The world lost another link to the past this week with the death of 98-year-old Israeli resident Shlomo Perel:
Shlomo Perel, who survived the Holocaust through surreal subterfuge and an extraordinary odyssey that inspired his own writing and an internationally renowned film, died on Thursday in central Israel. He was 98.
"Surreal" hardly captures the sheer scale of both misfortune and luck this man experienced during the war:
Perel was born in 1925 to a Jewish family in Brunswick, Germany, just several years before the Nazis came to power. He and his family fled to Lodz, Poland, after his father's store was destroyed and he was kicked out of school. But when the Nazis marched into Poland, he and his brother, Isaac, left their parents and fled further east. Landing in the Soviet Union, Perel and Isaac took refuge at children's home in what is now Belarus.
So: He survives the rise of Nazis in Germany, flees to Poland, survives the Nazi invasion of Poland, flees to the Soviet Union — and then what? Well, the Nazis invade the Soviet Union. And in order to survive, Perel tried what had to be one of the bravest and most all-or-nothing gambits of the entire war:
To avoid execution, Perel disguised his Jewish identity, assumed a new name and posed as an ethnic German born in Russia.
He successfully passed, becoming the German army unit's translator for prisoners of war, including for Stalin's son. As the war wound down, Perel returned to Germany to join the paramilitary ranks of Hitler Youth and was drafted into the Nazi armed forces.
So this man poses as an Aryan in order to appease the insane, fanatical Nazi Herrenrasse machine, becomes a Nazi translator, is conscripted into the Hitler Youth, and then joins the German military. That's a fraught path to take.
Yet it worked — so well, in fact, that the man was beloved by the very Nazis who were trying to exterminate his people:
Solomon became endeared to his German army unit, and many years later, already in Israel, was invited to the 12th Panzer Division Reunion.
Thankfully, Perel never engaged in any combat; he was eventually captured by U.S. forces. Before that, however, he came close to being discovered by the Nazis, including by his girlfriend's mother:
At the time he had a girlfriend by the name of Leni Latsch. She was a member of the Nazi-instituted League of German Girls, so although Perel loved Leni he dared not tell her that he was Jewish, fearing of her informing the authorities. Later, Leni's widowed mother discovered he was Jewish but did not reveal his secret.
Thank goodness for small favors. Surviving the war and emigrating to Israel, Perel's story was almost never told:
"Perel remained silent for many years," Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust memorial, said in a statement, "mainly because he felt that his was not a Holocaust story."