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A Righteous Tree

A Righteous Tree

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A lush green garden at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem commemorates the "Righteous Among the Nations," non-Jews who risked their own lives during the Holocaust to save Jews. The foliage rustles in the soft, shady breeze, and the still movements of the trees' leafy branches echo the quiet acts of kindness and humanity that this garden celebrates.

On a modest incline here stands a large, brown, hollow birch tree-trunk. Holocaust survivor Jakob Silberstein, 83, leans against it, solemn and pensive. A small printed sign beside the tree-trunk explains the tree-trunk's presence in this Garden:

"This tree trunk stood in the backyard of Jana Sudova, a Czech Righteous Among the Nations, who in early 1945 hid four Jewish escapees of the death marches. Jakob Silberstein hid in the hollow trunk while the Germans searched the premises."

In these short words is contained Silberstein's lifetime of anguish, faith, search, and discovery.

"I see my life today as a gift from G‑d," Silberstein says quietly. "Heaven protected me many times from death at the hands of the vicious and murderous SS, may their name be blotted out. I believe in divine shelter. Someone was watching over me and protecting me from above."

Born in Rypin, Poland in 1924, he learned in a traditional cheder and then apprenticed as a watchmaker in his father's shop. Then the Germans invaded Poland. Together with his parents and four younger siblings, Silberstein was forced to enter the ghetto, where one of his brothers became ill and died. In 1942, when he was 18, he and his family were deported to Auschwitz, where his parents and the remaining three siblings, two brothers and a sister, were murdered in the gas chambers.

Silberstein still has the concentration camp number branded on his left arm, #76715. In Auschwitz, he was put in the so called Maurerschule (bricklayers' school). Later, he worked as a chimney sweeper.

In January 1945, the Germans forced the remaining Jews out of Auschwitz on a death march towards Czechoslovakia and Moravia. Silberstein, then 21, the only surviving member of his family, was one of thousands of prisoners evacuated on foot, and then into freight cars. Together with three friends, he managed to escape from the trains. "The German soldiers were so drunk at that point, that we were able to jump off the moving trains when the guards weren't watching," Silberstein recalls. "But we had no idea how we would survive."

Arriving near Bohumin (now in the Czech Republic), the four desperate young Jews found refuge in the attic of Jana Sudova, in the village of Sunychl. Sudova, 38, lived on a small farm with her three-year-old daughter Anna. Sudova's husband was a prisoner-of-war at the time. Sudova, a devout Catholic, helped the four Jewish refugees with food, drink, and shelter. The attic floor, covered with soft hay, was their bed. "She simply said, 'In the Bible it is written that when someone needs help, you must help them,'" Silberstein recalls softly.

Silberstein communicated with her in Czech, which he had picked up from Czech prisoners in Auschwitz; he explains that the language is similar to his native Polish. He helped Jana out with farm work, and in the course of doing these chores, found the hollow tree which was to become his haven.

"One morning, while feeding the rabbits, I noticed a birch tree with a hollow trunk, when I saw a rabbit running down a hole in the tree trunk," Silberstein recalls. "With an axe, I widened the hole in the hope that I could one day use it as an emergency hiding place. Then I stuffed the opening shut with leaves so the secret hiding place would remain concealed." Whenever Germans came on their frequent visits to search the farm, Silberstein hurried to hide inside the tree, which the Germans never discovered.

After the four friends had spent six weeks at Sudova's farm, word reached the village of Sunychl that the Russian Army was liberating the area. Fearing discovery on the farm by the remaining Nazis still in the Czech countryside, Silberstein's three friends decided to leave the farm. Early one morning, they went stealthily towards the direction of the Russian liberating army, while Silberstein chose to remain in hiding on the farm.

"Unfortunately, despite many efforts all these years to trace my three lost friends, I have never been able to find any information about them whatsoever. To my sorrow, it seems most likely that they were found and killed by Nazis," says Silberstein with a tremor.

Retreating German soldiers took over the Czech village and forced their way into people's homes. Nazis entered Sudova's home as well and made her host them there. Fearing for his life, Silberstein went into hiding within the hollow tree trunk, remaining there for an ordeal which lasted ten hours long. In the hiding place, there was no food or drink and hardly enough air to breathe. Silberstein remembers gaining hope from the sliver of blue sky that he could see from the top opening, through the leaves covering up his hiding place in the hollow tree.

