One Seventy-Five – Iris Dorbian

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Of the gallery of characters who have rotated in and out of my life, one of the most memorable—and enigmatic—was Tomas Silka. I was friends with him for a year and during that time I was never quite sure of what to make of his stories. So many of them seemed a bit implausible, even farfetched; yet given the chaotic circumstances that had defined and upended the lives of so many of us survivors, I tried to accept them initially without equivocation. It was only later on, after our friendship disintegrated, that I wondered just how close I had been to becoming one of his victims. 

He told me he was from Cologne and that he had a wife and a son who were killed in an air raid. When I asked him how he ended up in a concentration camp, he said he had been a master tailor who had done business with textile manufacturers, most of whom were Jewish. He kept on dealing with them long after it was forbidden.

So he was sent to Buchenwald. Or so he said.

But even as he regaled me, like a consummate raconteur, with the story of his life before the war, his captivating grey eyes twinkling in gleams of wistful bliss at the lost memories, I still found it hard not to question the veracity of some of these anecdotes.

For instance, he insisted he survived the sinking of the Cap Arcona, a German ship that was bombed by British forces during the final days of the war. It had on board German soldiers and unfortunately, for the British who had no idea, many concentration camp inmates as well.

Thousands were killed. It happened on May 3rd–the same day that I, only 14 years old, weighing only 28 kilos (about 62 pounds), a skeletal specter of a boy, was liberated.

The official Cap Arcona account was that 300 people survived by swimming to shore. Silka claimed to be one of them. I found this very difficult to believe because I had seen some people who survived the bombing and they were in terrible shape. Silka looked too good by comparison.

Like this one guy who had been brought to the hospital the first week I was there. It was only a few days before I met Silka. This guy was covered head to toe in filth and sludge. He was coughing and panting and wheezing so much, I couldn’t fall asleep. Finally, I did.

When I awoke the next morning, I saw his bed was empty. I asked a nurse what happened to him. She told me he died.

That was Silka’s first lie. But I let it pass because he was the first friend I had made in the hospital and he was kind to me. And believe me that was all that mattered then.

Two years before, I was arrested with my two older sisters and mother in our hometown of Libau, Latvia. Most of our relatives had been killed in the early round-ups, probably shot in the nearby woods. (My father had died in 1935 at the age of 38 of an illness. I was only four and a half).

Until that night in October ’43, we had been spared due to the fact that my mother had a valuable trade that the German navy, who occupied most of Libau needed (she was a seamstress at the naval base). Because of this, she was given an “ausweiss,” an ID card which even the SS respected. As a result, we were always let go.

After we were taken away, we were sent to Kaiserwald, a camp in Riga. From there I was immediately separated from my mother and sisters (I would neither see nor hear from them again until March ’46). And thus would begin a nightmare that would finally end on May 3, 1945.

Hours earlier, I had experienced the final arc of my two and a half year-long epic of terror. When it was apparent to the Germans they were losing the war, the SS began to evacuate the camps and march us inmates to god knows where. I was in Stutthof, my last camp. I remember the first day I got there, conditions were so horrendous corpses were strewn all over the ground like piles of human debris. They hadn’t even bothered to separate the men from the women.

Although I was very sick with typhus and dysentery, I forced myself to go on this march. Not to go meant being left behind, which meant certain death.

After walking for days and weeks on end, sometimes through mud so thick it came up to our knees, the guards forced us all onto barges. We had no idea where we were going. Because I was so sick, I recall very little about the boat ride only that we landed on the outskirts of Neustadt-Holstein. There the guards abandoned us, leaving us only a few miles to shore. 

A few people on the boat had seafaring experience and managed to rig up some sort of sail that allowed us to get to shore. With their help, the sick and weak disembarked early. I was one of them.

I remember being put near a tree where I was able to witness the other people getting off the boat. Then, suddenly out of nowhere, the guards reappeared, yelling that no one gave orders to disembark. They started shooting at people still on deck, waiting to go down the makeshift gang plank. Hundreds were killed like that—only a few hours before liberation. When the shooting stopped, those who survived, were gathered up and marched to the town. There we were brought to a large naval base where they left us. Hours later the British arrived.

The first thing they did when they saw me was spray me with DDT. I can imagine what I, an emaciated wraith of a boy, must have looked like to them.

As I recounted the sequence of events that led me to the hospital, I found myself shocked and stupefied by my sudden burst of garrulity. I had always been a quiet child. So much so that others used to ask my mother what was wrong with me.

