Rose Silberberg decided to make the fours chairs, the sixes large-handled mugs, and the eights a strong, capable young woman with a part in her hair and wearing a long peasant dress. Maybe she was a little like her own pretty mother. Now what might the twelves be?
9-year-old Rose carefully drew two strutting chickens, complete with tail feathers and sharp little claws. The chicken drawing on the playing card was indeed perfect, for Rose knew full well she was hiding from the Nazis in Mrs. Chicha’s chicken coop. When her 4½-year-old sister, Mala, began to sing, Rose quickly put her hand over her sister ‘s mouth. For that sound of joy—any sound—might give away their hiding place.
They had not always lived so. In the city of Jaworzno, in southwestern Poland, the Silberbergs, descendants of a large Hasidic family, had been well-to-do enough for Rose to have a nursemaid, whom she occasionally accompanied to her church, without anyone knowing. Mala had a beautiful voice and loved to sing. Life was good for the Silberberg girls and their parents, Felicia and Moses, Aunt Sara, and the uncles and cousins who were always around.
With the occupation of Poland, the Silberbergs fled from their town to Sosnowiec, a city not far away. Then the Germans occupied Sosnowiec on September 4, 1939, and immediately attacked its 28,000 Jewish residents. Within 5 days, they had burned down the synagogue, issued severe restrictions on personal behavior, and expropriated Jewish property. The Jewish community was herded into a ghetto created in Srodula, one of the poorest neighborhoods of Sosnowiec. The Nazis forced the Judenrat, the Jewish council , to provide labor for the coal and iron mines and other industries in the area. By August 18, 1942, after an aktion, or roundup, 11,500 people had been sent to various forced labor camps or to nearby Auschwitz-Birkenau to be murdered.
Rose and Mala managed to evade a children’s aktion, in which the Nazis swept into the ghetto, tearing children away from their families and rounding them up for transport to the death camps. Mr. Silberberg contacted Mrs. Stanislawa Chicha, a Lithuanian woman who lived nearby in Sosnowiec, and offered to pay her if she would hide his family. An arrangement was made, and the Silberbergs found a way out of the ghetto.
Mrs. Chicha had a chicken coop connected to the back of her house. Moses Silberberg made the chicken coop livable and built a tiny underground bunker beneath it, complete with a trapdoor covered with potatoes to camouflage it. Into this cramped coop moved Rose, Mala, their parents, and their uncle. It was dark all the time, and they had to remain utterly quiet. The creaking floor could betray their presence to the passing Germans, or to visiting townspeople who might turn them over to the Germans.
The ordeal was particularly hard for Mala who, at only 2½, found it difficult to be silent, and eventually she was sent to live with a Catholic family. The only arrangement her parents could make was that in exchange for protecting her, the family would adopt her and raise her as a Catholic. This at least might save their daughter’s life.
As the months wore on, the rest of the family, hiding in the chicken coop, was beginning to starve. Mrs. Chicha’s rations were insufficient to feed them all. The adults returned to the ghetto, where at least they could eat the meager ration provided, but Rose remained in the chicken coop alone. Mrs. Chicha brought her food. However, she was isolated for long hours in the darkness, and she grew very frightened. She was, after all, only 9 years old. She begged to see her parents in the ghetto, and was eventually allowed occasional visits.
One of these visits occurred in early August 1943, when the general liquidation of the ghetto at Srodula had begun. The Germans surrounded the ghetto and began to search the buildings. Rose and her aunt hid in a bunker in the ghetto with other people, but they were discovered. Aunt Sara bribed the Jewish policeman who was guarding them to let Rose escape. Rose managed on her own to find her way back to Mrs. Chicha’s house. A few days later, a few family members and other Jews who had evaded the roundup arrived at Mrs. Chicha’s. The chicken coop now had 16 people in it. They managed to live there, hidden and undetected, for 6 more months. In January 1944, the family that had been hiding Mala brought her to the chicken coop, unwilling to hide her anymore because their neighbors suspected that she was Jewish.
In February 1944, however, the SS, in their attempt to eliminate every Jew from every hiding place in the Sosnowiec area, surrounded Mrs. Chicha’s house. All were forced out of the chicken coop. The girls’ uncle pushed Rose and Aunt Sara toward the bunker beneath the chicken coop. Rose was old enough to scramble back down through the trapdoor, but Mala was asleep on the floor. She was caught, along with family members and others hiding in the chicken coop. Mrs. Chicha was also arrested; the crime of hiding Jews often incurred capital punishment. All were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Long into that night, Rose still could hear the strong, powerful voice of 4½-old Mala screaming as the Nazis dragged her away: “Where is my sister? Where is my Aunt Sara?” Woken up at midnight by SS men in full gear, Mala was without winter clothes: she was taken to prison in her pajamas. The sound of her sister’s screams haunted Rose for years.
An uncle, who had escaped during the melee, returned to open the bunker’s trapdoor. He quickly offered advice about where to obtain identity papers. Rose and her aunt were able to get false working papers and were sent to work in Germany. Assuming identities as Christians, they worked serving meals in a convent. Even here, the SS stopped them and accused them of being Jewish. An SS officer pointed a revolver at Rose’s head. “If you tell me you’re Jewish, I’ll let you go,” he said. But she refused to be tricked. Remembering some of the Catholic liturgy she’d heard when her nursemaid had taken her to church, Rose recited prayers in Latin sufficiently well to convince the SS that they were not Jewish.
Rose and her Aunt Sara were finally liberated in April 1945. Returning to Poland to search for surviving family members, they discovered that all those sent to Auschwitz had been killed. They located Mrs. Chicha—only she had survived the death camp.
After spending time in a Krakow orphanage (and barely escaping with her life in a pogrom), Rose Silberberg and her aunt escaped again and finally immigrated to the United States in 1951. For sheltering the Silberbergs and many others during the Holocaust, Mrs. Chicha was recognized as one of the “Righteous Among the Nations” by Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem.