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Sig Silber’s great adventure

Paterson patent attorney recalls life’s many twists and turns

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Sig, bottom left, and Zilla Koppold were very young when they arrived in England. Dana Binke, left, was their guarantor, and the two young women at left were their cousins Edith and Paula, also rescued by the Kindertransport.

There are some things that are beyond imagining.

Try to imagine being the young mother of a 5 1/2-year-old, a 2 1/2-year-old, and a seven-month old. Sounds hectic, right?

Then imagine that Kristallnacht happened at the last trimester of your last pregnancy.

You live in Leipzig. It is 1939. The world is imploding. It is exploding. Nothing is safe. Nothing makes sense.

Because of your family connections, you have a chance to save your children. It would mean putting them on a train — yes, all of them, even the baby — and sending them far away. You will not be able to protect them once they arrive, and you might never see them again.

You have very little time to make the decision.

What do you do?

Sig Silber at the Kindertransport memorial at London’s Liverpool Station in June.

Thankfully, none of us have to make that heart-wrenching choice, but Clara Koppold did. Her middle child, Siegmar Silber of Paterson, has lived a long and successful life, but it always has been haunted by it.

His experiences, meanwhile, provide a pocket cultural history of Europe and the United States during the last 70 years.

Koppold was the daughter of Samuel Shmuelewitz, a cantor who worked with Rabbi Ephraim Carlebach, the Orthodox chief rabbi of Leipzig (and the late Shlomo Carlebach’s uncle). Her husband, Abraham Koppold, was born in Warsaw; he came to Leipzig “to seek his fortune,” his son reported, and he found it. A tailor who made the custom-made suits rich men needed before off-the-rack clothing became popular, he ended up employing much of his wife’s family.

Clara had two sisters and a brother; one of her sisters had two children and the other had one child. Her brother, Leo, married but childless, was the city’s Jewish cemetery inspector.

Jewish clergy and community officials, including cemetery inspectors, were municipal employees in Saxony’s big cities, including Leipzig and Danzig, Silber said. They had connections, so on Kristallnacht, when Leo’s house was burned to the ground, he was able to make the arrangements that got his nieces and nephews out.

The Kindertransport, which operated only for nine months — coincidentally, of course, the length of a full-term pregnancy — carried thousands of German, Central, and Eastern European Jewish children to safety in England. Sig Silber’s sister, Zilla, is believed to have been the youngest child saved by it.

(Because the Koppold children were so young, their parents were required to send a Christian nurse to care for them on the trip; by the terms of the agreement, the nurse returned to Leipzig.)

The Koppold children never saw their parents again. Their father was murdered in a concentration camp early in the war. Their mother was deported to Riga, and there the record goes dark. She is thought to have died on a death march; her son would very much like to have the closure that knowing what happened to her would bring.

Once in England, the children never lived together again, but they were placed in households close to each other. Sig went first to a planned community called Welwyn Garden City, where he lived with Jack and Peggy Longland. Jack Longland — who later became Sir Jack — was the assistant superintendent of the Hertfordshire school system, and thus safe from the draft. “They took me because his heart was in the right place,” Silber said. “He had a son about my age, and he thought we would be good playmates.”

That lasted for about two years. “Then Peggy became pregnant, and he felt having three children around would be too much.” Sig was sent back to the agency in Cambridge that oversaw the Kindertransport, and soon he was placed with the Mansfields.

Class was very important in England then, and in his move from the Longlands to the Mansfields Silber whooshed from a perch close to the top of the social structure to settle almost at the bottom. Len and Elsie Mansfield — an unmarried brother and sister — lived a Dickensian life, the brother as a butler to the impoverished pantries of some of the colleges at Cambridge, the sister as a charlady. The war was on, the blitz battered other parts of the country, and rationing was in force.

Sig and the Mansfields loved each other, and he was happy there.

“Being a butler during rationing means that a little bit of butter comes home to the household,” Silber said. ““Being in a food provisioning capacity during rationing is not a bad position.”

He lived with the Mansfields in a street of “historic little row houses, about 150 years olds, that have little plots of land behind them. It was in the middle of the city. We kept a dozen or so chickens for eggs, and I grew tomatoes against one of the walls. Cambridge was safe from bombings, because it didn’t have any munitions factories. There were no tactical reasons to bomb it.

“Cambridge was surrounded by air force bases, and a lot of Yanks were stationed there. They used to come into Cambridge on weekends, and they treated the local kids — myself included — very nicely.

“It was an amazing place to spend a childhood.”

There was a small Jewish community in Cambridge, made up largely of academics and refugees, and Silber, his siblings, and his cousins, became part of it. Silber also went to church with his foster family. He was turning into neither an observant Jew nor a believing Christian.

“I was headed for the University of Cambridge — I was at Cambridge High School for Boys — and for sure if I had stayed in England I would be Church of England today,” he said. The founders of the Kindertransport had known that losing children to Judaism was a distinct possibility, but they thought that risk should not stop them from saving the children’s lives.