“There’s nothing wrong with him!” she’d flare back. “What’s wrong with silence? Hirschel is a thoughtful, intelligent child. He only speaks when there’s a purpose behind it.” With that, she’d lovingly nuzzle my head with her callused fingers, a product of a near lifetime of working as a seamstress.

Yet during those few weeks I spent in the presence of Silka, who was lying recumbent in another bed facing mine, the words, like a tributary, couldn’t stop flowing out of me. The catharsis was as unsettling to me as it was therapeutic. There was just something so compelling about this strange old man (he looked like he was in his 50s, which to my 14-year-old vantage point was practically ancient), with his elegant, mannerisms, painstakingly precise enunciations and animated, almost histrionic gestures, that I couldn’t help but confide in him.

Or maybe that was by default because I needed to unburden myself after years of suffering and Silka was there.

A month after we met, Silka was released. Because he was a German national, he couldn’t live in the displaced persons (d.p). camp like the rest of us. So he rented a room outside of town and would visit me on a habitual basis.

I was always happy to see Silka, who had become kind of like surrogate grandfather. His pockets always overflowed with sundry items like cigarettes and other goods he’d get from the black market. He was always very generous toward me. Always giving me things every time he’d visit. This was great except I was a real idiot when it came to the black market. I simply had no conception of the value of certain items.

Once I got this care package from the Canadian Red Cross. It contained all sorts of savory things: coffee, chocolate, jam, sardines, crackers and canned fruit. A regular Viennese table minus the napoleons. Even today, my mouth waters thinking about it.

Some of those items were as good as currency. Coffee, along with cigarettes, was a very valuable commodity in the black market. You could trade it for anything, a camera, a suit—whatever. But I was so young and to me, coffee was the least desirable item. So when someone offered me a swap of coffee for jam, I thought:

“Hmm. That’s great. I love jam!”

When people found out about it, they told me in no uncertain terms that I was stupid. But not Silka.

“Don’t worry about it,” he comforted me. “You didn’t know. It’s okay. I bet that jam was very delicious, right?”

He never reprimanded me. Not once.

A couple of days later, Silka came by to visit. He told me he had a present for me.

“It’s in my hand,” he said. Using his right hand, he motioned me to look to his left, which contained a teeny tiny bag of coffee.

I was thrilled and thanked him profusely. I hid it under the mattress and later used it to get some clothes.

Which leads me to Silka’s next lie. During one of his earlier visits, I asked Silka if he could make me a pair of pants. Except for the hospital gown I wore, I had no clothes. Nothing. Except what I had on.

I also had a blanket, which I’d wrap around my waist like a sarong whenever I’d walk outside and wander amid the sprawling grounds and gaze at the birds, the flowers in bloom and the landscape. It was late spring and everything was bathed in this gossamer pastel-like mist. I could stay outside for hours on end and ponder. The tableau was so intoxicating it felt like a tonic.

I asked Silka one time when I was actually inside the premises if he could make me a pair of pants. I didn’t think it was an unreasonable request. After all, he said he had been a master tailor.

He hesitated. “Getting material might be a problem, Hirschel.”

“Please, I feel like a street urchin with just my hospital gown and this blanket.”

He nodded. “Okay, I’ll see what I can do.”

When he returned a week later, he showed up, holding up these pants that felt like they were made out of burlap cloth. Very low-grade material.

My face sank.

“That’s all I could get. I know it’s bad. I’m sorry. But you must believe me,” he said in a beseeching tone, as he attempted to reason with me. “Getting good material is impossible these days.”

Okay, I gave him credit for not being able to procure better material. But that didn’t explain the shoddy work. The pants were so lacking in shape and style, so awkwardly put together, that I, having grown up the son of a master seamstress, herself the daughter of a family of tailors, knew in my bones Silka was lying. He was a master tailor like I was a surgeon.

“Thank you,” I said politely to Silka. “At least you tried.” But a master tailor, I thought, you are most definitely not.

When I was finally released from the hospital, I went to live in the d.p. camp in Neustadt-Holstein. Silka would come around a lot, taking me out to dinner and the movies. He’d also take me on day trips to nearby towns like Hamburg and Lubeck where Thomas Mann lived. After the camps, each trip seemed like a little adventure. Maybe because I was so young then and had a childhood ripped away from me, the excursions, as minor as they were, only whetted my appetite to see more of the world beyond my circumscribed horizons.

During this interval, I earned a little money performing in this theater at the d.p. camp. I sang in a revue, which was nothing more than a pastiche of bad comic skits and corny songs all written and directed by this guy Wolfson, whom I knew from Riga.

