and written. He replied almost immediately by email and asked me whether I thought there might be a possibility to republish the English version of his book. I thought about this for a while and, finally, I proposed to try to interest some French publishers or personalities about this project. As an amateur writer myself, I was quite familiar with the French publishing world.

In April 2010, after I had sent him a copy of the Russian book, Serge Klarsfeld, from France, sent me an email saying that he would be interested in having I Ty Eto Videl translated into French by his sister Tania (who majored in Russian at a Paris university) and published by the Beate Klarsfeld Foundation. To West Europeans and particularly to French speaking Belgians and Frenchmen, Serge Klarsfeld is best known as a Nazi hunter and a meticulous historian and documenter.

Alone or in partnership with others, Klarsfeld meticulously detailed the number of death trains sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau, from Belgium (working with Maxime Steinberg), or from France. For every numbered train there is the list of the deportees with their family names, given names, dates of birth, date of deportation and fate. He also helped to have the names of all known Jewish victims of the Holocaust in France put on the Remembrance Wall erected within the Mémorial de la Shoah in Paris.

He is known as he and his wife Beate succeeded in tracking down Klaus Barbie, the head of the SD in Lyon/France at the time of World War II, having him extradited and brought to trial in the country where he committed his crimes against humanity.

Beate Klarsfeld is also renowned for the slap she gave the Kanzler Kiesinger at the end of the 1960s, because that man, representing Germany at the highest level, had lied about his Nazi past.

A meeting in Paris was arranged and took place on July 27, 2010 in the presence of David Silberman accompanied by his wife Bella, Serge Klarsfeld and his sister Tania (Georgette), and I. It was agreed that David Silberman’s book of testimony from survivors of the Holocaust in the Ukraine and Latvia would be published in French, under the aegis of the Beate Klarsfeld Foundation in 2011.

Serge Klarsfeld, whose mother tongue in fact was Russian (he was born and lived his early years in Bessarabia), told us that one of the passages from David Silberman’s book (which he had thus read in the original Russian) that struck him most was the one about the “Lice Farm”, a particular form of torture that showed the nature of the so-called scientific experiments the Nazis sometimes performed on live human “guinea pigs”, and how little respect they showed towards the lives of the people they had deemed “inferior” and only worth eradicating:

“During the winter of 1944, in mid-January, the director Steiniger, called me and said: Peyros, we have decided to put 600 lice under your shirt. You will wear that shirt for ten days, until the lice deposit their eggs. After that, we will put your shirt outside in the cold for three days to see whether the eggs will hatch or whether the cold will kill them and at which temperature. Understood? Do not, in any way, crush them! Our medical orderly will examine your shirt every day. This experiment is very important for us, bear this in mind! (…)

“During the day, at my place of work, it was bearable, but during the night, it was a real nightmare. The lice bit awfully, it was impossible to sleep. In the end, I could not take it anymore, I took off my shirt, I hung it a bit afar and, in the end, I succeeded in sleeping. In the morning, I looked at it. Horror! There were nearly no lice any more. They must have fled when they felt the cold. What was I do to? I went to see Persi. ‘Save me, pour two or three hundred lice on me, otherwise, one day, there will be a control and my fate will be sealed’. I suffered it for the ten days, and once or twice I restored the number of lice to fill in the ‘deficit’ and, finally, on the day when I handed my shirt back, the medical orderly stared at it and he seemed quite happy: there were lots of eggs.”

Serge Klarsfeld had this to say about David Silberman in his introduction of the translated version of I Ty Eto Videl: “David Silberman has been a pioneer in the historical research that is not only the work of university historians, but progresses thanks to those, benevolent and enthusiastic, working to bring the works of specialists nearer to human beings.”10

This, in short is the story of what David Silberman did. These are the actions of an exceptional man, a “pioneer” as Serge Klarsfeld called him and rightly so. A courageous man, a man of fortitude, who believed that his own destiny was not only to live for himself, his family, his children and grandchildren, but who, alone and against awful odds, took upon himself what he deemed his essential task, to speak to survivors of the Holocaust, to take notes when they recounted these terrible events. A man who had the stamina to write their accounts into readable narratives, who took upon himself the costs of having these books of testimony published, and, who, despite a limited interest for these stories from survivors of the most harrowing massacres ever, never despaired. He continued to believe in his sacred duty to let the truth be known.

Had he not survived the massacre of his home town of Preíli, had he disappeared into the gulag in March 1971, we might perhaps never have heard of Jan Lipke, Semion Peyros and his son Misha, Ella Medalye, Frieda Michelson, Jena Guralnik, and so many other heroes of our time.

And, I personally, would have been the poorer as an important part of the Holocaust in the USSR and the Baltic States would not have been known to me, nor, now, in France…

After the war, it was ascertained that around 90% of the Latvian Jewish population of 80,000 had been killed by the Nazis and their Latvian collaborators (of which the most notorious was Viktors Arajs, head of the Kommando bearing his infamous name).

Conference of Wannsee, near Berlin, on January 20th, 1942 when the fate of the Jews of Europe was finally sealed. The actions, prior to the Wannsee conference, by the Einstazgruppen and the nationalistic Jew-haters in the USSR and the Baltic countries were ordered by SD boss R. Heydrich and the SS hierarchy, as decreed by Hitler and the highest commandment of the Wehrmacht (i.e. the “Commissar Order”).

See The History of Two Days: The Diary of a Demonstration Participant.  The Story of the Exodus from Russia by David Silberman.

According to research David Silberman did recently, during the two days of shootings in the Rumbula Forest, not far from Riga, Latvia, on November 30th and December 8th 1941, about 28,000 Jews were killed by bullets, their corpses put in large pits.

See The Right to Live, the account of Ella Medalye’s survival, and Я ПЕРЕЖИЛА РУМБУЛУ (I Survived Rumbula), an account of Frieda Michelson’s survival.

We now know the difficulties that V. Grossman and I. Ehrenburg faced when they tried to have their Black Book on the Holocaust in the USSR legally published with, in the end, the confiscation of the original manuscript.

Apart from the memoirs of Bernhard Press (1992) and Elmar Rivosh (2008), the first large historical work on the Holocaust in Latvia was published in 2000: The Holocaust of the Jews in Latvia 1941-1945 by Andrew Ezergailis.

Part of Jena Guralnik’s account of her miraculous escape from death in Pavlovitch, in the Ukraine, pages 12-13 of I Ty Eto Videl by David Silberman, Bota/Riga, 2006, recently republished in Russian by Rossiyska Biblioteka Kholokosta in Russia.

See the complete story of Jan Lipke (honored at Yad Vashem with the “Righteous among the Nations” medal) in Like a Star in the Darkness by David Silberman, republished in Russian under the title Podobno Zvezde Vo Mrake by the Rossiyska Biblioteka Kholokosta.

10  Excerpt from La Fosse – La Ferme aux Poux et autres témoignages sur la Shoah en Lettonie et en Ukraine by David Silberman, published by the Beate Klarsfeld Foundation, 2011, pp. 40-41. Distribution will be limited to universities, schools, libraries and Jewish centers specializing in the research of the Holocaust. The quotation from the introduction is on page 2 and is dated June 11, 2011.



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