I was 4 years old and
my brother was 5-1/2 years old when we were first separated from
our parents and placed in a Protestant orphanage in Belgium. I was
a depressed and confused child, but with the passing of time, I
began to believe that all children lived away from their parents.
After several months,
the director of the orphanage had reason to suspect that the Germans
might discover the few Jewish children hidden there and my brother
and I were suddenly returned to our parents. Eager to surprise them,
I was happy again.
Lili Silberman and brother, Charles,
with their mother in Brussels
before going into hiding.
They were not expecting
us when our escort knocked on their door. My parents were certain
the Germans had come for them. The terror on my mother's face as
she opened the door devastated me. I had expected her to be happy
at my homecoming; instead, gloom and despair permeated our home.
The next day, a strange
man* came to the house, removed my brother and me, and accompanied
us by train to a convent in Bruges. I was sure I had done something
terrible. The convent had two separate facilities, one for boys
and one for girls. I was immediately separated from my brother.
My fifth birthday had just passed and I was now alone in a strange
The nuns were strict
disciplinarians. But as terrified as I was of the nuns, I was equally
afraid of the older children. When unsupervised, some of them would
abuse the younger ones. As one of the youngest and smallest, I lived
in constant terror. There was no place to hide and I did whatever
I could not to bring attention to myself.
What little food we had
often had worms, and the bread was always rancid and moldy. We lacked
clothing, heat and medical attention. I don't remember ever bathing.
I never saw a toothbrush, a handkerchief or toilet paper. When I
did not see newspaper scraps, I used my clothing. I was awakened
at night by lice crawling inside my ear and I had a chronic bloody
infection on my scalp.
Even in the freezing
winter, we were sent outside. I was swollen and numb from the cold,
and my hands, blistered from frostbite, were scarred for years.
I knew that I was diseased from filth and neglect, but I thought
that this existence was normal.
I hungered to be with
my mother and father. I clung to their memory. I desperately yearned
for my mother's gentleness. I longed to be noticed, to be touched
and caressed. I craved so intensely, I remember my body always aching.
Yet I seemed unable to cry and I
dared not make noise.
Lili Silberman and brother, Charles,
convent during their hiding.
I thought that if I were
good, the nuns would tell my parents and they would come for me.
I would play by myself, always pretending that I was talking with
my mother, always pleading with her to come for me.
I longed to see my brother,
believing that he could protect me. He was then 6-1/2 years old.
Hoping I might see him, I routinely looked through a keyhole when
no one was looking.
When Mother Superior
occasionally appeared, I would plead through my eyes for her to
notice me, to see my loneliness, my despair. I was a beggar for
a look, a touch. From the age of 4, I never saw the world outside,
never knew that children live together with their parents, never
knew that they play in the park while their mothers watch over them.
Everything had been taken from me. I was to remain only with a distant
memory of my parents' faces. I came to feel that I was a nothing
in this world, and, at the age of 5, I felt old and worn out.
It would be four years
before we were reunited with our parents. Their own ordeal and terror,
their grief at the loss of so many cherished family members, their
long and mournful separation from us, all had emotionally weakened
As I became aware of
how broken these two gentle people were, I began to grieve for them.
I became overly cautious of my behavior and my main concern was
to not cause them any distress.
Ours was a home where
memories were not welcome, a home with no past. I was encouraged
to believe that I was too young to understand, and that the only
thing that mattered was that we were all very lucky to be alive
and together again. While I grew up waiting for my parents to ask
about that once-orphaned child, I was to remain secretly tormented
by my painful memories.
My brother tried to dissociate
himself from his past and in so doing, he distanced himself from
me. Our common history was never discussed. We were to become a
family of strangers.
After having once begged
for a touch, I was to spend years hungering for an ear. When I tried
to break the silence, I was always quickly reminded how lucky I
was, far luckier than most.
When I began to realize
that my parents had no awareness of the sorrow I carried, and no
desire to know of my hidden past, I came to believe that my feelings
had never been important to anyone.
When, through the years,
I encountered unexpected kindnesses from strangers, the tears began
to flow and I welcomed them. And, today, I can finally say I have
found my peace.
* Father Bruno
Reynders, a Benedictine monk, who hid close to 400 Jewish children
in Christian homes and institutions. He was recognized by Yad Vashem,
the Israel Holocaust Museum, as a "Righteous Among the Nations."