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Katerina Silberstein (born Vasová)

Stolperstein Katerina Silberstein (Bild: Stolpersteine-Initiative Charlottenburg-Wilmersdorf)
Fritschestr. 54

Charlottenburg-Wilmersdorf – Charlottenburg

10/15/1913 in Ungvár / Uschhorod
1938 Tschechoslowakei
in 1944 to Stutthof
12/09/1944 in Stutthof

Katerina Silberstein, nicknamed Kato, was born as Kateřina Vasová on October 15, 1913, in Ungvár, today's Uzhhorod. This city lies in the far west of Ukraine, in the border triangle between Hungary, Slovakia and Ukraine. The residents have been exposed to many border shifts over the centuries. At Kato's birth, the city was part of Hungary. After the First World War, the city and Karpatoukraine became part of the newly founded Czechoslovakia in 1919.
Kato was probably an only child. Her father, Dr. Ignac Vas, was a successful lawyer in Uzhgorod. The family home was in an apartment building in the city center owned by Kato's parents; the following description states: “The apartment consisted of two bedrooms, a dining room, a men's room, a living room, kitchen, bathroom and chamber and was very well furnished. There was leather club furniture in the men's room and there were real carpets, silver, handicrafts and good porcelain.” This house also housed the father's office, the practice of an ophthalmologist and rented apartments.
Kato's parents were liberal Jews; it was certainly thanks to this fact and their prosperity that Kato was able to spend an extended period of time in Berlin as a young woman. Details of the object and purpose of this stay are unknown. In one document her profession was specified as office clerk, but after returning to her hometown she worked as a nurse at the local hospital.
During her time in Berlin, Kato and Martin got to know each other, possibly in the later destroyed synagogue according to the liberal rite "Temple of Peace" in Halensee, and fell in love. In 1936, aged 27 and 23, Martin and Kato married "after some difficulties with passports and permits". The civil wedding took place in Uzhhorod in October; the Jewish wedding ceremony was performed in Berlin at the beginning of December in 1936, by the already widely known rabbi Dr. Max Nussbaum.
However, their life as a couple was ill-fated from the start. Martin had already lost his job in the upper management of a larger women's clothing company in early 1933, which was forced to close down following the Nazi boycott of Jewish businesses. Since then, as a Jew, Martin could no longer find a regular job; he had the occasional odd job and was often unemployed. Finally, his older brother employed him at his company.
The situation in Germany became increasingly hopeless and unbearable for Martin and Kato. They therefore relocated from Berlin to Uzhhorod in August 1938 in the hope of a better future. Kato's father strongly advised them to take this step, and an apartment was available for the young couple in the parent's apartment building. Martin described their living conditions as follows: “My wife and I had a smaller apartment that consisted of a bedroom, a living-dining room, kitchen and bathroom. This apartment was simply furnished. However, we had our wedding gifts and my wife's precious dowry there.“ „[We had] two sets of dinner services, a coffee service, fruit plates and silver cutlery for 12 people. I remember that a dinner service and the coffee service was Rosenthal porcelain; the second dinner service was Bavaria porcelain. We had silver candlesticks, cups, and spice jars as commonly found in a Jewish household. Among the wedding gifts was also a silver fruit basket [...]“ Martin described the marriage as happy, even though they had to postpone having children in these uncertain times.
A description of Uzhgorod at the time: “It was a beautiful city and very clean. […] Czechs, Hungarians, Germans, Jews, Ukrainians lived there. In short, an international mix, and it didn't matter what nationality you were from. I didn't feel there that anyone hated or disliked another person because of their nationality.”
Kato's and Martin's dream of a better life came to an abrupt end after only three months. At the beginning of November 1938, Uzhhorod became part of Hungary once more. The Hungarian government had begun to sympathise with Germany's Nazi regime early on, and fascist circles enjoyed broad support among the population. From one day to the next, anti-Jewish discrimination laws were in force, which had been passed by the Hungarian government in May 1938. Following this time, these new laws were updated twice, increasing in severity. Pursuant to these laws, as many as 40,000 Jewish men died within the framework of the forced labour, which they were subjected to from 1938.
