What's a Nice Jewish Boy Doing In a Hitler Youth School?
by Marilyn Silverman
Can a Jew have pity for a young boy dressed in a Nazi uniform replete with the traditional Nazi insignia a soldier's cap cocked to just the right angle emblazoned with the dreaded swastika a young boy who would obey without question, imperious commands to spit out the dreaded words "Heil Hitler" when so ordered to do so? Without flinching an eye, the answer most emphatically is "yes" if that young boy is Solomon Perel.
You might ask who is Solomon Perel? Perel was a young boy trapped within the maelstrom of the Holocaust in his native Poland. He tells his extraordinary story in "Europa, Europa" (New York: John Wiley & Sons Publishers).
The invading Nazis embarked on their master plan to forcefully and unceremoniously uproot Jewish families from their homes, and to thereupon exile them to ne homes in ghettos enclosed living quarters hermetically sealed off from the outside world. The Perel family panicked, yet the older Perels, the author's parents, decided that the younger Perels, the children, would live by escaping and joining the Russians. This decision was made notwithstanding their children's adamant opposition to a perilous scheme that would entail estrangement from, and abandonment of, their elderly parents. However, the decision was etched in stone. The children were to survive.
The escape was tortuous and treacherous. Upon Solomon's arrival in Russia, he parted from his brother and a Jewish relief association, assumed his orphan status and thereupon sent him to a new address an orphanage where he ultimately joined a Communist youth group. A comparative sense of normalcy descended upon this child from war-torn Poland. But all that changed dramatically and forever when Germany impudently violated the German-Soviet non- aggression pact that had defined the relations between these two powers and that apparently wasn't etched in stone. Germany thereupon invaded Russia. All the orphans were ordered to flee; exiting the safe perimeters of the orphanage he was confronted by scenes of atrocities unending rows of corpses sprawled everywhere, blazing fires burning unextinguished; barrage of deafening bombs exploding; roaring of Nazi airplanes overhead. Was it possible to hide from those black- booted Nazis who were hell-bent on conquering Russia?
A Jew Becomes a Nazi Captured by the Germans, Solomon ingenuously and instantaneously and courageously destroyed any vestiges of his documents that identified him as a Jew. When under interrogation, he was asked if he was a Jew, answered with a resounding and confident and quite believable "no." He was but mere seconds away from being massacred, his body dumped into a freshly dug mass grave. Miraculously, the German inquisitors believed his story of deception, i.e., that he was not a Jew.
The German troops now adopted him and outfitted him Solomon, a Jewish child, the dirty Jew who was to die in a Nazi uniform. At a second interrogation, he claimed his identification papers, crucial official documents to have in one's possession during wartime, were destroyed. Again, miraculously, he was believed. At that moment, one thought pierced his consciousness. Every one of his waking moments would henceforth be obsessed with camouflaging the truth. After all, he was a Jew pretending to be a Nazi.
Solomon Perel, the Jew, became metamorphosized into Josef Perjell, the Nazi, soldier. Due to his Russian fluency, he was assigned as a translator during the interrogation of Russian POWs, one of whom astutely observed his pronunciation, which identified him as a Jew. His secret identity was almost revealed. Almost, but not quite.
Communal showers, idiosyncratic of soldier's bathing rituals, were dreaded since his circumcision and therefore obviously, his Jewish identity would be on display for all to see, that is by his enemies. Those same enemies who adopted him affectionately as the littlest and youngest soldier. He was adopted a little too affectionately by the homosexual medical officer, who during an abortive sexual assault during a shower, learned of his secret identity. Miraculously, he wasn't betrayed and was, furthermore, able to reveal his identity to a Nazi who ironically became his trusted confidante who refrained from future unwelcome sexual advances. Ultimately dismissed from the German Army due to his age and sent to Germany to a boarding school, a stone's throw from his hometown, he was filled with trepidation lest he would be recognized. He was accompanied by the niece of his commanding officer, the latter who expressed interest in adopting him; ultimately he became his legal guardian. Irony of all ironies a Nazi military officer becoming the legal guardian of a Jew. It wasn't until 1987 that he realized that he was so protected at such a high level in the SS hierarchy.
His next assignment being enrolled in a Hitler Youth School, where he would demonstrate his wholehearted and sincere dedication to the Fuhrer. Again, that gnawing fear of communal showers, but here the shower stalls had individual panes of frosted glass his circumcision would not be seen by German eyes. However, there was the problem of communal dressing rooms. His solution he would sneak off into a corner to disrobe. Obsessed with his circumcision, he had thereupon yet another solution. He decided to perform a medical self-experiment he stretched the foreskin. However, he was confronted by a dangerous complication. This medical experiment performed by someone with absolutely no medical knowledge produced a painful inflammation. Why was this dangerous? A medical examination by a Nazi doctor would reveal his Jewishness; fortunately, it healed without any medical intervention.
Whenever questioned about his parents, to protect himself he was compelled to deny their existence. Fortunately, again, the interrogations he endured at the hands of the Nazis never necessitated any follow-up interrogations to verify the validity of his statements.
In the Hitler Youth School, his fellow students were indoctrinated with the usual stereotypical prejudice regarding the typical Jewish attributes. While hunched over his desk, diligently taking class notes, he feared lest these typical Jewish physical attributes would be recognized in his face. It never happened.
Along the route to this school, was a bakery with a sign emblazoned in sharp black lettering with the hateful words: "No dogs or Jews allowed." Enjoying his deception, Solomon would deliberately patronize this anti- Semitic business establishment.
While on vacation he audaciously decided to risk fate and visit his hometown dressed in his Nazi uniform due to the overpowering temptation to see his parents. He walked the streets of his youth, streets now in possession of the Gestapo, the streets of the ghetto. Peering into the faces of the wretched, dazed, starving people clutching rags around emaciated bodies, he looked for his parents. Would he have dared to accost them? That would have sealed his fate; in any event, there was no trace of his beloved parents in the old neighborhood. Since Solomon unwittingly joined the SS, the only Jews he saw were the Jews who hung on his classroom walls the caricatures, that is. Flesh and blood Jews, that was another question. He was shocked at the sights that greeted him in the ghetto.
Notwithstanding the inherent risks, during his vacation, he scheduled a travel itinerary for himself that involved traveling on a streetcar that led into his family's ghetto. He was indeed a conspicuous sight after all, to the outside world, he was a Nazi. Many years after the war, he met the conductor on that famous streetcar who remembered the young Nazi who was his regular passenger to and from the ghetto.
In the closing pages of this fascinating book, the author reminds us why he survived the war years. He remembered his mother's last words, "You must stay alive."
Solomon Perel today is a businessman, living in Israel. His book became a Golden Global winning motion picture.
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