Martin Silberstein, later Martin Spencer, was born on April 15, 1909, in Berlin together with his twin sister Bianka. Their big sister Meta celebrated her 11th birthday on the day of their birth. The brothers Hermann and Walter were 9 and 7 years old. Their father Samuel was a textile merchant with his own business, and since he was traveling a lot for work, their mother Ernestine had the leading role in bringing up the children. According to Martin, the family lived “in a secure and a well-established financial position“. He described his childhood as “good" and family life as “very harmonious" and “close-knit". The twins were particularly close throughout their lives.
There are no photos of Martin in the archives. His appearance as an adult was described as follows: 174 cm tall, blue eyes, blonde hair. A medical expert assessed his intelligence as above average and described him as “always polite, friendly, courteous".
Martin graduated from Königstädtische Realgymnasium at the beginning of 1926 and then, before he turned 16 years old, started a commercial apprenticeship with the women's fashion company Cohn & Rosenbaum AG in Mohrenstr. 44 (later Charlottenstraße 59). Martin was able to complete his apprenticeship in late 1927 in less than two years, instead of the regular three years. Not only was he then offered a permanent position with Cohn & Rosenbaum, he was also assigned the responsible position of set-up and calculation. Some time later he was promoted to head the company's fabric purchasing department. Martin later wrote about this time: “When Hitler came to power, I was 24 years old. I was in the prime of life. I did a lot of sports and lived a normal, quiet life."
The fact that the bulk of his employer's regular customers were "in government circles" had disastrous consequences. The boycott of Jewish businesses hit the company so hard that liquidation was inevitable as early as March 1933. Martin became unemployed. According to his job reference, “Mr. Silberstein was an extremely reliable employee, who earned our full trust through honesty, modesty and outstanding diligence."
During the coming years, as a Jew, Martin was unable to get a permanent job and was only offered odd jobs. He would never be able to build on his previous professional success. Family ties were particularly important to him during the existential crisis. His brother Hermann employed him at his clothing company.
In 1935, Martin was given permission to enter the United States with the help of relatives living in America, who provided a financial guarantee. The reason why he stayed in Germany is not documented, but around this time he got to know "a girl from Czechoslovakia" and the two fell in love. Kato, as she was called, was born as Kateřina Vasová on October 15, 1913, in Ungvár Hungary, which was called Uzhhorod and belonged to Czechoslovakia at the time Martin and Kato met; today the city is located in the far west of Ukraine. (For more information on the history of the region and Kato's family background, see her short biography under her name Katerina Silberstein).
Like Martin, Kato came from a liberal Jewish home. The wealthy parents - Kato's father, Dr. Ignac Vas, was a respected lawyer - who made it possible for Kato to spend an extended time in Berlin as a young woman. No information could be found regarding the purpose of her stay in Berlin and whether perhaps she was studying or learning a profession. According to one document, her profession was that of a 'clerk'; but later on, back in her hometown, she worked as a nurse at the local hospital.
Martin and Kato may have met at the Synagogue “Friedenstempel" in Halensee. At the inauguration of this synagogue, which could seat 1,450 people and practiced the German Reform style of liturgy, it was declared that “the temple should not only serve religious purposes, but also be a meeting place for all who want to work to bring about real peace”. The synagogue community experienced an upswing from 1933, because more and more Jews terrorised by the Nazis sought fellowship there. The building burned down on the pogrom night in 1938 and was later demolished.
In 1936, at the age of 27 and 23, Martin and Kato married "after some difficulties with passports and permits". The civil wedding took place on October 28, 1936, in Kato's hometown, where her parents still lived; through the marriage, Kato acquired German citizenship. On December 8, 1936, their Jewish wedding was held in Berlin and was performed by Rabbi Dr. Max Nussbaum. The rabbi's and Martin's paths were to cross again in the United States years later. At the beginning of their marriage, Martin and Kato lived in the Silbersteins' family home on Fritschestr. 54, which is assumed to be their last voluntary address. For a brief period, Martin and Kato were registered in Kantstr. 125 as subtenants.
Martin described the marriage as happy, even though they had to put off having children in these uncertain times. The situation in Germany became increasingly hopeless for the young couple. They therefore relocated to Uzhgorod in August 1938, in the hope of being able to build a better life there. It was in particular Kato's father who advised them to take this step, and there was also a free apartment in her parents' multi-story house, which they could move into.
