Professor Al Silverstein’s journey begins with an early childhood in Graz, Austria, and culminates with his retirement in Pawtucket. It is both a harrowing tale of survival and the story of a remarkable life. Silverstein is a longstanding member of the Sandra Bornstein Holocaust Education Center’s (SBHEC) Survivor Speakers Bureau where he has an opportunity to tell his story.
An only child, Silverstein was born in Graz, the second largest city in Austria, where his father and uncle owned a clothing-and-dry-goods store that, along with their apartment, was expropriated in 1938 during the Anschluss. He explains, “Overnight the Jews of Austria were like the Jews in Germany, subject to all the same restrictions.” Silverstein and his mother were evicted from their apartment and banned from Graz, along with all Jews.
His father began trying to find ways to get out – an enormously difficult feat. His father’s older sister, who had lived in Queens, New York, since the early 1920s, wanted to sponsor them, but to no avail. The family even tried to sneak into Switzerland as tourists but were sent back.
When Kristallnacht happened, Silverstein’s father was on the way to the Costa Rican Embassy in Vienna, attempting to secure safe passage. When that appointment never took place, he headed back to Graz, but was arrested on his way to the train station, and was held prisoner for the next six weeks.
Young Silverstein and his mother headed to visit their relatives in Vienna. There, “the application of the anti-Jewish laws weren’t as severe as in the city of Graz [yet].” They lived in hiding because they “weren’t legitimately in Austria anymore.” His mother found the prison where his father was being held and managed to smuggle food and clothing to him. She was eventually able to get him released by obtaining forged papers that indicated he had an immigration visa to go to Shanghai. Afterward, his father hid in his brother’s basement.
Silverstein’s father applied for a program for young Jewish men with an agrarian background. Having grown up on a farm allowed him to escape to England in March 1939 to Kent’s “agricultural work station, essentially a military installation.” Once in England, his father’s “primary goal” was to get his wife and son out as well.
The Kindertransport program made that possible. It took “many bribes, threats, and much cajoling,” but Silverstein’s mother was able to get him out after his father found a foster family to take him in. Because Silverstein was only 3 1/2 years old when he moved in with the Walsh family, he does not have many memories of that time. However, he clearly remembers getting on the train and always tells the transport story. He still has the little suitcase that his mother packed with some clothes and toys for the journey to England.
She was able to get to safety as well. Silverstein’s father found his mother a position as a maid for a pair of elderly sisters in Sussex, England. She signed on as an adult chaperone on the last Kindertransport train so she did not have to go back. So, although they were not together, they all managed to get out of Austria.
Silverstein’s parents had a very heartfelt relationship with the Walshes who were very good to him. When Silverstein married Myrna, the newlyweds took their honeymoon in England and spent time with the Walsh family. They remained in contact, and he saw them when he was in England.
It took 2 1/2 years, but his family’s emigration was finally approved. They came to America in November 1940. After living in Queens with his father’s sister, they eventually settled in Daytona Beach, Florida, a place with a small but active Jewish community. Silverstein loved growing up there although segregation made him uncomfortable. That’s one of the reasons he thinks organizations like the SBHEC are so important for those who struggle against discrimination.
Silverstein left Florida to go to Cornell University. At that time, the Northeast was an intellectual center and “that’s where all the pretty and smart Jewish girls were.” He received a master’s degree from Yale University and a Ph.D. from University of California, Berkley. The University of Rhode Island brought Silverstein to Rhode Island, where he served as a professor of psychology for 41 years.
Silverstein says he views Germany as “one of the moral nations in the world. What they do and have done in recent years is about as good it gets for national entities.” He first visited Germany in the early 1990s.
Austria, on the other hand, was a very different matter. Silverstein says he felt “negative about Austria for a very long time” and wouldn’t go back there because “with our collusion, they were able to sweep their involvement under the rug and act like they were victims of the Nazis. But around 2000, there was a real change and recognition of the truth.”
After his father died in 2001, Silverstein found a file whose documents revealed that he was applying for restitution from the Austrian government. A program that started in the late 1990s offered “restitution to Jews and other victims of National Socialism.” Austria was finally recognizing that the country had played a real part in the Nazi war machine. He had been “pursuing [the status] for the better part of two years and it was going nowhere.”
So Silverstein wrote a letter to the Office of National Reconciliation and was contacted by a new officer in charge of his father’s file. He was astonished to get a “helpful, cooperative, and convivial” response from Karen Tertinegg within a month. She facilitated his father’s claim for restitution.
About a year later, Tertinegg informed Silverstein that being born in Austria affords him the right to make his own claim, which she also facilitated. This experience has led to an enduring friendship between Silverstein, his wife, Myrna, and Tertinegg. He feels that her assignment to that office was “emblematic of the way Austria has changed.”
The funds that Silverstein received from both claims have been used to fund the Silverstein Family Trust, which annually awards grants to worthy Holocaust education programs in our community, and a fund at URI Hillel.
It was at the urging of his daughter Elisa Heath that Silverstein began sharing his story. Heath worked for the Jewish Federation of Rhode Island (now Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island) for many years and was deeply impressed with the work of what was then known as the Holocaust Education Center of Rhode Island (now SBHEC). She arranged for a trip to the 50th anniversary of the Kindertransport. And it was she who persuaded Silverstein that he needed to be a part of Holocaust education.
Once Silverstein moved to Pawtucket, his involvement with the Federation (now Alliance) and Holocaust education flourished. During a presentation, Silverstein connects with students by being open. Helping students develop empathy and tolerance for those who are different gives him a deep satisfaction.
LEV POPLOW is a communications and development consultant writing on behalf of the Bornstein Holocaust Education Center. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.