This photo represents my most treasured piece of furniture. It’s a drop-leaf table that was given to me by my parents. I love the rich color of the stain, as it matches well with the rest of my décor. The detail on the legs, the scalloped top, and the dove-tailing in the single drawer are all a part of what makes this table so unique. To many, this may seem like just another antique table, but it is much more than that. This table represents survival. It represents strength and perseverance and love. You see, this table once belonged to a Holocaust survivor.
Back in the 1940’s, my Bubbie (my grandmother) set up her cousin Jake Green on a blind date with a woman named Sylvia Farber. Jake was late arriving because he got lost, but Sylvia forgave him, and that night was the beginning of a wonderful relationship that lasted decades. What Jake didn’t know for many years, because Sylvia didn’t want to talk about it, was that she had survived a nightmare prior to coming to America. After being separated from her brother, finding out her father was killed, and never knowing what actually happened to her mother, Sylvia and her aunt Mina, her mother’s sister, found themselves prisoners in concentration camps including Bergen-Belsen and Auschwitz.
I knew some of Sylvia’s & Mina’s story, however, today, I took the time to listen to Sylvia’s story in her own words. The recording was done on January 11, 1996 by Arwen Donahue for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and lasts several hours. I was captivated and horrified hearing how she described what so many Jews lived through in the 1930’s and 40’s.
Sylvia first talked of how, early on, her friends turned their backs on her because she was Jewish. These were friends who, the day before, were playing together as kids do. She said that she watched as Hitler drove by in a convertible through the streets, everyone hypnotized by him. Of course, she couldn’t watch this from her town, as everyone there knew she was Jewish. Instead, she had to walk quite a ways to the next town where no one knew her just to get a glimpse. At the time, she didn’t know the magnitude of what he would ultimately represent. (1)
As she got older, her brother, Bernard, was sent to live with family in England while Sylvia and her aunt Mina worked at the camps with the understanding that as long as they did, her parents would be safe. Her mother would comfort her by telling her, “It’s not going to get any worse.” For quite some time, she didn’t even know what she looked like because there were no mirrors. Later, her father, in an attempt to escape the round up, jumped out of a window and broke his leg. She found out that while he was in the hospital recovering, he was shot and killed, as were many others. She never found out what happened to her mother. (1)
While imprisoned, she saw babies killed. She was tasked with pulling gold teeth from the dead. She suffered from dysentery and typhus and was so sick that she has no memory of two weeks of her life. She and the other prisoners licked soup from the floor because she accidentally spilled it after tripping on her wooden shoes that no longer fit her. She described how both she and her aunt Mina took care of each other, as that gave them something to live for. She even stole bread from a kitchen so her aunt wouldn’t starve. (1)
After some time, Sylvia and Mina were told they were going to be sent to a place that had clean beds and plenty of food. They would work hard, but it would be nice. Mina told Sylvia that it sounded like paradise. That place, it turned out, was Auschwitz. Sylvia had heard about Auschwitz. Everyone had. The minute they arrived, they could see the smokestacks and smell human flesh. (1)
The orders for those they arrived with hadn’t been received yet, and the soldiers weren’t sure what to do with them, so they made them wait. They kept them outside for 48 hours between the gates and the barracks…in January. In the end, Sylvia and Mina were there for no longer than two weeks before going to Bergen-Belsen. They were glad to be leaving, as they knew that their new camp didn’t have gas chambers. There, they just starved people to death. Sylvia and Mina did what they could to survive. (1)
When she was told that they were finally being liberated by British troops, Sylvia began singing the British National Anthem. She eventually found out that her brother Bernard, who was now in the US military, was outside and waiting to see her. She ran out to greet him and stopped in her tracks, paralyzed at the sight before her. She could have sworn she was staring at her father. Her brother was the spitting image of him, right down to his mustache. I can only imagine that the reunion of Sylvia, Bernard, and Mina was a sight to behold. (1)
Eventually, Sylvia and her aunt Mina made their way to the United States. They both moved in with Bernard, and she eventually got a job of her own. They were finally able to go and do what they wanted. When she and Jake married, Bernard told her that he wasn’t losing a sister but gaining a bathroom. It’s funny to hear, but it turned out that Sylvia took lots of baths due to her memories in the camps where she just couldn’t get clean. (1)
