Students at Fredonia High School Tuesday were able to experience something that no future generations will a first hand account of the Holocaust.
The speaker, Lilli Silbiger, was brought to the school by the Interfaith Holocaust Commemoration Committee which has been supporting Holocaust educational events in the Dunkirk/Fredonia area for 25 years.
The assembly brought 500 students from Dunkirk, Brocton, Westfield, Forestville, Silver Creek and Cassadaga Job Corps as well as Fredonia.
Holocaust survivor Lilli Silbiger speaks to students from many schools about her life experience at
"Our Holocaust Center ... focuses on the Holocaust 1933 to 1945. Our mission is to remember the victims, honor the survivors and educate the community and we are here to do that today ... We think about the Holocaust many years ago and we know we must remember it because our history, unfortunately, does repeat itself," Sylvia Schwartz of the Holocaust Research Center said.
Silbiger is also a member of the board of the Holocaust Resource Center in Buffalo and is an active community member.
"I'm aware that for you, this is history because it is something that happened a very long time ago ... however I'm here to kind of give it life and identify with you that I am actually a survivor of this period," she said.
OBSERVER Photo by Nicole Gugino
Holocaust survivor Lilli Silbiger speaks to students from many schools about her life experience at Fredonia.
"My purpose in being here today is to make you aware, to make you pay attention, to be involved in this world of ours enough to make a positive difference," she explained.
Silbiger remembered the time in the 1930s when Adolph Hitler came to power and the town where she lived in Poland began to see drastic changes.
"Immediately their attitude and approach was to treat the people of the conquered lands as slaves ... They specifically zeroed in on the Jewish population of Poland. I lived in a small town close to the German border and the town was called then Oswiecim ... the Germans changed the name to Auschwitz ... it became one of the most infamous places where two and a half million people were killed in concentration camps in this small town where I was born and where I lived. ... I was still there when the concentration camps were built," she said.
She recalled the first fall when all of the children were about to go back to school, but an order was received not to allow the Jewish children to go to school.
Next, Silbiger remembers restrictions like curfews and then mandatory armbands with a Star of David insignia.
Many were forced into jobs including constructing the concentration camp.
"Where we lived we were about a half a mile away from that structure. By 1941 they decided to clear the town of all the Jews and resettle us into ghettos in another city ... Periodically there would be raids and they would take people from the streets and take them into Germany to work in slave labor camps ... Within a year they had gathered about 30,000 of us Jewish people and they put us through a selection. ... My youngest sibling was only about 7 years old. As we came up to the table where the S.S. were standing deciding which way to send us. They sent my mother to the left, my father and my two sisters they sent to the right and my brother and me they sent us to a work camp," she said.
She explained that her mother was taken to Auschwitz and killed and later when the ghetto where her father and two sisters were living was liquidated, they also perished in Auschwitz.
She worked in a garbage dump where food was limited and she was "hungry every day and trying to survive as well as we could."
After a year and a half she and her brother were taken to forced labor camps where food was also scarce and supervision was strict.
"(It was) terrible mistreatment because not only did they use us to the limits physically but also they were trying to break our spirits ... telling us the only way you will find freedom is through the chimneys," she recalled.
She explained that the small forced labor camp where she was, was later liquidated into a huge concentration camp where she resided with approximately 1,000 other girls.
"This had gone on for two years of forced labor camps. By 1945 the U.S. along with the Soviet Union was closing in on the Germans, we were closer to the border where the Russians were coming and they were as close as five short days away from liberating us. But the Germans had different plans for us," she said.
She said that the soldiers forced them to walk 20 to 30 kilometers per day at the height of a severe winter. If they were lucky they were able to sleep in barns and eat once a day. If they weren't, they slept outside and didn't eat.
"We were marching ... and girls were falling because of starvation and if anybody fell behind the column, the Germans killed them ... the numbers were getting smaller and smaller. A few days before the end of the war, we were walking on sheer hope ... there may have been 150 of us left ... I fell ... I couldn't get up ... my girlfriend and another girl had to pick me up ... and I just knew I would not make it to the next day ... I whispered to my girlfriend, 'we have to attempt escape because I will not make it until morning any way.' ... At one point there were very thick bushes and it was dark and we just jumped in and laid there flat, quietly ... There was some shooting but then they continued on with the column," she said describing her escape.
Silbiger and her friend remained in the bushes until morning but realized the need for food. After taking much of the day to climb a hill they saw two farm houses.
The pair headed out and reached one of the farm houses and the man their gave them food and let them stay in his barn.
A week later, the man told them the war was over and they were taken to a hospital to recover.
Silbiger said she believes that hope, not any physical strength, helped her to survive through the concentration camps.
After the war she searched lists of concentration camp survivors but could not find any trace of her family. By chance she met a man in the same camp as her brother, who told her that her brother was alive.
"After that we never separated because we had to be the family unit for each other for those that we had lost. ... When we found that all we had was each other we became a family unit ... he gave me that push to build a life and I did that for him," she explained.
She explained that after being torn from her family as a young teen she connected with others in the camps who became like sisters.
"We gravitated to form units of friends and I and two of my friends, we became like three sisters and supported each other through all the trials and tribulations. ... We shared everything and we supported each other emotionally and in every possible way. My girlfriend, one of them, we survived together, the third one on the road she unfortunately died of starvation just about a week before the war ended. My girlfriend who survived continues to be a sister to me," she explained.
"I am telling you about that to make you aware that each and every one of you are responsible not just for yourselves but for the society we live in, the country we live in ... and be aware what we have in this country is a democracy and we really have to defend with everything possible. And we need to also learn from that, that tolerance is most essential, that we need to recognize that all of us are human beings whatever religion we are, whatever race we are, we are all the same and have a right to be recognized as the same, to be respected and try to live alongside each other. ... You need to know that we all have a responsibility to really guard our freedom and try to live alongside each other, help those who are less fortunate," she said.
Students applauded and gave Silbiger a standing ovation. Many also approached her after being dismissed for more time with the inspiring figure.
Fredonia history teacher Amy Hontz ended the assembly by asking students to "think of one way you can make yourself a better person because it will make the world a better place."
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