“You see it in the books; you read words,” said Marie Silverman, Holocaust survivor. “But then I come to you … I speak to you, and you know I was there. You know that there is meaning, that a body was there.”
On Sunday, The University of Tampa’s Hillel student organization, welcomed Silverman, 84, to speak to the students and tell her story. The event began with Silverman and friend Donna E. Fletcher, a worker at the Florida Holocaust Museum, interacting with the students by preparing a popular Jewish dish called Kugel. As the kugel cooked in the oven, Silverman proceeded to tell her story.
Who is Silverman?
In 1941, Silverman escaped from a concentration camp after five months in Belgium when she was 9 years old alongside her 5-year-old sister Jeanette. Although her mother was able to get both her and her sister out of the camp, she left her children in the hands of the resistance where they traveled to Vannes, France. She left her children a second time to return to the camps to help her husband escape.
When both of her parents escaped, they were at another underground group in Nice, France which was close to where Silverman was. With the help of the resistance, her parents were able to send notes back and forth with the girls. When Silverman and her parents were reunited again, it wasn’t long before her father passed away because of the mistreatment in the camp. The resistance buried her father in Franz, France, under a false name. When the war was over, Silverman’s mother dug-up her father and buried him in Metz, France, where his sister was.
Not too long after, her mother found out that that the Nazis were rounding up the Jews so she managed to find Silverman’s aunt and uncle, who escaped from Belgium to Spain. Her mother sent the two girls with a courier who managed to safely get them to Barcelona. Although Silverman and her sister made it to Spain, her aunt and uncle were trying to get out of Spain because they were near the border of Germany. Because her uncle was in the dining business, he was able to get both himself and his wife papers, from the diners, to travel to Canada. However, he could only get the girls papers to travel to the U.S.
The four then traveled to Portugal where they boarded a boat to the U.S. After two weeks on the boat, they made it to Philadelphia. Her aunt and uncle proceeded to Canada, leaving the girls on the dock until the American Refugee Council found them and took them to an orphanage in New Jersey. Silverman and her sister were put into a foster home in Providence, Rhode Island where they lived until their mother came to the U.S. and reunited with them five years later.
Although Silverman, then 13, never forgot her experiences as a child, she managed to live a semi-normal teenage life as she joined the swim and cheerleading team in her high school.
“Hitler didn’t do his job on us,” Silverman said. “We showed him a thing or two.”
Today, Silverman speaks at the Florida Holocaust Museum twice-a-month, telling her story to children of all ages. She feels that people need to know what transpired because a lot of people deny it. Although she is alive and well, Silverman still gets emotional when talking about her experience.
“When I speak to a group of children, I feel like I’m there again,” Silverman said. “It’s like I’m still living it.”
Silverman also speaks at schools within the Tampa area. With the help of Donna and Robert Fletcher, workers at the Florida Holocaust Museum and Silverman’s longtime friends, she is able to travel and share her story.
“Marie’s story is very important,” Fletcher said. “She has great stamina, had a great recovery and tried to live a normal life. It’s scary. Probably scarier today when you realize what took place back then.”
Silverman’s story has touched many people. A elementary school she had once visited called her back and put together a presentation where they gifted a gold chain with a violin pendant. The violin was something Silverman loved as a child and had to leave behind because it was too much of a load during the escape. Her father promised to get her a new one, but under those circumstances, he couldn’t. The children were emotionally impacted by her.
“I am inspired by Marie’s story,” said Bari Markowitz, senior president of Hillel. “We’ve never had this kind of event before and it makes me happy that we did this.”
Ariel Hernandez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org