And then Silber’s life was disrupted yet again.

One of his cousins who had gone to England on an earlier Kindertransport was adopted by an American family, distant relatives of her father’s, who lived in suburban Detroit. Then his sister was adopted by a family in New Rochelle, N.Y. And then it was his turn.

“I call it the Sears catalogue event of my life,” Silber said.

He explained.

The Schnalls, who adopted his sister, were friends with the Silbers, who lived in Paterson. At a party, the Schnalls showed Meyer Silber a picture of Zilla’s younger brother, Sig. That postage-stamp-size picture altered the course of his life. When Meyer Silber saw it, he decided to give a home to the small boy peering out from it.

Paterson, often called the Silk City, had attracted many Jews who worked in the garment trades. When the Schnalls and the Silbers looked at photos of orphans at the party, the city still was booming. Its mayor and benefactor, Nathan Barnert, who was Jewish, had presided over a city that was good to the Jews, and although he had died decades earlier that had not changed. In the next few decades, as the silk trade dried up, the Jewish community also would diminish, but that still was in the future. Life for Jews in Paterson was good.

Meyer Silber, a one-time president of Temple Emanu-El in Paterson, came from Lodz, Poland, Sig Silber said; in Paterson, he joined a large number of people from Lodz and from Bialystock, another center of the garment trade in eastern Europe. “He came to work in the mills at the age of 12, and retired at 82, so he saw the rise and fall of the silk industry.” Meyer Silber went on to be a salesman in the garment district; at one point he owned his own business, although he lost it in the Great Depression.

“Meyer remembered the pogroms in Lodz, so the idea of taking in a child and keeping him from becoming Christian was a mitzvah,” Sig Silber said. “I was his mitzvah.”

So arrangements were made to take 11-year-old Siegmar Koppold from Cambridge to Paterson, where he would become Sig Silber. Yet again his life was turned upside down around him. This time he was old enough to notice.

“I didn’t have a choice about leaving,” Silber said. Although Meyer Silber did not cross the Atlantic to check him out in person, he sent emissaries to make sure that the boy would do. “It was extremely traumatic,” Silber said. “And the Mansfields were broken up by it.”

He and the Mansfields wrote to each other for some time, “but then emotionally I couldn’t handle it,” Silber said. Later, he went back, first just with his wife and then with his children as well. “It was emotional,” he said.

It was hard for him to become an American. “I had a very difficult time adjusting to this country,” he said. Among other things, “I wasn’t used to having food. This was a middle-class Jewish family, and food was an important ingredient.” It was a shock to a child who had been used to flavorless rationed provisions.

Next was the issue of socialization. American 11-year-olds were far more sophisticated than their British peers, Silber said. “There was a gap that it took me about 30 years to make up. I was a white-socks engineer. I was a nerd.”

Silber went to Paterson with a British accent, but he lost it as soon as he could. “I had it kicked out of me,” he said.

He did not fit particularly well into his new family. The Silbers were in their 60s, closer to grandparents than parents in age. Sig and Meyer got along very well, but his relationship with Gussie never took. She was “narcissistic; she had been queen for 38 years, and then here came this kid to knock her off her pedestal,” Sig Silber said.

“It was tough. As soon as I could, I got out of that household.”

Silber went to MIT, where he majored in biochemical engineering, but he hated it. “I came out of high school in the Sputnik era,” he said. “I had the bad fortune to be first in my class in mathematics, so I was pushed toward engineering. The country needed it.” He transferred to Columbia; given his own status as a hostage to history, perhaps it is not surprising that he majored in that discipline.

He earned a master’s degree in English and communications from Yeshiva University, and then, after some years spent as a technical writer, he went to law school at Fordham. He is now a patent attorney, with his own law firm, Silber and Fridman, in Clifton.

Sig Silber and Norma Livingstone met at Hillel when he was at MIT and she was at Simmons College. They have been married for 55 years; they have three children and 11 grandchildren. A member of an artistic family, he is a sculptor and painter; his works have been exhibited locally. He also enjoys doing improvised pencil caricatures of willing subjects.

Since he came to this country, Silber has learned more about his family; he has met relatives whose existence had been a surprise to him. He learned that he was a cohen. He learned that his father had been one of nine children, only one of whom survived the war. “It takes a long time to sort things out,” he said.

He is active, as well, in survivor organizations, and he has gone back to the places from which he was uprooted early in his life. “There were about 10,000 Jews in Leipzig before the war,” he said. “After the war, I was told, there were about 36 left. I go to survivor meetings where people are organized by the cities they come from, and I have never met anyone from Leipzig at one of those gatherings.” It was only the Kindertransport that kept any of them alive. “When we had the 50th Kindertransport reunion in London, there were eight or nine tables of Jews from Leipzig,” he added.

The Silbers live in Paterson, where he has lived since he arrived in this country in 1948. “I wanted to put down roots,” Sig Silber said.

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