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Jewish Heritage: The Oral Histories - Cuba Family Archives

MEMOIRIST:                      SAM SILBIGER

INTERVIEWER:                 SANDRA BERMAN

LOCATION:                        ATLANTA, GEORGIA

DATE:                                 FEBRUARY 28, 1996

Transcript (PDF)

MEMOIRIST:                       SAM SILBIGER

INTERVIEWERS:               JOHN KENT

                                            RUTH EINSTEIN

LOCATION:                         ATLANTA, GEORGIA

DATE:                                  FEBRUARY 4, 2011
 

Transcript (PDF)

BIOGRAPHY

Sam (Shmilek) Silbiger was born on October 27, 1923, in Oswiecem, Poland, which would later be renamed Auschwitz and host the infamous death camp. Sam lived with his parents, two sisters, brother and a cousin, who was raised as a sister. The family owned a brick factory and farm that operated as a bed and breakfast. Sam’s extended family also lived on the farm. Sam attended the public school and learned Hebrew at cheder after school.

When the Germans invaded Poland in September 1939, life began to change for Sam. He was no longer allowed to attend school and in 1940, his father and older cousins were sent to labor camps. In March 1941, Sam was sent to a nearby work camp. He was put to work demolishing older buildings and constructing farmhouses for the Germans who had taken over the farms of displaced Poles. A month later, his family and all of the remaining Jews in Oswiecim were sent to the Sosnowiec and Bedzin ghettos. Sam was later sent to Annaberg, a string of labor camps that were placed along the length of the proposed German autobahn (highway) into Poland. Sam took down and rebuilt the barracks when the camps moved. By August 1943, the ghetto in Sosnoweic had been liquidated. Sam’s mother and brother were sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau and murdered along with other family members.

In 1943 or 1944, Sam and his father were transferred to Blechhammer, a forced labor camp that became a sub-camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau in April 1944. At that point, Sam was given a prison uniform with an identification number and patch and his identification number was tattooed onto his forearm. After American bombing raids in late 1944 and Russian advances, the Germans evacuated the camp on January 21, 1945. The Jewish prisoners were forced to march for ten days during the coldest part of the Polish winter until they reached the concentration camp of Gross-Rosen nearly 600 kilometers (373 miles) away. After arriving at Gross-Rosen, Sam and his fellow survivors were crammed onto railroad cars and shipped to Buchenwald. On the way, the sight of American bombers overhead overjoyed Sam. However, his liberation would have to wait. Sam was in Buchenwald only briefly before he was sent to Berga am Elster, the site of a strategically important fuel factory. Sam was forced to dig holes and tunnels to remove debris from bombing raids.

As the Allies advanced again, Berga am Elster was marched along with 1,500 prisoners to the Dachau concentration camp in Germany. In Dachau, Sam and his father were crammed into train cars with 7,000 other prisoners. The trains made their way south towards Austria trying to avoid the rapidly advancing Allies. Near the Austrian border, orders for the prisoners’ execution had been given, however, the commandant defied the orders at the last minute. The SS soon abandoned the prisoners, who camped near Mittenwald, Austria. Local brought the prisoners food; however, their bodies were unable to digest such rich food, and many died from resulting diarrhea.

American soldiers soon liberated the area. Sam and his father were sent to recover at a former SS hospital in Garmisch-Partenkirchen. Later, Sam learned that he had surviving cousins in a displaced person camp established near the former Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. He and his father went to stay with them. His father was nursed back to health and lived in Germany until his death at the age of 71. Both of Sam’s sisters also survived the war. They both married and later lived in America and Israel. Sam lived in the Landsberg am Lech DP camp until 1948.

While in the Landsberg am Lech DP camp, Sam joined the Irgun, a Jewish underground organization. In June 1948, Sam traveled to Marseille, France and boarded a ship carrying weapons and fighters for the young Israeli state. After his ship, the Altalena, arrived in Tel Aviv, he and his fellow freedom fighters were greeted by future Prime Minister Menachem Begin and were arrested by suspicious Israeli forces. They were later allowed to join the newly formed Israeli Defense Forces. Sam and his platoon trekked over the mountains to Jerusalem, avoiding the Arab-occupied roads. He was wounded in battle outside Bethlehem.

In 1950, Sam returned to Germany, where he worked in construction. Sam married his wife Margot in 1955 and immigrated to the United States in 1956. His only daughter was born five years later. Sam lived in Kansas City until 1961, when he moved to Atlanta and opened a grocery store.

1996 Scope of Interview:

Sam introduces his family and describes his childhood. He talks about going to a labor camp to build houses for Germans and beatings he received and witnessed. He recounts his experiences in the Annaberg labor camp and later the Blechhammer concentration camp. Sam traces his evacuation route from Blechhammer to Gross-Rosen and then Buchenwald. He recalls the allies bombing the area before he was sent to Berga-Elster to work in the tunnels. Sam outlines his evacuation to Dachau and being put on a train headed towards Austria and then liberated. Sam tells how he and his father recovered in Garmisch-Partenkirchen and then moved to the Landsberg am Lech displaced persons camp. Sam shares what happened to his mother, brother, and sisters. He explains how he joined the Irgun and went to Israel. Sam discusses how hard it was for others to immigrate to Israel and the hard life endured by those who stayed.

2011 Scope of Interview:

Sam introduces his family, describing his childhood and home. He describes the Oswiecim Jewish community’s organizations, celebrations and relationships with Poles prior to the war. Sam reflects on his parent’s high expectations for behavior, the life they enjoyed and his family’s experiences with antisemitism. He recounts how life changed when the Germans invaded Poland and his family was eventually sent to ghettos and forced labor camps. Sam details his experiences in the Bautrupp-Saybusch labor camp and then moving from camp to camp along the route of the autobahn (highway) being built in Poland. He shares his sister and father’s experiences in the labor camp. Sam remembers the brutality he endured in the Bergen-Elster labor camp. He explains how he was transferred into the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp system. Sam details his evacuation ahead of the advancing Allies through Dachau, Gross-Rosen, Buchenwald and into southern Germany. He describes liberation near Mittenwald, Austria and beginning the road to recovery. Sam explains how he already knew that some of his family had not survived. He talks about living in the Landsberg displaced persons camp and joining the police force and an underground Jewish organization. Sam describes training with the Irgun and the risks encountered on his journey to Israel in 1948. He details his experiences fighting with the army in Israel. Sam discusses the tensions between Jewish, British and Arabs in Palestine. He shares why he chose to return to Germany after being wounded. He tells about his father’s recovery and the antisemitism he encountered living in Germany. Sam recalls marrying, moving to the United States and having a daughter. He talks about the challenges he and his wife faced in finding good wages and how hard they worked to save. He reviews the success of his sister, brother-in-law and nephew. He recalls his daughter’s birth and the decision to move to Atlanta. He details his experiences opening a grocery store. Sam talks about his daughter’s marriage and keeping kosher. He explains why he does not complain and the pressure he feels to be exemplary in his lifestyle. Sam mentions his interactions with other survivors and his thoughts about Israel today. He reminisces about a trip to Poland with his wife, daughter and son-in-law. The interview closes with Sam reflecting on details of his daily life.

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