John Ralph Silva, 96, of Atlanta, a loving and devoted husband and exemplary father, died peacefully Friday, June 30, 2017.
Predeceased by his wife of 63 years, Lottie (nee Behrend), he is survived by his daughter, Sharon Silva. The Silvas were featured in the AJT’s Chai-Style Homes column two weeks before John’s death.
Born in 1921 in Berlin, he was the son of cigar manufacturer Leo and Amalie Holz and younger brother of Ingeborg. His father later was arrested by the Nazis, and his mother and sister and her husband were deported to concentration camps, where they all were killed.
In 1938 at age 17, immediately after Kristallnacht, John fled Nazi Germany. He never saw his family again. The necessary documents and his stamp collection were among his few belongings. He traveled to the Italian port of Genoa, where a troop ship waited to take Jewish refugees to landlocked Bolivia. He sold most of his stamp collection for passage.
The refugee ship arrived at the Peruvian port of Mollendo, and a train took him into the Andes and across Lake Titicaca into Bolivia. A small plane brought him the last 150 miles to a small settlement. Passports were collected, and the refugees were left to colonize the jungle. Threats of being sent back to Germany kept the refugees docile.
Over three years, John survived malaria, yellow fever, poor nutrition and harsh conditions. His determination to survive led him to try three times to flee before succeeding the fourth time by hiding in the trunk of a car. He made his way across the Argentine border to Buenos Aires, then to Montevideo, Uruguay, where a kind Frenchman took in the undocumented 20-year-old refugee and taught him the wool business.
In his early 20s, while playing the piano at a small club, John met Lottie. They wed in Montevideo in 1944 and were happily married until she lost a six-year battle with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis the evening before their 63rd wedding anniversary in 2007.
In 1947, a brief window of immigration to the United States was offered by the Truman Administration for children who had lost both parents in World War II. John had 30 days to reach the country but lacked original documents to apply for a visa.
For the second time, his stamp collecting came to the rescue. John exchanged stamps with a minister in Oregon. On a train, this minister mentioned John’s plight to a fellow passenger. That stranger filed an affidavit on his behalf, and John and his wife were able to begin their American dream.
They settled in New York and became U.S. citizens in 1952. John traveled the world for his own import/export business, served two terms as the president of the New York Wool Trade Association and was an industry mediator.
John was a person of the highest intellect, character and integrity who was always dressed to perfection. Soft-spoken and gentle, he was fluent in four languages, had a vast knowledge of history and was an expert on many subjects. He thrived on discussions of politics, economics and religion. He believed that every day was an opportunity to learn something new. No problem was too difficult, and no task too daunting.
He never forgot those who helped him during and after the war. John volunteered at Catholic Social Services Immigration Clinic for more than 10 years, advising immigrants seeking legal status in the United States.
He was honored with several local awards: the J.C. Penney/United Way of Metropolitan Atlanta Golden Rule Award in 1991; the Blue Cross/Blue Shield Association Ageless Heroes Award in 1998; and the Georgia Hispanic Network Outstanding Community Service Award in 2004.
John faced death as he lived life: pragmatically, with elegance, charm and dry humor. He was a man of great character, dignity, inner strength, conviction, compassion, generosity and humility. A determined survivor, John was a loving husband, a wonderful father and a good friend who proudly lived the American dream.
A private service has been held.