Bianka Silberstein, later Bianca Spencer, was born on April 15, 1909, together with her twin brother Martin, on that same day their sister Meta celebrated her 11th birthday. The twins were particularly close to each other throughout their lives.
After graduating from high school, Bianka attended a trade seminar and did special training in foreign language stenography. From April 1927, she was employed by M. Straus & Co, a company specialising on the manufacturing of atomisers. Bianka completed most of her training as a foreign correspondent in the evenings, after her regular day-time work. She stayed with this employer until she had to be dismissed on January 31, 1939, due to the "aryanization" of the company.
In her job reference, it reads as follows: “The development of our business into an export business gave Miss Silberstein the opportunity to devote herself intensively to studying foreign languages. Within a short time she was able to write correspondence in English, French, Italian and Spanish from dictation, and [shortly thereafter] she handled the correspondence completely on her own. Miss Silberstein was then entrusted [the management of all] work related to our export activity [...] and carried it out to our complete satisfaction." „[She was] always a pleasant employee who at all times set a good example of reliability, diligence and fulfillment of duty to her subordinates and colleagues.“
Bianka's twin brother Martin had already lost his permanent job in 1933 and successfully applied for an entry permit to the USA as early as 1935. However, he stayed in Germany for another three years, presumably for family reasons (see biography of Martin Silberstein). Finally, he and his young wife fled to Czechoslovakia in 1938, and in May 1939 he sought refuge in the United States. On November 10, 1938, the oldest brother Hermann had experienced a brutal attack on his women's clothing store in Berlin's fashion district, the „Konfektionsviertel“, with his father Samuel. He barely survived the terror attack, he endured severe head injuries, which left him deaf on both ears. He was forced to sell his business shortly thereafter.
Bianka was therefore acutely aware of the fact that she had to flee from Germany, as long as she still could. England offered the opportunity of obtaining a residence permit by proving a position as a domestic helper. In the absence of an alternative, Bianka pursued this way out; she later described the preparations for emigration as extremely complicated and arduous. During this time, Bianka became witness of the Gestapo standing outside her parents' apartment and taking her parents into custody without any explanation. After some time, the parents were able to return to their family home, but this was an extremely traumatising experience for Bianka who, from then on, suffered from nightmares.
On February 22, 1939, Bianka registered her departure from Berlin. The severance payment from her employer (RM 1,536) allowed her not only to finance the travel expenses, but also the transport of some personal items, especially her beloved library.
From April 1939 to late 1940, Bianka worked as a domestic maid in London for a small weekly allowance. Many domestic workers, even from Eastern European countries, later reported how shocked they were by the low standard of living in England. In their homelands, it was typical that many household chores were carried out using machines, such as using the washing machine to wash clothes. However, tasks like these were still being done by hand in England; hence the great need for domestic workers.
Bianka came from an upper middle-class background; from one day to the next, she was responsible for a UK household of seven, doing all cooking, cleaning, washing clothes and ironing. In addition, she had to carry the coal for central heating and the hot water supply into the house. This was hard physical work, and Bianka was not accustomed to carrying such heavy loads. She was also only a small person, being just 154cm tall. Only three months after her arrival to England, she suffered a herniated disc. Bianka could not afford to seek medical attention and risk losing her job, alongside her residence permit in England, so she kept working despite excruciating pain.
It is hard to fathom how she managed to continue doing this work for another 1 ½ years . In any event, her employer was extremely satisfied with her: [Miss Silberstein] has done every sort of householdwork to my complete satisfaction and has proven to be honest, most reliable and efficient. She was always willing to work [...] and [...] has always proved a pleasant companion [... ]. I regret that she is leaving me, the reason being that I am going away to America.“ Despite the high regard, very likely Bianka's status in that household never evolved from merely being a maid. Many “domestic workers” later stated that not only no one was interested in their prior training or work experience; also, there was no interest whatsoever in their reasons for fleeing from Nazi Germany and their worries about those left behind. Immigrant Jews were often considered second class citizens, even by British Jews.
Bianka managed to quit domestic work for an office job in 1941. However, she had to start as an office apprentice with very modest remuneration and without any recognition of her education and previous work experience. She would not ever be able to resume her job as a foreign correspondent, which was difficult for her to accept. Much worse, though, were her worries about her parents; nightmares, but also the pain - the herniated disc had already caused permanent pain in her legs - which troubled her throughout the night. Somehow, she managed to function, driven by the hope of being reunited with her parents after the war.
Finally, the war did end; but only then would the search for her missing relatives begin. Bianka and her brothers learned little by little that neither their parents nor their sister Meta nor many others whom they knew, had survived the holocaust.
But life had to go on. When it became clear that there was no place to return to in Germany, Bianka took on the name "Bianca Spencer". Her brothers followed her example and also adopted the surname "Spencer".
In 1946, Bianca was offered a job by the German entrepreneur Francis Fischel; she continued to work for him until the end. As with previous employers, Bianca quickly gained great trust and appreciation. She was soon promoted to more demanding positions and was given power of attorney. However, her health continued to deteriorate; soon she was forced to reduce working hours to 4 hours a day - naturally with a decrease in her salary. The income was barely enough for Bianca to survive; so she had to continue working, even though just getting to work in crowded public transport under constant pain was agonising.
The pain kept forcing her to take breaks lying down at work. Her employer, fortunately, granted her this privilege, but of course she was not paid for the time she rested. Repeatedly, her doctor had to be called to the office to “get her so far by infiltration with Procaine [...] that she could be transported home and put to bed.” An orthopaedic surgeon certified “irreparable damage to the nerves [...] supplying muscles and skin”. Surgical treatment was not recommended; instead, Bianca was prescribed to wear a steel corset from then on.
In 1951, Bianca applied for financial support based on the German Federal Compensation- and restitution laws (Bundesentschädigungsgesetz). This led to a veritable medical assessment marathon. Despite the vast majority of the medical appraisers confirming that Bianca's reduced earning capacity was a direct consequence of the persecution she had suffered and that her earning capacity was below the crucial threshold of 50%, the compensation office maintained their view that her earning capacity was above 50% and that therefore she did not have an entitlements. This, despite the fact that the amount of DM 100 per month, which Bianca was hoping for, was rather symbolic. Even back then the cost of living in London was far above that of German cities. DM 100 at that time is roughly equivalent to EUR 213 in 2020.
Years went by. Despite the fact that the very medical experts, which were appointed by request of the compensation office concluded, a.o.: „If, at least, she got a small financial support for her everyday life as long as she is sick, this could have, in my opinion, a highly beneficial impact on her psyche“, while another examiner stated „She is also suffering from uncertainties concerning her livelihood.“
Finally, in mid-1961, Bianca had to go to court against the compensation office to decide upon her entitlements. The small monthly pension payments which she had not received had accrued to DM 4,658,75 and she was also still pursuing the monthly pension of DM 100 from August 1, 1961. The court ruled that Bianca's employer should be questioned and requested further medical opinions.
After an examination on June 20, 1962, the doctor noted in big letters on the cover of his report: "The result of my examination confirmed the diagnosis of a serious, incurable blood disease already made at Middlesex Hospital, which is likely to lead to the applicant's death within a few months. It is therefore urgent to settle the complaint without any further delay.”
Bianca had only been on sick leave since the beginning of March 1962, although she had felt miserable since the beginning of the year. Obviously, her family doctor did not take her complaints seriously, and the tests at Middlesex Hospital were run only because Bianca insisted on them.
Bianca died from leukaemia on July 12, 1962. She was 53 years old. She left no children. Until the very end, the compensation office refused to pay her the pension of DM 100 monthly.