"I was terrified, scrunched up in the tree, fearing discovery, and dreading that the Nazis would execute me in some cruel way once they would find me in the tree—either burning it down or cutting it in half while I would still be inside. When I could glimpse the sky at the top, I felt reassured that Someone was protecting me from above and that I would survive."

The Nazis never found the tree, and he was able to crawl out alive.

Hours later, Silberstein was caught up in the Russian liberation and was able to emerge from hiding, seeking freedom and refuge on his own. The Russian army brought him to Prague, and from there he traveled to a refugee camp in Stuttgart. In those tumultuous days, running towards freedom, he lost touch with the good-hearted Czech woman who had saved his life. Later, he realized that it was impossible for him to contact her in order to express his gratitude, since for her protection, he had never been told her name, nor the name of her town or even its exact geographical location.

After the war, Silberstein slowly regained his health and strength and began to rebuild his life. In Stuttgart, Germany, he became a successful jeweler, at one point employing ten people in a three-story jewelry concern. He married and had two children, who presently live in Israel with their families. Eventually, he moved to Berlin, where he presently resides, and he frequently visits Israel, where he also has a home in Natanya.

But Silberstein still felt a deep need to acknowledge his gratitude to the kindly Czech woman who had risked her life and that of her little daughter to shelter the four refugees from Auschwitz. Through the 1960's, 1970's and 1980's, he made numerous trips into Czechoslovakia, attempting to locate his benefactor, but to no avail.

In 2005, he made contact with a Czech historian, Vasili, as well as with Frantizak Kreicek, editor of the Czech newspaper OKO ("Eye"). With their help, Silberstein was interviewed at length, and OKO published an extensive news story detailing Silberstein's harrowing Holocaust survival. The article was illustrated by a large photograph of Silberstein, together with his sketched memories of the farmhouse, hollow tree, and adjacent barn. The article ended with a plea to the Czech readership that if anyone recognized this story and had any information regarding Silberstein's benefactor, they should immediately contact the OKO editorial staff.

"I returned to Berlin and began to write my memoirs. One day, about two weeks later, the telephone rang. 'This is Kreicek from Bohomon. Mr. Jakob, I have a surprise for you. The daughter of your benefactor is alive. Her name is Anna Gerlova, and she is 63 and lives just 100 kilometers from Bohomon. The mother, Jana Sudova, died in 2003. I checked everything that Anna Gerlova said, and it is exactly fitting your story and your sketches. She even has photographs of the house and the nearby countryside, just the way that you described it. Call her right away. She is waiting for your call!'"

Silberstein and Gerlova spoke a number of times over the telephone, and shortly afterwards, Kreicek arranged a press conference to record their first meeting, which was organized to take place at the Bohomon municipality building. In front of flashing cameras and lights, television and newspaper reporters, Silberstein was re-united with his benefactor's daughter. Then he accompanied her to the cemetery where Jana Sudova is buried and placed a wreath on the stone. "There I read her name for the first time, and whispered in a voice filled with tears, 'I will tell everything to your daughter Anna.'"

Joined by a Czech television team, Vasili, Kreicek, Silberstein, and Gerlova traveled together to where the Sudova farmhouse used to stand. But nothing was left there anymore in the way Silberstein remembered it from 1945. Anna explained that her father had returned home after the war, but that she had remained an only child. She eventually married and had three children. Later, when her mother passed away in 2003, Gerlova sold the house, and the new owner tore everything down in order to put up a new building.

But no—he had not torn down everything. The hollow tree trunk had remained intact. The television cameramen recorded Silberstein's amazing return to the spot of his rescue, some sixty years before. "Anna told me that she knew the story behind that tree, and she never played inside it as a child," Silberstein notes.

In 2006, in recognition of her courage and the fact that she had risked her life to save Jews during the Holocaust, Jana Sudova was posthumously named as one of the Righteous Among the Nations at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial center in Jerusalem. An award ceremony was held in her honor, with her name unveiled on the list of Czech Righteous Gentiles.

Silberstein recently returned to the Czech countryside to recover the tree and had it shipped to Yad Vashem, where it is now part of the permanent display in the garden overlooking the Jerusalem Forest. "I wanted the world to see this tree-trunk, to see with their own eyes the power with which a Jew struggled to survive the Holocaust."

"This is a sacred place for me, a Western Wall," he says, his hand lightly touching the top of the tree trunk. "When I stand here before this hollow tree, and I remember the terrifying hours that I spent inside it, fearing Nazi discovery at any moment, I thank G‑d for having saved my life."