According to the laws, the expropriation of the Hungarian Jews should have started immediately. But because the middle class in Hungary was almost exclusively made up of Jews - in the 1930s, more than 50 percent of the medical doctors, about half of all lawyers and more than a third of the traders were Jews – they were indispensable for the country's economy and initially spared from persecution. However, the regime immediately began expelling refugees from Germany and at the beginning of 1939, Martin faced expulsion. "When I asked the German consul […] for an extension [of the residence permit], I was advised not to go back to Germany, otherwise I would be taken to a concentration camp."
Since Martin had already obtained a visa under the existing immigration quota in the USA years earlier, he applied for the renewal of this visa. Kato and Martin spent this time waiting for the approval of their visas, with friends in Budapest, probably in hiding. In April 1939, there was finally a message from the US Consulate in Budapest that the visa was granted, but only for Martin. "Forcibly I had to [...] leave my wife, whom I loved very much, behind." Their plan was that Martin would go to American and have Kato follow, as soon as possible.
After his arrival in New York City, Martin immediately went straight to work to raise the funds for the financial guarantee, the prerequisite for a successful visa application. However, it took Martin weeks to find even a poorly paid job. He later recalled that time: “I lived in a horrible room with rats, for which I paid $ 3.00 a week. The longing for and concern for my wife and my parents was unbearable. The nights were terrible. I either couldn't sleep because of worries or when I fell asleep I had bad dreams."
Martin's first visa application for Kato was denied due to his low income. Martin continued his desperate efforts, and finally found a guarantor for Kato and got the entry permit. But while the documents were on their way to Hungary, it was already too late. On September 1, 1939, less than four months after Martin's arrival in New York, the Second World War had begun with the attack by the German Wehrmacht on Poland. Civil shipping and other transport quickly came to a standstill; Kato was trapped in Hungary.
Shortly afterwards, in October 1939, Kato's father died. The cause of death was not disclosed in the few documents found in the archives; but in view of his likely young age - Kato was only 25 years old at the time – the thought comes to mind that perhaps he committed suicide. There is little doubt that he regretted deeply not to have pushed for Kato's escape while there still was a chance. Kato and Martin continued to write letters to each other, but at some point during the war they were no longer delivered. Kato also kept in touch with her in-laws in Berlin for as long as possible and sent food packages to them until 1941.
Although the anti-Jewish laws caused many hardships, most of the Jews of Hungary were relatively safe for most of the war. The first anti-Jewish crackdowns in Hungary occurred in August 1941 and were aimed at Jewish refugees from Galicia, mostly Polish and Soviet citizens. In March 1944, German troops invaded Hungary, and a „Sonderkommando“ headed by Adolf Eichman began implementing the „Final Solution“ within Hungary. The Nazis isolated the Jewish population from the outside world by restricting their movement and confiscating their telephones and radios. From mid to late April the Jews of Hungary were forced into ghettos and then deported.
It is not clear why and from where Kato and her mother Hedwig Vas (née Hedvika Deutsch-ová) were deported at a very early stage. Hedwig soon died in a subcamp of the Lithuanian Kowno (Kaunas) ghetto; the date and cause of her death are unknown. From Kowno, Kato was transferred to Stutthof concentration camp. Upon her arrival on April 8, 1944, her physical condition was deemed "good". Only eight months later, on December 9, 1944, Kato died. She was only 31 years old.
A total of approximately 565,000 Hungarian Jews were murdered.
As to Kato, all that remains is the glimmer of hope that within herself she felt Martin's undying love during these most atrocious times.

Biographical Compilation

Kerstin Pohle

English Translation

Kerstin Pohle, Berlin