Hilda Bernstein Silverman’s core mission was to humanize the other, arguing always for what ties us together as human beings over what divides us. As she herself once wrote, “I am usually described as a “peace activist” but I often feel more like an “interpreter” – helping to convey aspects of the fears, experiences and circumstances of one side to the other, as well as to elements of the broader community.” And in this she was stunningly successful.
As the 1991-1992 Bunting Peace Fellow, Hilda was engaged in research for a project entitled, “Empathy after Auschwitz: Jews Who Support the Palestinian Will to Live Free.” Describing the project Hilda stated:
Theodor Adorno wrote that “after Auschwitz” there could be no poetry. He was proven wrong by the evocative words of such Jewish survivor-poets as Abba Kovner and Paul Celan. And, while many Israeli and other Jews are still tragically trapped in what American Jewish author/educator Ronald Aronson has called a “web of Holocaust ghosts,” there are examples of empathy after Auschwitz, empathy and a deep sense of responsibility to and for the “other.” But it is the Palestinian “other” – born to the land on which the Jewish State was created out of the ashes of the Holocaust – who presents the greatest challenge to Jewish empathy, responsibility and universalism “after Auschwitz.”
Hilda found that among Jews who supported Palestinian human and national rights and promoted reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians, were many survivors of the Holocaust and their children. In over 80 interviews conducted in the United States, Israel and Europe over a period of three years, Hilda created an extraordinary archive of “conversations” and “reflections” that are now being edited by her colleagues for publication. Commenting on the importance of her findings, a noted Holocaust scholar observed, “Ms. Silverman is the first person to put her finger on the question of the political leanings of Holocaust survivors. It is an important topic in itself, but beyond this, Ms. Silverman conceptualizes what I would agree is the main tension within this group of survivors, namely, the overriding concern for Jewish survival and safety and a commitment to the human rights of others, specifically Palestinians.” Like the people she interviewed, Hilda demonstrated a remarkable ability to transcend self-protection as an overriding motivation and draw critical lessons from a history of pain and suffering not typically made.
Her funeral drew hundreds of people. In one of many eulogies given, a friend of Hilda’s poignantly captured her essence:
Hilda’s life was animated by the need to protect the vulnerable, rejecting safety for herself as long as it was denied others. She was a balm for our wounds, able to heal with her depth of understanding and purity of soul. She was our “thinking heart” who could never sit quietly at her desk while others grieved; their suffering—for her—was never alien but familiar, willingly embraced as her own. She never chose exemption—not once—and always found beauty and love.