Hyman D. Silberstrom, Holocaust survivor, dies

He began a new life in Baltimore as a businessman and later saved several others from death

  • Hyman Silberstrom
Hyman Silberstrom
November 17, 2010|By Frederick N. Rasmussen, The Baltimore Sun | Baltimore Sun reporter

Hyman D. Silberstrom, a Holocaust survivor who later was interned in Siberian labor camps, died Nov. 11 at his Columbia home of complications from Parkinson's disease. He was 90.

"I was determined to survive!" Mr. Silberstrom told a newspaper reporter in a 1987 interview about his wartime ordeal first at the hands of the Nazis and later the Russians.

Mr. Silberstrom was born and raised in Ciechanow, a small town near Warsaw, Poland. He was a descendant of generations of rabbis and Talmudical scholars, family members said.

After Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, Mr. Silberstrom volunteered for the Polish defense forces.

"It's when he was first confronted with death and evil," said his grandson, Alan Ross of Rockville. "His job was to dispose of human remains and body parts that were left over after German planes had strafed civilians along roadways."

When the Nazis occupied his town, Mr. Silberstrom left his parents, two brothers and a sister and fled in the middle of the night, accompanied by his best friend and by the former Betty Wosk, whom he married.

"He always said you had Hitler in the West and Stalin in the East, and he decided to head East to Russian-occupied Poland," said a daughter, Merle Ross of Columbia.

Mr. Silberstrom's mother, father and sister were sent to Auschwitz, and when his sister learned that her parents were to be sent to the gas chamber, she voluntarily joined them.

His elder brother, who had been a soldier in the Polish army, was shot attempting to escape from a German prisoner-of-war camp, and his younger brother died a week after being interned in a concentration camp.

Seeking political asylum, Mr. Silberstrom was charged with being a spy and was arrested by Russian authorities and placed in a camp for political dissenters.

After being liberated in the early 1940s, he married, and he and his new wife were rearrested and sent to a series of Siberian forced-labor camps.

After learning Russian, he was able to work in an office rather than at hard labor cutting down trees.

Many prisoners died, Mr. Silberstrom said in a 1979 interview with the Columbia Flier, recalling a typhus epidemic that wiped out nearly 90 percent of the internees.

"I was in that one. I had typhus," he told the newspaper. "And I had pneumonia and I had malaria. And I just came out of it."

"Nevertheless, it was not easy. When I talk to you and tell people about this, I just don't believe that it actually happened. I'm just in a daze," he said.

"What I remember mostly is that no matter what the circumstances, there was such humanity among the prisoners of war. We still tried to help one another," Mr. Silberstrom recalled.

After spending three years in the camp, he was moved to another camp on the Russian coast.

After finally being liberated at war's end and learning the fate of his family, Mr. Silberstrom told the newspaper that he "raised hell with God."

"I told off God so bad for weeks at a time," he said.

In a 1987 speech before Howard County high school students, Mr. Silberstrom explained how the enormity of the Holocaust that had claimed more than 6 million Jewish lives had left many homeless and without hope.

"I was determined to make it," he said.

He was reunited with his wife in Russia, and the couple traveled to Czechoslovakia, then to a displaced-persons camp in Austria, where they remained for five years.

Jennie Bass, an aunt of Mr. Silberstrom's mother who lived on North Bentalou Street, sponsored the young couple when they arrived in Baltimore in 1950. The couple eventually divorced.

Mr. Silberstrom made a new life in his adopted city, working as an upholsterer. He later opened a grocery store, went into real estate and established Armer Sales, a West Pratt Street furniture and antiques store that took its name from the letters of his children's name.

Residents near the store called Mr. Silberstrom, who retired in 2000, the "tough old man" or "Mr. Armer," family members said.

In 1997, Mr. Silberstrom was presented a Citizens Award citation by then-Baltimore Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier for rescuing two children from a burning Southwest Baltimore rowhouse.

After an 8-year-old girl who had been left at home alone with her two younger siblings saw a fire in her kitchen, she ran outside and summoned Mr. Silberstrom from his store. He brought her 4-year-old brother and their baby brother to safety.

A few moments after leaving the house, which was fully engulfed in flames and smoke, an oxygen tank exploded.

"That's when the police told me I was a lucky man, that another 10 seconds and I wouldn't have been able to have gotten out," he told a reporter from the Jewish Times. "But who's thinking about those things?"

During his lifetime, Mr. Silberstrom participated in two other rescues: He pulled to safety a driver from a burning car and another from a fireball inside a gas station.

Mr. Silberstrom was a member of the Columbia Jewish Congregation.

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