The dream of a better future came to an abrupt end after only three months. At the beginning of November 1938, pursuant to the First Vienna Award, Uzhhorod and the southern strip of Carpathian Ukraine became part of Hungarian territory once more. The Hungarian government had sympathised with Germany's National Socialist leadership from early on, and fascist circles enjoyed broad support from the population. From one day to the next, an anti-Jewish discrimination law became effective in Uzhgorod, which had been passed by the Hungarian government in May 1938. Following this time, these new laws were updated twice, increasing in severity.
According to the law, the expropriation of the Hungarian Jews should have started immediately. However, because the middle class in Hungary was formed almost entirely by Jews and they were therefore indispensable for the country's economy, they were initially spared. The regime immediately began expelling refugees from Germany, and also Martin soon faced extradition."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 received the entry permit to the United States years earlier, he applied to the American Embassy in Berlin to have his visa renewed; from there, the documents would be sent to the American consulate in Budapest. Martin and Kato bridged the waiting time by hiding with friends in Budapest. In April 1939, the documents finally arrived, but only with a visa for Martin."I was forced to [...] leave my wife behind, whom I loved very much." “The separation from her was unbearable for me. However, that was the only solution."
Their plan was for Martin to obtain a visa for her asap after his arrival in the USA, so that Kato could follow him. The expulsion of Kato from Hungary, who had acquired German citizenship due to her marriage to Martin, could only be prevented by a pro forma separation of Martin and Kato, because she now had to provide proof of Hungarian citizenship.
Also losing his family was traumatic for Martin. Decades later, he wrote: „I had to leave Europe without saying goodbye to my dear parents. I still haven't overcome the fact that I couldn't hug my parents once more.”
Penniless, Martin arrived on the SS Île de France in New York City on May 10, 1939. In order to get the entry permit for Kato, he had to provide a financial guarantee for Kato. However, finding a job was difficult because unemployment was still high after the Great Depression. It was particularly difficult for Jewish refugees to land a job, and nobody was interested in Martin's education and work experience. He later wrote about this time: "I felt lonely and abandoned [...]. After a few weeks, I found a job as a janitor and elevator operator for $ 12 a week. I also took on any other odd job e.g. as a porter in a warehouse of a fur shop. I desperately tried to raise the funds in order to be able to provide the requested financial guarantee for my wife. I slept in a horrible room that I had to share with rats and that cost me $ 3.00 a week. The yearning for my wife and my parents and the worries about them were unbearable. The nights were terrible. I either couldn't sleep because of perturbation or, when I fell asleep, I had nightmares."
Martin's first application for Kato's visa was denied because his salary was deemed too low to provide the requested financial guarantee. Martin continued to work strenuously to solve this problem. In the end, he managed to find a financially stronger guarantor for Kato, but when the visa was on its way to Kato in October 1939, 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. Kato was no longer able to escape. Kato's father died in the same month; did he perhaps take his own life? At that time Kato was just 25 years old, and it can be assumed that he felt guilty about not having recommended Kato to flee abroad whilst she still could. For some time, Martin and Kato were able to keep in touch, but eventually their letters were no longer delivered. Kato also kept in touch with her in-laws in Berlin for as long as possible and even sent packages with groceries to them until 1941.
Martin later wrote: “The following years were unbearable for me. I suffered more and more from depression. The worries about my relatives and the uncertainty about their fates consumed my lust for life. [I] could not eat because I kept thinking of my family who were reported to be starving. I lost all initiative. I didn't mind washing floors and cleaning latrines every day. I considered this a self-flagellation and punishment for escaping the slaughter and leaving my loved ones in the lurch. - These were terrible years.” Martin also felt increasingly sick physically.
Perhaps it was a small consolation for Martin that in 1940, despite unchanged working conditions, he managed to take out a loan to finance his older brother Hermann's last-minute escape to Shanghai in May 1940.
Martin had acquired American citizenship soon after his arrival in New York City. In 1941, he was drafted, but then rejected due to high blood pressure and a “severe neurosis” - another severe blow to him. “And I had always dreamed that I would return to Berlin as a hero to free my family."
