A conversation with Sig Silber

A conversation with Sig Silber

What began as a hobby has become a calling for a local attorney and community leader.

Sig Silber has spent most of his life in Paterson, but his art recalls both his travels and the boyhood he remembers before the Nazis robbed him of both his childhood and parents.

Silber was only ‘ 1/’ when his parents sent him, his older brother, and younger sister to England on the Kindertransport. (His name then was Siegmar K?ppold.) His sister was the youngest child accepted in the program; she was only 7 months old when the group left for England on Aug. ‘7, 1939. The children never saw their parents again.

Sig Silber at work and two of his paintings.

The three siblings and three first cousins spent the war years in Great Britain. After the war, his cousins found a home with an uncle in the United States. Homes were found for him and his sister, and they came to the United States in 1948. Silber’s older brother, who was 15 at the time, chose to go to Israel, where he lived on a Hashomer Hatzair kibbutz until his death. (Their story is the basis of "Six from Leipzig," a recently published work by Gertrude Dubrovksy, a New Jersey historical researcher.)

Only 11 1/’ when he was adopted by Meyer and Gussie Silber, he grew up in Paterson, attending public school before going to MIT, where he earned a degree in engineering. He earned both his master’s and doctor of law degrees at night while working as an engineer at RCA and raising three children with his wife, Norma. He has practiced as an attorney in the intellectual property law firm of Silber & Friedman since 1974.

When Rachel, David, and Miriam were grown, Silber found time to nurture his artistic yearnings. His art has been included in juried shows in ‘003, ‘005, and ‘007. "Reflect on This!" is his second one-man show. The location, the Paterson Museum, is particularly poignant, as Silber, the secretary of the New Jersey Volunteer Lawyers for Arts, was counsel to the Great Falls Development Corporation during the 10-year period when the Paterson Art Museum was relocated and renovated.

Jewish Standard: Why did you start painting?

Sig Silber: My work [as a patent attorney] is very intensive. I needed something beyond work. I fell into painting.

I was pretty much a bookworm when I came to this country. I went from Paterson’s East Side High to MIT. It took a while to get to this point.

I began to work in pastels when I was in my 50s. My mentor is Catherine Kinkade, a master pastelist. I studied at the Montclair Art Museum, where she taught, and I was in her master class.

J.S.: Your work includes many landscapes. Do you look back in your art?

S.S.: I’ve done a couple of pieces about England. The first time I went back was in 197′. The last time I went, the purpose was to go to the Lake District [in northwest England]. I painted several landscapes there. I’ve done a lot of landscape paintings in the Berkshires that are reminiscent of England.

J.S.: How has your art been influenced by your childhood experiences?

S.S. Painting made up for a loss of play as a child. It became my playground.

When I came to this country, I had seen a lifetime. I was a little old man. I’ve become younger ever since.

J.S.: What was it like growing up in Paterson?

S.S.: When I came to the United States, I was adopted by Meyer and Gussie Silber. They were active in community life. Meyer was the vice president of Temple Emanuel and a life trustee at Barnert Hospital. Community service was important in our family. I have served on the Paterson School Board, have been of counsel to the Inner City Ensemble, which introduces urban children to the world of dance, and the American Society of Botanical Arts. I am also a member of the New Jersey Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts.

Paterson had a rich, ethnic city life, something that is missed today. It also had a very large Jewish population when I was growing up. There were 44,000 Jews living in the city then. The corner of Park Avenue and 33rd Street was the site of a kosher deli and a kosher butcher. It was more of a Jewish neighborhood than you find in suburbia.

Thirty-two of the 37 kids in my elementary school class were Jewish. The city’s high schools provided an excellent education, and kids went to the finest colleges.

Still, [growing up in America] was different for me. You had to be like everyone else. That was difficult. American kids were socially more advanced. The English system of education was different, and I had to catch up [socially].

J.S.: Did you know any other survivors then?

S.S.: Groups of survivors didn’t start forming until the late 1970s. The first ones that formed were Yiddish-speaking groups, and the Christian homes (where I had lived during the war) didn’t teach us much Yiddish.

In the early 1980s, child survivor groups started to form. Dr. Judith Kestenbaum worked with child survivors. I became involved with the Kindertransport Association. We went to the 50th reunion in 1989.

J.S.: Was the Kindertransport Association a support group for you?

S.S.: In some ways, it acts as a support group, but the group does much more. It educates communities about the Kindertransport and the ways in which it saved so many children from death. Our mission today is to help children, and it is as much a fraternal and charitable organization as it is a support group.

Sig Silber’s one-man-show, "Reflect on This!," can be seen at the Paterson Museum through Sunday, Aug. 31. The museum, on the corners of Market and Spruce streets in the Great Falls/S.U.M. district, is open Tuesday to Friday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and from 1′:30 to 4:30 p.m. on weekends. Call (973) 3’1-1’60 for information and directions.

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