He had been with me through everything—the ghettos, the camps, the death barge. He had seen it all.

He was another older man, in his 50s. But a dashing character. He looked a little like Sean Connery. Only he was Jewish, of course.

Wolfson had been a minor-level star in Riga. Though he was a shoemaker by trade, he had been a moderately accomplished song and dance man, having appeared in a number of semi-amateur productions.

He knew I could sing. As a boy, I sang in a choir in town. Initially, they didn’t want to take me because I was Jewish but my mother complained so they let me in. Besides everyone knew I could sing. So when we all got sent to camp, once in a while, there would be these shows which Wolfson would stage. He’d always ask me to sing in them, which I’d do. People would later smile at me, pointing to me saying:

“Oh look! There’s that kid who sings. Very nice. Very nice.”

I did it because it helped me in the end. I would sometimes get extra helpings from people who were dishing out the food. They’d see me and remember my singing.

So I sang again. This time in the d.p. camp. One time, when I was in the middle of a performance, my sister Reva walked in. At first, I had no idea it was her. I hadn’t see her in four years. But she kept on drawing nearer and nearer to the stage, staring at me with such blinding intensity it was impossible not to notice her. Evidently, she had discovered where I was from a letter I had written to my Tante Eda in Berlin, my mother’s sole surviving sister. Eda showed the letter to my mother, Reva and Reva’s husband David. Reva and David then went off to find me while my mother stayed behind until she got word that I was indeed alive and in Neustadt.

(My mother and sisters were liberated in Poland in early ’45; afterwards they travelled to Berlin to stay with Eda and her husband Willie. Though Eda was Jewish, she had not been sent to a concentration camp because Willie, a German Lutheran, had refused to divorce her. Instead, they were placed under house arrest. My other sister Cilla ran off with David’s friend Cyril shortly after liberation. Cyril wanted to emigrate to Rio de Janeiro because he had relatives there. For some reason, in order to get a visa, you had to establish residency in Paris so there they went).

It was strange being reunited with Reva (and later my mother). At first, I felt numb. Like I didn’t know who these women were but I felt obligated to go with them because they had once been my mother and sister. It was very surreal—like one of those Bergman movies. I didn’t know what to feel. I do recall thinking later on how Reva had that familiar scent, like lilacs, which would always trail her when we were kids. Then I knew this was my sister.

Still, it took a while getting used to having them both back. After we settled into a cozy routine, I introduced Reva to Silka. She thought he seemed pleasant and genial enough; she didn’t think anything was awry. Except for Wolfson. He was always suspicious of him. Every time he’d see me with Silka, he’d narrow his eyes into these beady slits and give me this look.

Once when we were in rehearsal, I told him I was going out to dinner with Silka afterwards. He took me aside.

“Be careful, Hirschel,” he cautioned me.

“Wolfson, it’s all right. He’s a nice man.”

“I know you don’t have a father. I feel responsible for you.”

My tone suddenly became less light-hearted and stern.

“Wolfson, it’s okay. My mother is with me now and my sister.”

“I know that. I’m just looking out for you.”

Which leads me to the next and final lie. The lie that unraveled all the mystery surrounding Silka.

I’ll never forget that day. May 10, 1946. I remember the date because it was exactly two months after Reva found me and I had just gotten used to being with her and the family again.

Silka bought tickets for the movies and invited me to go out with him. He told me to meet him in front of the movie house. When I got there, the place was teeming with people. I waited and waited. Then he showed up. Dressed in his usual bon vivant fashion. The trademark high collar. The pencil-thin mustache. The slicked back hair.

The movie was about to begin so the crowd began filing into the theater. As we were threading our way through the throng, I noticed two men in overcoats, sporting hats, walking toward us from the opposite direction. They stopped Silka and asked him:

“Excuse me, are you Tomas Silka?” He said yes.

That was all that I heard. I kept on walking because the first thought that crossed my mind was that they were probably his clients from the black market. So I headed into the movie house thinking Silka would soon join me. Only he never did.

A week lapsed by. Then two weeks. Finally, after three weeks, I went to the rooming house where Silka lived and knocked on the door. The landlady opened it and saw me standing there.

“Where’s Silka?” I asked her sheepishly.

“Didn’t you hear?” she responded with a grave expression.

“No.”

“Oh well, I don’t know then. Maybe I shouldn’t tell you,” she continued as she scoured my increasingly fearful face.

“Please,” I pleaded with her. “What is it?”

“175.”

