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Solomon Perel, German Jewish boy who escaped detection by the Nazis by pretending to be a Gentile – obituary

Solomon Perel at a party in Berlin in 2016 - Gisela Schober/Getty Images
Solomon Perel at a party in Berlin in 2016 - Gisela Schober/Getty Images

Solomon Perel, who has died aged 97, was a German Jew who survived the Second World War by successfully posing as a Gentile, living in mortal fear of discovery for four years and being hailed by the Nazis as a model Aryan.

Having come through the war virtually unscathed, and even congratulated on his exemplary German military bearing as “the youngest soldier in the Wehrmacht”, Perel could scarcely believe that he had outwitted the enemy. In a memoir, translated as Europa Europa (1989), he expressed amazement that the Germans never even checked his papers or questioned him about his background but, for reasons he could never understand, simply believed him.

When Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, where Perel had sought refuge in an orphanage, he was ordered to flee, and reached the city of Minsk, where he was apprehended.

Solomon Perel inspects a memorial tablet in his honour at the Volkswagen car factory where he had worked as an apprentice - Peter Steffen/EPA/Shutterstock
Solomon Perel inspects a memorial tablet in his honour at the Volkswagen car factory where he had worked as an apprentice - Peter Steffen/EPA/Shutterstock

“[The Germans] surrounded us in an open field and ordered us to stand in a line, and then it was my turn,” he recalled. “The German soldier who stood in front of me ordered me to put my hands up and asked: ‘Are you a Jew?’

“… I knew that if I told the truth, I’d be facing immediate death. I had to choose between my father, who told me ‘always stay a Jew,’ and my mother, who told me, ‘You must live.’ Luckily, Mother’s voice prevailed and I said: ‘No, I’m German.’ ”

For nearly half a century, Perel concealed his remarkable story for fear that his secret life during the years of the Holocaust might be misunderstood in Israel. Reunited with his brother Yitzhak following his liberation from the Nazi concentration camp at Dachau, the young Perel was advised never to tell anyone what he had been through during the previous seven years because “nobody will believe you”.

Even as a Hitler Youth, convincing his comrades he was an ethnic German, he continued to ride his luck, returning to the gates of a Jewish ghetto in occupied Poland to search for his missing parents.

Marco Hofschneider plays Perel in the film Europa Europa - United Archives GmbH/Alamy
Marco Hofschneider plays Perel in the film Europa Europa - United Archives GmbH/Alamy

It was in 1983 that Perel first told his story, only daring to open up after undergoing bypass surgery. Revealing his astonishing past, he said he no longer believed in God, because “God and Auschwitz could not have existed together. In Auschwitz, there was no God.”

His memoir later became a award-winning film, which would have been entered for an Oscar but for the German selection jury rejecting it out of embarrassment, although it was nominated for best screenplay adaptation.

When he finally learnt about the concentration camps and the fate of millions of Jews, Perel was “virtually paralysed” by the question of whether he had the right to compare himself with the survivors of the Holocaust and to equate his memories with theirs. “The answer I have arrived at,” he told the Jerusalem Post, “is that I survived the war for a reason, and that is to tell my story.”

He was born Shlomo Perel on April 21 1925 in Peine, northern Germany, to Jewish parents who had emigrated from Russia. When the Nazis came to power, the family relocated to Łódź, Poland, after their shoe store was looted and young Solly was expelled from school for being Jewish.

When the Germans invaded in 1939, he and his elder brother fled to the Polish-Soviet border, and Solly took refuge in a communist children’s home. His father, a rabbi, perished in the Łódź Ghetto, while his mother was gassed later in the war.

He fled the orphanage in 1941 after the German invasion of Russia, but was captured by a Panzer division of the Wehrmacht. As he queued up for classification, he saw soldiers identifying Jews and taking them to a forest to shoot them. The men ahead of him in the line were ordered to drop their trousers to show if they were circumcised, but no one asked him.

As a native German speaker, he was able to convince them that he was an ethnic German from Lithuania called Josef Perjell and joined the unit as a Russian-German interpreter. The Germans used him as a translator during the trial of Stalin’s son, Yakov, in Smolensk.

Finding himself in Nazi uniform, he became a split personality – “a Nazi by day and a Jew by night,” he recalled. The young soldier was befriended by the unit’s medical officer, who tried to rape him in the showers. Perel managed to fight him off, but the doctor saw that he was circumcised and realised he was Jewish.

Perel in 1992 with a copy of his memoir - Erika Rabau/ullstein bild via Getty Images
Perel in 1992 with a copy of his memoir - Erika Rabau/ullstein bild via Getty Images

The doctor kept his secret, as informing on him would have exposed the medic as a homosexual. “I knew his secret and he knew mine,” noted Perel, “and after that incident he took care of me until he was killed.”

A fatherly commanding officer took him under his wing, and because he was still a minor removed him from the army and enrolled him at the Hitler Youth school in Brunswick, “the Nazi Eton”, where Perel concealed his dual identity for four years by showering in his underwear.

When he began courting Leni Latsch, a member of the Nazi-instituted League of German Girls, he dared not tell her that he was a Jew, fearing she would inform the authorities. Later, the girl’s widowed mother discovered he was Jewish but kept his secret.

Julie Delpy and Marco Hofschneider in Europa Europa - Arrow Film Distributors
Julie Delpy and Marco Hofschneider in Europa Europa - Arrow Film Distributors

Drafted into the Wehrmacht as an infantryman towards the end of the war, he was sent to guard a bridge at Brunswick, where he was taken prisoner by the US army along with his comrades. “It was another irony,” he remembered. “A Jewish boy in a Nazi uniform in American captivity.” The Americans released him two days later, considering him a junior conscript.

After the war Perel emigrated to what was then the British mandate of Palestine, where he joined the Israeli army and fought in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. On his discharge he ran a business of making zippers and in later life kept in regular touch with the other Nazi boys from his hostel, who remembered him and vouched for his story.

He also remained in contact with his teenage Nazi sweetheart Leni, whom he met every year. While not everyone in Israel could understand why, Perel no longer cared. “But,” he declared, “my greatest happiness is that I listened to my mother. And I lived.”

His wife, the former Dvora Morezky, whom he married in 1959, predeceased him in 2021. They had two sons, one of whom survives him.

Solomon Perel, born April 21 1925, died February 2 2023