Sally Perel's Interesting Life


This article appeared in the Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper on February 5th, during my visit to Germany. It commemorates the amazing life of Sally Perel, who was born in Germany and died in Israel at age 97. First of all, Sally, pronounced "Zah-lee," is a guy, short for Salomon, and my reader can probably guess by now, his story concerns the life of a Jew in Germany during the Third Reich and the Holocaust.

Perel published an autobiography of his life titled Ich war Hitlerjunge Salomon, in English "I Was a Jew in the Hitler Youth." The film-director Agniezka Holland read it and directed the film-version of it, with the title Europa Europa!, which she released in 1991. Holland will probably release the movie again, to commemorate Perel's amazing life.

Salomon Perel was born to Azriel and Rebecca (also called "Uziel" and "Rivkah"), observant Jews from Tsarist Russia. The parents fled Russia after the Revolution of 1917, not because they were Jews, but because Azriel owned a shoe store, which stigmatized him as "Bourgeois." The Soviets confiscated the shoe store.

After leaving the Soviet Union, Sally's parents landed first in Poland, then moved on to Germany, where Rebecca gave birth to Sally. His family and German friends pronounced his name "Zah-lee," while his Polish relatives called him "Solek." In Germany, Azriel opened another shoe store.

But when the Nazis came to power in Germany, the parents moved the family back to Poland. Then the German army invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, and started the Second World War—hardly twenty years after the end of the first one. The Polish army called up Sally's brother David to active duty. As the Germans drew closer, Sally's parents told him and his older brother Isaak, (pronounced "E-zahk") that they needed to leave and travel farther east. The brothers protested, but their parents insisted on it, telling them poignantly, "Stay alive!" And so Sally and Isaak continued east.

In order to reach the Soviet Union, the brothers had to cross the Bug River, that divides Poland and Ukraine, and farther south, Poland and Belarus. But as they waited on the shore of the River for a boat to ferry them across, they heard that the Soviets had invaded Poland from the east. Many Poles waiting for the boat turned back, saying "Better to live under the Germans than under the Soviets." The Jews, on the other hand, continued on, saying "Better anyone than Hitler!" The brothers continued to wait in the cold to board the next boat.

They boarded and made it half-way across the river, before the crowded boat overturned, separating the two brothers. Sally could not swim, but he stayed afloat long enough for a Soviet soldier to rush into the water to rescue him and bring him ashore. From that date, Sally lived in a "Komsomol," a Soviet orphanage, until 1941. During the Spring of that year, however, the German army launched Operation Barbarossa, invading the Soviet Union with three million men.

The Germans had their instructions. They pulled down the pants of every man they captured, to see if he was circumcised. Then they executed any man with circumcision, whom they presumed to be a Jew. To save himself, Sally declared himself a "Volksdeutsche," a German whose ancestors moved to Russia under the reign of Queen Catherine the Great. Catherine who was a German, herself, opened the border to German settlers. In fact, nearly every nation in Eastern Europe had German communities until the end of World War II, when the nations expelled most of them.

Sally Perel had to learn an alternate identity, just to survive. He had to tell falsehoods quickly and convincingly. He had to develop an almost criminal instinct just to survive, telling falsehoods and deceiving others every day. Part of him even had to believe in the Nazi religion. The other men in his unit dressed him in German uniforms and treated him as a friend. He had to respond in kind, in order to get along with them, and keep telling lies until he could get out of there. His dishonesty and the press of Nazi dogma undermined his self-respect.

The life-story of Salomon Perel is one of the most interesting things I have ever encountered, and I hope my reader can share my fascination with it.