Can you tell me where you were born?
My name is Simcha Bunim (Sylvain) Zilberberg. I am an only child, born in Paris, France, at the end of 1938; just at the outbreak of World War II.
What memories can you share with us about your family?
My parents were born in Poland; my father in the city of Kalashine and my mother in the small town of Sadonova. My father was 21 years old, nine years younger than my mother. He was a tailor by trade.
In 1937 my parents left Poland for Paris. My mother left behind her parents and five siblings who all perished in the war. My father had a brother living in Paris who hid with his family in Morocco.
How was your family affected by the outbreak of the war?
My father was arrested by the French Gestapo and sent to an internment camp called Pithiviers. From there he was shipped to Auschwitz where he was murdered.
My mother, wanting to save me, hid me with a Catholic family connected to the Church. My mother joined the partisans. She was part of the underground and came to visit me a few times.
Living as a Catholic wasn’t so simple. I spent time with two families; one of them tried to brainwash me that my mother was evil. They convinced me to hide when she would come to visit. But when my mother would arrive I came running to her, crying. My mother saw what was happening and she had me transferred to another family.
I was one year old at the time. I was baptized and raised as a true Catholic. I learned to do many chores in the church, like ringing the church bell. I knew that I was a Jew by nationality but I had no idea that there was a Jewish religion.
How did you return to Yiddishkeit?
After the war my mother got very sick. Before she passed away she remembered that she had an irreligious uncle in Pittsburgh by the name of Tapola (related to the Alexander Rebbe, Chechnova Rebbe and the Sadovna Rav, Harav Sekula). She wrote a letter to him letting him know that she was very ill and that she has a son who had been hidden by the Church in Paris. My mother passed away in 1945, right after the war. She was buried in a Jewish partisan cemetery.
The rest of my mother’s extended family was chassidish. They were in hiding during the war in Soviet Asia. They wound up in a D.P. camp in Paris run by the Vaad Hatzolah, the Agudah and the Joint. When they came to Paris they wrote a letter to this same uncle in Pittsburgh letting him know that they had arrived in Paris. He immediately sent back a letter informing them of my whereabouts along with some money to cover any expenses of having me released. There was a conflict, since my father had a brother living in Paris who was anti-religious; he did not want me to practice Judaism. After much fighting and many arguments, they were able to persuade him to allow me to stay with my religious family.
I was placed in a yeshivah in France. I loved the learning, and loved being there. One time, my uncle came to the yeshivah during Minchah time. He saw me and tried to get me to leave the yeshivah. I begged him, but he was not convinced. A month later he returned, accompanied by police. When I heard that my uncle had arrived I hid underneath the Rosh Yeshivah’s bed. He did not give up. He had the police come down to search for me but they were not successful. The next day I contacted my cousins, who picked me up. They hid me in Paris for three weeks while they negotiated with my uncle. Ultimately I was allowed to stay with them provided that I attend a secular school simultaneously.
I lived with them until 1949. A gentleman by the name of Mr. Steven Klein, the owner of Barton’s candy, supported about 5,000 orphans. He adopted me and paid for me to travel to America.
When I arrived on the shores of the United States, I was taken to Boro Park, where I was shuffled between my cousins. I never really had a home.
I ended up in a Lubavitcher yeshivah.
Had my mother not sent that letter to Pittsburgh, who knows where I would be today.
What message can you impart to today’s generation?
The reason that I am telling my story is so that the children should know what happened. A big nekamah to Hitler and the Nazis is the fact that I raised a beautiful family who are all shomrei Torah u’mitzvos.
These survivors’ memoirs are being compiled by Project Witness.