Ghetto Baby: Child Survivor of the Holocaust.
Born in the Radom ghetto and hidden in an orphanage, Dr. Charles Silver survived the Holocaust as a baby.
“I was born in December, 1942, in the Radom ghetto,” Dr. Charles Silver explained in a recent Aish.com interview. Charles' love for the United States and his strong Jewish identity were shaped in his early life, when he managed to survive against unimaginable odds during the Holocaust.
In the 1930s, the city of Radom, south of Warsaw, was heavily Jewish. Out of a population of about 90,000, 30,000 Jews called Radom home. The Jewish community was incredibly active. Over 20 Jewish schools operated in the town. There were 12 Jewish periodicals in Radom, a Jewish theatre and a Jewish artistic and literary society. Radom Jews ran the gamut religiously, belonging to Jewish organizations ranging from Orthodox to socialist and Zionist.
Prison Walls Close In
The late 1930s brought disquiet. Polish archivist Sebastian Platkowsi notes that “Polish right-wing organizations staged frequent antisemitic actions, including boycotts of Jewish businesses and physical assaults.”
On 1 September, 1939, Germany invaded Poland and one week later, German troops reached Radom. At first, the Germans deported individual Jews from Radom to forced labor camps. By 1941, the Germans began to implement their “final solution to the Jewish problem” in Radom and across Europe. Local Nazi officials built two ghettos in Radom: a larger one in the center of the town, and a smaller one in a nearby suburb. Thousands of Jews were herded into the ghettos, forbidden to leave on pain of death.
Open-air market on Wałowa Street in the Radom ghetto, between April 1941 and August 1942. (Courtesy Łukasz Biedka)
Conditions were horrible. The ghettos were so overcrowded that residents had to live a dozen or more people in a room. Radom’s Jews resisted in ways large and small. They developed a network of Jewish organizations, established secret Jewish schools, an underground Jewish theatre, and literary societies in the ghettos. The population swelled as Nazi authorities brought even more Jews into Radom’s ghettos as they deported Jews from the countryside and surrounding towns. The Nazis set up a Jewish leadership council inside the ghettos, which was responsible for providing 1,500 Jewish adults every day to work as slave laborers by the Nazis.
Nearly all of Radom’s Jews were murdered.
In early 1942, the Nazis deported some of Radom’s Jews to be murdered at Auschwitz. Then on August 5, 1942, the orders came through: the small Radom ghetto was to be liquidated. With the help of Ukrainian troops, Nazis shot Jews, sent some to forced labor camps, and deported the vast majority to the Treblinka death camp. On August 16, they set their sights on the large Radom ghetto, determined to kill most Jews in the camp and deport the rest to death camps.
Hundreds escaped into the woods nearby. Some Jews from Radom later fought in the major uprising at the Warsaw Ghetto in 1944. Nearly all of Radom’s Jews were murdered. About 3,000 were kept alive as slave laborers, forced to do backbreaking, torturous work for the Nazis.
Refusing to Give up Hope
In this hell, Charles' parents managed to cling to hope. “My Mom and Dad were both ardent Zionists and were active in Radom’s Hashomer Ha’Tzair Zionist club. When Germany occupied their town they refused to despair. They were young and in love and they knew there were a lot of storm clouds gathering,” Charles explains. “They said, ‘Let’s face this together.’”
Jews forced into a small ghetto at Glinice in Radom. (USHMM)
In 1940, Charles' parents Henry and Edzia married. The following year they, along with over 30,000 other Jews, were forced into Radom’s ghettos.
A Baby in the Ghetto
“My mother was pregnant with me at the time of the liquidation in 1942," Charles explains. Having a baby in the ghetto was a death sentence. “If Germans found babies, they were shot or bayoneted or killed in even more gruesome ways. Children weren’t collateral damage – they were the target. Heinrich Himmler said that we have to extinguish the roots of the Jewish people. That meant wiping out Jewish children."
My mother seriously thought about having an abortion, but her mother said to go through with the pregnancy.