Even after the end of the war, the uncertainty about the fate of loved ones continued; only gradually did Martin, Bianka and Hermann learn that their parents had been taken to Theresienstadt and perished there. Kato died at the end of 1944 in the Stutthof concentration camp at the age of 31. Their older sister Meta and her husband Bruno Pohle had been taken to Riga and shot dead the day of their arrival with 800 other deportees in a forest near Riga. The three siblings adopted the surname"Spencer"; the Silberstein family name no longer existed.
Martin later stated: “Since then, there has actually been no purpose in my life. I never remarried.” Martin stayed with his employer Penn Fifth Avenue, where he had started as a valet. He gradually worked his way up and had a position as a worker in the storage and shipping department. But he did not have the energy and drive to look for better paid work. “After a 13-year stay in the United States, his monthly income was $300, which certainly does not speak for successful social integration," later summed up by his lawyer, whom Martin had to consult at some point, to address the extremely slow compensation process.
In 1952, Martin followed a friend to Salt Lake City who had offered him work in his newly opened hotel. When the hotel was sold just three years later, Martin moved on to Los Angeles. Perhaps he was drawn to that city because he knew some people who lived there. Max Nussbaum whom Martin knew from Berlin, was now officiated as rabbi in Hollywood; and Hazel Rheinstrom, the well-known daughter of the relatives, who had provided a financial guarantee for Martin to receive a visa to the US and who continued to give him financial and emotional support during the dire straits in New York, now also lived in Los Angeles. But earning a living proved very difficult once more. Martin tried to make ends meet by being a door-to-door salesman selling encyclopaedias for a publishing house, then he worked as insurance broker. Due to his ailing health, on the recommendation of his doctor, Martin applied for retraining as an accountant in 1960.
When Martin's twin sister Bianka was diagnosed with leukemia in early 1962, it was another major blow to Martin. In March, at the age of 52, he suffered the first of several severe heart attacks. From now on, it was not just the recurring nightmares, but also constant angina pectoris attacks caused by his heart disease that robbed him of sleep, despite sleeping medication; during the nights he kept having to sit up for lengthy periods to get some relief from excruciating chest pain. He was short of breath and had cataracts in both eyes. He suffered from anxiety and depression. A doctor described him as having aged early. Martin was now permanently unable to work. The twins were hospitalised during the same period, he was in Los Angeles and she was in London. Bianka died in July 1962.
Martin was hardly able to pay the bill for the 20-day inpatient treatment at the hospital; his brother Hermann, who now lived in San Francisco, helped out once more. More than ever, Martin now needed financial support. He had filed an application for a pension with the german compensation offices 10 years earlier, but he had been repeatedly turned down based on the claim that Martin's health problems were not related to persecution. This is despite the fact that a number of medical experts, who the compensation office requested to perform assessments of Martin, came to the conclusion that Martin's significant health problems were directly related to the persecution he had suffered.
Of course, there were also medical experts who supported the compensation office's negative attitude, trivialising the fate of persecution. An example of this and the compensation process as a whole is the report written by a Dr. Werner König, neurologist and medical examiner of the German Consulate General in Los Angeles, here an excerpt: “The low level of persecution pressure, the need to emigrate and the subsequent difficulties in adaptation have not resulted in any noteworthy mental disorder in M.S., which is why a persecution-related disability to earn one's living cannot be opined upon here. As for the organic psycho-syndrome due to a general cerebral arteriosclerosis and in the late state after coronary infarction, there is currently a 100% incapacity to work, but this is not related to the persecution of the NS and must be regarded as fateful.“
Hence it was argued, that the heart disease - and only that - affected Martin's psyche; and he went on to claim that since the heart disease was not related to persecution, so it could also not be the psycho-syndrome. Another expert vehemently contradicted this assessment, saying that there was absolutely no doubt that Martin suffered from an “uprooting depression”, rather than just an organic psycho-syndrome. Today, of course, research has long since shown a strong link between anxiety, depression, exhaustion a.o. and many chronic diseases, including coronary heart disease and heart failure.
After more than two decades of a degrading and demoralising fight with the compensation office, Martin finally was granted a small pension from Germany in mid 1972, in addition to the mini pension he acquired in the USA. Now, at last, he had financial security, of course allowing only for a very modest standard of living. Martin spent his last years in a very secluded manner, mainly reading and writing letters. Occasionally he went to the synagogue or met some friends. Martin added to this description that he felt "very lost and lonely."
Martin died on May 15, 1991 in Los Angeles and with him the last of this family branch of the Silbersteins.