Esther Bard, born and educated in New York City, lives with her family in Jerusalem. She has been in Israel for over twenty years, and works as a writer and translator.
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Pearl Fiber-Berkowitz New York, NY-USA July 8, 2008

Mr. Silberstein's survival This is a very moving and touching story of one man's survival and his faith in G-d. Thank you for sharing this story. Mr. Silberstein's tree trunk was a gift from G-d to save his life. May he live to 120 years in good health, along with his wife and family. Thank G-d, with the right connections, Mr. Silberstein learned about his righteous benefactor's daughter and followed up on the missing pieces of his experience. In addition, he had the merit to give "credit to whom it is due" via the award and recognition that this woman helped to save his life. Amazingly, I noticed that the "numbers" on Mr. Silberstein's arm add up to "26," which happens to be gematria (numerical value) for one of G-d's names. Reply

Baruch June 28, 2008

We had better recognize them! They kept us alive!

And the Talmud says that the righteous of all nations have a place in Olam HaBa.

(Olam Haba is the World to Come--something like what xians call Heaven)

I read about a survey taken recently. It says that a significant number of Christians believe that other religions are OK with Gd and that people in them can get to Heaven. Interesting. I never heard this attitude before. We Jews used to be the only ones in Europe or the US who said this. The Buddhists probably say so as well. And as for the Muslims...they recognize the Jews and the Chrisians aspeople of the book, but they regard the Hindus and the Buddhists as infidels. Sad. Reply

Andrew June 28, 2008

Beautiful Story A really beautiful story, so nice to see that Judaism recognises the kind acts of other religions. Reply

Anonymous June 27, 2008

cool me as a kid thought it was really cool to see that even a simple tree trunk has a purpose and may jakob silberstein live to see the coming of moshiach Reply

Anonymous brooklyn, new york, usa via chabadbeaches.com June 27, 2008

G-d runs the world amazing just amazing Reply

dlm cali. June 25, 2008

WOW! That's what I say when I am "With Out Words." Reply

Ann June 24, 2008

Jana Sudova Gd bless Jana Sudova and grant her to be a licht in Gan Eden. As one of the righteous among the nations, may Jana Sudova enjoy all eternity in Olam Haba and may she enjoy a happy resurrection of her body when Mashiach comes. May her name be blessed forever.

It was Jana Sudova who saved Mr. Silberstein. Gd bless her now and ever. Let it be known that we appreciate those who help us, and that Gd will bless them! Reply

Anonymous June 24, 2008

Hollow Tree Such a sad story. The tears ran down my face. It was wonderful that woman could be so brave and caring. Reply

Inge Reisinger Offenbach, Germany June 24, 2008

Thank you for sharing your story, and I am glad for you Mr. Silberstein that you found your angel who helped you to survive. So the circle of life is closed for you and I wish you many days in good health with your family. Reply

marianne juliette wilson houston, texas June 24, 2008

a righteous tree as i finished reading this article, i found myself in tears...not just for jakob, jana sudova, & the other 3 escapees, but for the entire mass of jews who were systematically murdered during that time. only a pittiful few managed to escape & avoid the grim destiny that "the mad man" had in store for them. they are the ones who should shout from the house tops to the rest of the world & tell what was done throughout europe at that time so that NO ONE should forget nor claim ignorance of the ghastly facts. i say, always, we must NEVER allow that to happen again on this planet. Reply

Francis Soto Vega Baja, Puerto Rico June 24, 2008

IN TEARS All my life as a child my mother said " the Jews blessed people and good people Don't ever forget that ". I'm 47 and I have a book titled Jewish Literacy by rabbi Joseph Telushkin. My love for the Jewish people is as big as the ocean and reading this article really touched my heart. May G-d bless you all. From Puerto Rico. Reply

reuben miami beach, florida June 23, 2008

Rabbi People like this man should be recognized and we the nation that follows should recognize the Rabbis that open our eyes to the reality of this world.
Please remeber that I and many thousands more will always be here to remember that men like this and the gentile that saved him will be here for many generations to come . Please feel free to think about how you can add to a generation of good and special people. Reply

Schmuel David June 22, 2008

Nothing is ever so moving as when one person, especially at risk to their own life, will help another to save his.
This is one of the most moving stories I can imagine, and one that binds us together as Jews and Gentiles in the service of rightiousness and humanity. Reply

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