When Edzia realized she was pregnant, she didn’t know what to do. She turned to her mother Frymeta for advice. "My mother seriously thought about having an abortion,” Charles notes. “That was an option. But Frymeta said to go through with the pregnancy.” Edzia was very petite and malnourished, so nobody guessed she was expecting.
After the liquidations of the Radom ghettos in 1942, Charles' parents were among the 3,000 Jews who were kept alive to perform slave labor, while about 30,000 of their friends and relatives were sent to Nazi death camps. Charles credits his mother’s survival to the kindness of Polish gentiles who smuggled her food through her pregnancy. “Mom had a lot of Polish friends,” Charles explains. "Jewish babies in Poland rarely survived.”
Charles was born in December, 1942, in the depths of the freezing Polish winter. His parents named him Chazkel. “My mother said she breastfed me in the morning, then went on a 12-hour work detail, then fed me again in the evening.” Charles wasn’t the only baby: in the course of researching the Radom ghetto and labor camp, he’s discovered that perhaps as many as five Jewish babies were hidden in the camp at that time.
The Nazi guards had regular inspections of the ghetto. One day, during and inspection, a baby cried out. “The German said, ‘Whose baby is that?’” Charles recalls his mother telling him. Unbowed, Charles' mother answered the Nazi guard saying it was hers. “I don’t know why she said that,” Charles says. Admitting she was hiding a baby in the barracks was sure to lead to death. Except this time, miraculously, it didn’t.
“The SS officer inspecting the ghetto for some reason had a moment of compassion and sensitivity,” Charles notes, “and he didn’t make her come up with the baby. That was the second time I was saved” – the first being when his mother decided to keep her pregnancy.
Hiding their Baby
After that close call, Charles' parents realized they had to find a hiding place for him outside of the ghetto. “This very fine Polish woman worked for my father’s family business - a young woman named Marianna,” he notes. Charles' parents asked her to help them hide their baby.
“Hiding Jewish children in Poland was more difficult than in Western Europe,” he explains. “In Poland, the only way to hide a Jewish baby was to pay people a lot of money or by putting the baby in a convent.” It’s estimated that thousands of Jewish children were hidden during the Holocaust, often in convents, where they were raised without any knowledge of their Jewish identity.
Charles in 1945
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum notes that “For many of those lucky enough to be sheltered by religious institutions or adopted by Gentile families, survival often came at the cost of their true identity. At the end of the war, many children were never told of their previous lives and prior identities, hindering attempts to reunite them with adult members of their birth families. Many adult survivors after fruitless searching were never able to relocate their children.” Charles notes that “the great number of those parents never came back and a majority of those hidden children were lost to Judaism.”
Marianna first planned to hide Charles with a childless Ukrainian friend of hers. At the last minute, the friend backed out. “In Poland, hiding Jewish children was a death sentence,” Charles explains.
The orphanage accepted him and Charles was eventually adopted by a Polish couple.
Marianna managed to place him in a Catholic orphanage instead. “It’s a good thing that I wasn’t yet circumcised," Charles notes. “If I was, my chances of survival would have been far less.” With his Aryan-looking features, it was easy for the orphanage to pass him off as a non-Jewish child. “I suspect that the nun who ran the orphanage must have known I was Jewish. You don’t drop off a baby in the mid-1940s at an orphanage unless it was a Jewish child.”
The orphanage accepted him and Charles was eventually adopted by a Polish couple.
Surviving the Holocaust
Against all odds, Charles' parents managed to survive the Holocaust. His father Henry was sent to Majdanek concentration camp to work as a slave laborer. He then was sent to Plaszow concentration camp where he was recruited to work in Oscar Schindler’s factory. He never told anybody his story until the movie Schindler’s List came out in 1993, and he finally told his family that he’d been one of the 1,098 Jews saved by Oscar Schindler.
Charles as a toddler
Charles' mother Edzia was sent first to Auschwitz and then to Ravensbruk concentration camp, where she worked as a slave laborer. “When Auschwitz closed its gas chambers at the end of the war, the Nazis transferred women to Ravensbruck so they could still use them for the war effort,” Charles explains. His mother became extremely ill in the camp, and was eventually evacuated in the closing weeks of the war by the Swedish Red Cross.