Sylvia was devastated to learn that the world didn’t know what was happening in Europe and that they weren’t doing anything to help. She became angry – angry at the world, angry with G-d, and she turned away from her faith. She hated the German language because she felt it represented hate. After she married Jake and became pregnant, she would have nightmares and be heard screaming in her sleep, waking up her husband. She finally decided to open up to him and explain the source of her pain. They would talk for hours, sometimes not sleeping at all. She was grateful for him always lending an ear, whether he was actually listening or not. (1)
In April 1983, Sylvia attended a Holocaust Survivor reunion in Washington, D.C. She was grateful to be there and said that it was good to talk to other survivors. She noted that there were some who were still very bitter, and she felt sorry for them because she realized that the bitterness didn’t harm the people they hated. Sylvia remembered watching the movie “Schindler’s List” that came out 10 years after the reunion. She said it was amazing to her how real it all felt, so much so that she was looking for herself in each scene. She even learned about things that happened that she wasn’t aware of at the time. (1)
Sylvia, her brother Bernard, and her aunt Mina went on to live out the rest of their lives in the United States. Over the years, they acquired many things, one of which was my beloved table that Mina purchased. Many years ago it was given to my parents, and they eventually passed it on to me. This beautiful table is absolutely priceless, as it represents two women who survived despite unthinkable circumstances that were absolutely out of their control.
Mina passed away back in 1964, 10 years before I was born. I was blessed to know both Sylvia and my Bubbie’s cousin Jake, and I have such fond memories of them both. Jake died a few months after my Bubbie in 1996, and Sylvia died on January 20, 2017 at the age of 92. They are dearly missed.
I’ll be honest…I didn’t know what day Sylvia died before I decided to write this. However, when I saw the date, I got goosebumps because of what inspired me in the first place. We have now all probably seen the image from the assault on the Capitol on January 6th that included a man wearing a “Camp Auschwitz” hoodie. The fact that someone would sell an item like that, let alone that someone would wear it, was reprehensible! Upon seeing it paraded at our United States Capitol, I gasped in horror! We, as a nation, need to realize that Anti-Semitism is still a huge problem in our country and the world. How this can even happen in this day and age is terrifying, which is why it is so important that stories like Sylvia’s and Mina’s cannot be forgotten.
As you can see, the date of Sylvia’s death and the significance of what this table represents is even more relevant today. Four years after her passing, we will finally inaugurate a new President and Vice President. This will, for the first time, include not only a female Vice President of color, but also a first Second Gentleman who is a Jew. I have no doubt that this administration will work very hard to heal this country, but we have so much work ahead of us – and it will take ALL of us. This will not be an easy task to accomplish, but it has to start somewhere. If someone like Sylvia Green can come through with an understanding that bitterness serves no purpose, than so can we. I will leave you with a quote from her that we all should remember, just as we should never forget the six million Jews who were killed during the Holocaust. “Hatred. It just doesn’t work.” (1)
(1) Green, Sylvia (1996). “Oral history interview with Sylvia Green” Interviewed by Arwen Donahue for United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Oral History Branch, January 11. Available at: https://collections.ushmm.org/search/catalog/irn511184
I had the Privilege of knowing Mr and Mrs. Green. Their love for each other was evident. Kindness to others was their currency, when that wasn’t what Mrs. Green experienced in her youth. I walked or road to school with Sandy, and in later years I learned of Mrs. Green’s horrific experience. It broke my heart! Her courage and determination couldn’t have been imagined in a movie. She was a remarkable woman. She lived her words, “Hatred. It just doesn’t work.”
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Thank you so much for sharing that, Linda. The fact you didn’t know what Sylvia went through until later years goes to show that everyone is battling something that you have no idea about. Be kind. We’re both so blessed to have had both Sylvia and Jake in our lives. Wishing you health and happiness.
Thank you for sharing this. What remarkable people. I love your treasured table, too.
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Awww! That just made my day!