175 was the German criminal code for homosexuality. It had become such a popular term it was almost an adjective. When I was in the camps, I remember seeing some men with pink triangles seared on their uniforms. I asked a fellow inmate:

“What are they in here for?”

He whispered: “175.”

I was dumbstruck. Seeing my stricken face, the landlady gave me some warm tea and urged me to sit down.

“You’ll feel better when you drink this,” she said, in a cooing, soft voice. “I know it’s a shock.”

As soon as I was able to regain my composure, she told me the entire story. Apparently, Silka had been accused of making lewd overtures toward a minor, in this case, a 14-year-old boy. He got upset and told his mother, who in turn, contacted the police.

It was then I realized why Silka had been in a concentration camp. Not because he had been a master tailor (which he most categorically was not) or had dealings with Jewish textile manufacturers. It was because he was gay.

Subsequently, I found out through a few people that Silka was in the county jail. I thought about visiting him but never did. Then I heard he was put on trial but I never went. I didn’t even know where the trial was held. I never saw him again.

Three years later, when I was 18, I left Germany for America. President Truman had just signed the Displaced Persons Act, which allowed 100,00 displaced persons like Reva, David, my mother and me to emigrate to America without a quota.

I didn’t think about Silka for years until my daughter told me she was going to a wedding in Connecticut for one of her friends who’s gay. He was marrying his long-time boyfriend. She asked me if I ever thought in my lifetime that gays would marry and that some states would actually legalize it. I told her no way.

Her talking about her friends made me think about Silka for the first time in years.

“He was waiting for the right moment to make his move, Dad,” she said after I told her the story about Silka. “He was a pedophile. He wanted you but he also knew you wouldn’t be so easy because you had just been through a horrific experience. So he was biding his time. Classic stalker.”

My daughter is cynical. Even though I told her nothing ever happened between Silka and me and that he always behaved like a gentleman, she thinks he was waiting to pounce, as she says.

“I don’t think so,” I told her.

“You don’t want to think so,” she piped back.

Was he waiting to make his move on me? I don’t know. I’ll never know. But I do wonder when I think about him, so many years later, what exactly happened to him?

How long was he in jail? What did he do after he was released? Was he released or did he die in jail?

I never admitted this to anyone but I felt then and still feel when I think about Silka very sorry for him. I probably should have gone to see him but I was scared. Of what, I’m not sure. I think it was a mix of not wanting to find out the truth about Silka from him directly as well as not wanting to put up with the protests of my family and others for visiting him. I regret that and wished I had shown more courage.

Surprisingly, I don’t feel angry with him for being deceitful, just sorry. Even after everything that happened.

I liked him. He was a nice man. Even if his kindness had an underlying motive and I’m not sure it did, he was a friend when I most desperately needed one. And for that I will always remain grateful to him.

Iris Dorbian is a former actress turned business journalist/blogger. Her articles have appeared in a wide number of outlets that include the Wall Street Journal, Reuters, Venture Capital Journal, DMNews, Playbill, Backstage, Theatermania, Live Design, Media Industry Newsletter and PR News. From 1999 to 2007, Iris was the editor-in-chief of Stage Directions. She is the author of “Great Producers: Visionaries of the American Theater,” which was published by Allworth Press in August 2008. Her personal essays have been published in Blue Lyra Review, B O D Y, Embodied Effigies, Diverse Voices Quarterly and Gothesque Magazine.

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2 thoughts on “One Seventy-Five – Iris Dorbian

  1. Iris Dorbian

    Hi, Anita:

    Yes, we talked about my changing your Dad’s name on FB. I was worried that an editor would quibble about the spelling so I Americanized it a bit. How did your father’s sisters end up in Rio? That’s also another interesting story in addition to your Dad (and David) meeting your mother, Reva and Baba in Lodz.

    Thanks for your continuing support! It is, as you know, very much appreciated.

    Reply
  2. Anita Renaud

    AMAZING story Iris!
    Little by little you unravel your father’s and our family’s story.
    Only Cilla’s husband, my father is Israel not Cyril… Where did you get that name!? Also they didn’t quite run off to Brazil. They got married while still in Germany, and went to Paris where my dad worked for 18 months, waiting to get a visa for Brazil and being able to buy tickets for the boat, from Le Havre to a Rio.
    Rio was their destination, not only to be far away from horrible years in Europe, but mainly because my dad had 2 sisters living there from before the war. His only surviving siblings. Now the other story to tell, is how my father met Cilla, Reva and Baba in Lodz..

    Reply

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