Scarsdale woman, hunted by Nazis in Poland, shares story of survival
On a crisp autumn day in Scarsdale, Gitta Silberstein keeps busy – part of her identity crystalized from millions of moments over a lifetime.
"I must honestly tell you for years I never talked about my past," she told News 12.
What you don't see is her terrifying start to life in Nazi-controlled Poland where Jews were being exterminated. Her father was murdered when she was just 1 years old. Her mother immediately took Silberstein on a 150-mile two-year journey to find anyone to hide them.
The woman who did take them in soon gave Silberstein’s mother a choice. She could stay, but Silberstein, who had been drawing attention from nosy neighbors, could not. The punishment for hiding Jews in Poland was death.
To live, they had to be apart. That’s when Silberstein’s life changed. Wanda Tazbir, an open-minded, devoutly Catholic teenager, agreed to take her into the home where she lived with her parents. But to do so, she had to give up her name and learn Catholicism. She was now Barbara.
"I was crying and I was saying all the time, ‘I don't want to be Barbara. I want to stay myself,’" she told News 12.
But Wanda, all of 19 years old, knew it was the only way to protect Silberstein.
"In general, hiding her here was very difficult because in the yard of our house, there was a five-meter-high house that was the home of the Warsaw University of Life Sciences,” said Tazbir in a 1997 interview.
Nazi’s had occupied that building and the streets surrounding the home.
One day, when they thought the Germans saw Silberstein, she had to leave again. Tazbir's family placed her in a Catholic orphanage, hiding in plain sight like other Jewish children. When the allied forces bombed Warsaw, she was sent to a convent in southern Poland.
That’s where she waited until 1945 when the war ended. Silberstein and her mother then reunited. She credited Tazbir for saving her life.
Silberstein 's mother eventually remarried and they moved from France to Germany, then to Israel. Silberstein became a doctor and eventually moved to Westchester.
As for Tazbir, the Russian occupation of Poland after the war didn’t make life easy. Her income was very minimal.
But she made an enormous impact. A statue of her stands in Warsaw because of the countless children she helped at the Institute for the Deaf.
A continent away, she stayed active in Silberstein's life. They became pen pals and Silberstein would send her money.
"She said later that's what kept her going during that time," she told News 12.
Silberstein invited Tazbir to stay with her for month at a time. In 2006, Tazbir died. She lives on at the Holocaust Museum in Israel where Silberstein had a tree planted in her honor.
She never married. She had no children. But her legacy lives on.