Their families were not so lucky. Henry was one of eleven children: seven perished in the Holocaust, as did his parents Leibel and Nechuma. Edzia’s parents Shmuel and Freymeta were also killed.
Reunited and Searching for Their Child
After the war, the first thing that Charles' father Henry did was return to Radom to look for his son. He found Maryanne, who told him that the baby had been adopted. When Henry spoke to the couple, they said they’d be willing to part with their adopted child for the huge sum of 5,000 zlotys. It was an impossible amount of money for a penniless Holocaust survivor.
Charles and parents reunited, probably in Germany, 1947
Henry also looked for Edzia, wondering if it was possible that she too had survived. The Red Cross and refugee camps helped,” Charles notes. After nearly a year of searching, they were able to reunite. Together again, Charles’ father traded on the black market in order to raise the money they needed to redeem their son. Eventually, he raised the requisite amount of money and the couple relinquished Charles. “They bought me back,” he notes.
Trying to Build a New Life
Stateless refugees, Charles' parents didn’t know what to do next. “They decided that they weren’t going to stay in Poland -- there was lots of anti-Semitism there,” Charles notes. (In 1946, a pogrom took place in the Polish town of Kielce, nearby to Radom, when Holocaust survivors returned to their former homes: 42 Jews were murdered by local townspeople and over 40 Jews were injured.)
“My parents wanted to go to Palestine, the United States was second choice.” They were unable to get visas to either destination.
While they waited for permission to immigrate to the United States or Israel, the family lived in a Displaced Persons (DP) camp in Stuttgart, then in an apartment building in Munich that was home to many other Holocaust survivors. “Nobody wanted to stay in Germany either,” he recalls, “but it was safer to stay in Germany because it was in the American Zone of Occupation. So that’s where a lot of Holocaust survivor families stayed after they got out of DP camps until they could get a visa to go to Israel or the States.” His younger sister was born in Munich during his family’s sojourn there.
The family waited a year and a half until finally they received a visa. Edzia had an aunt who’d immigrated to Baltimore 25 years previously. She managed to scrape together the money to sponsor 12 or 13 relatives. Charles was nearly seven years old when he and his parents flew to Baltimore to start their new lives there.
Living in the US
In America, the family changed their names. Their last name became Silver and Edzia was known as Edith. Charles recalls that he spoke Yiddish and German, but no English. In Baltimore, even though they were largely non-religious, his parents enrolled him in an Orthodox Jewish school.
Dr. Charles Silver
He attended college and medical school at UCLA and became a surgeon, working as a medical officer in Vietnam. Henry worked in a grocery store, was a part owner in a kosher deli, and had a real estate business. “He only had an elementary school education,” Charles explains, "but he was a go-getter.” His parents lived until their 90s; his father passed away in 2008 and his mother in 2013.
Charles married and raised three children, first in New Orleans, and then Dallas. “Judaism has always been a big part of my life,” he explains. “We made sure our kids received the best Jewish education they could. All my grandchildren have a strong Jewish identity and go to day school… My wife has made our kitchen kosher now.”
I owe my survival to God’s will and the assistance of a lot of people
Telling his Story
In recent years, Charles has been speaking to groups about his family experiences in the Holocaust. “I used to say it could never happen in America… I love America and I tend to be a glass half full person,” he explains. Yet the recent rise in antisemitism has him worried. His father always used to say an explosion of Jew-hatred could happen anywhere. Charles used to insist that it could never happen in the United States; now he’s less sure. “I think we’re getting a lot closer to the brink than I ever thought we would.”
He also wants to warn people about using Nazi terms carelessly. “I hate when people use Nazi terminology flippantly. It belittles the history of the Holocaust.”
His own survival gives him faith in God and in human goodness. “I owe my survival to God’s will and the assistance of a lot of people,” he explains.
Charles has clear advice for future generations. “People should support Israel. Maintain your Jewish faith. Maintain your love for our historic homeland. Don’t be downtrodden. Whenever antisemitism rises, don’t hide; be proactive.”