DR. ABRAHAM C. PETER, 90 FROM EUROPEAN DP CAMPS TO JERUSALEM, 1946.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Despite the fact that Dr. Abraham C. Peter doesn’t know the exact year he was born, he is a walking history lesson. He survived the Holocaust with his mother and an older brother. His father was killed by the Nazis.
His parents were Zionists, and after experiencing growing antisemitism in Poland, they made plans to move their family’s textile business. His mother took a boat to Palestine and bought a building with four apartments and some land in Rishon LeZion.
In 1939, a few weeks after sailing home, Germany invaded Poland and they were trapped. Sent to the Lodz Ghetto, the family worked as slave laborers. His father died after extensive beatings by the Nazis, who wanted to know where he might be hiding money or expensive textiles.
After liberation, Peter immediately enrolled in school. He yearned to make up time from his lost years with no education. On one occasion, a priest who held a weekly school prayer stated in front of the entire class that, “The progeny of the Christ killers can leave the classroom.”
Everyone turned around to look at him, the Jew, but he refused to leave and sat stubbornly, like a stone. He never returned to that school and the family accelerated their plans to leave for Palestine.
Trying to salvage what they could from their home and textile factory, they were met by the company’s old janitor, who was now the head of the factory, under Communist rule. The janitor threatened to turn them over to the Russians. They ran away empty-handed.
The family made their way through Europe, passing through Czechoslovakia, Austria and Hungary. Crossing the Alps at night into Italy, they finally boarded an illegal ship bound for Palestine. The boat was spotted by the Royal Navy, and they were taken to a DP camp in Cyprus.
Peter recalled his first impression of the British soldiers. “The British were standing on the ship. There was a British soldier guarding us Jews. He looked at us with contempt, and so I stared back. We were looking eye-to-eye in a stare-out contest. I was an angry teenager after my war experiences, and would not be intimidated. I stared back at him and didn’t blink. He didn’t blink either, but after more time passed, he finally looked away from me and said, ‘Son of a bitch!’”
The British-imposed quota for immigration certificates allowed 800 people a month to enter Palestine. But since the family owned land in Palestine, they were given permission to enter after just three months in Cyprus.
Coming to Rishon LeZion, they found the apartments they owned were occupied and the British wouldn’t help them reclaim their property. In a bizarre historical twist, they were considered enemy combatants because they had come from German-occupied Poland.
They stayed with an uncle and his family for several months. During that time, Peter was determined to return to school. “Hitler took away my education for five years. He’s not going to take away any more time,” he declared.
Once enrolled, he studied hard. “The British were still in charge. I was going to the school that the children of the British soldiers attended.” The students were preparing to take the matriculation exam for the University of London. Peter not only passed the matriculation exam that mother-tongue English speakers took, but he was placed in the First Division.
Unable to return to their own property and eventually forced to leave his uncle’s home, the threesome went to live in what he described as “No-Man’s Land” in Jaffa.
“Both Israelis and Arabs would shoot anyone they saw in that no-man’s land street dividing the Arab and Jewish areas. I had to sneak out to go to school before dawn, count the seconds when the search light would go around, and run from building to building until I made it to the Israeli side. When returning home, I had to wait till dark, and then go through the same procedure.”
After the British left, the War of Independence broke out. Despite his mother’s pleas, Peter enlisted.
In the army, they got a shipment of guns from Czechoslovakia. Cleaning grease off the guns, they noted that there were swastikas on the butts, marking them as old Nazi weapons. When asked by family members how he felt holding guns that may have killed Jews, Peter’s reaction was, “Ach! We didn’t care. We were just happy to have guns!”
Later, Peter joined the Air Force, becoming an officer and rebuilding planes.
After the War of Independence, his family’s property was returned, and Peter was sent by the IAF to Oklahoma to study aeronautics for a year. There he met Marilyn, who was attending the University of Tulsa. After dating a year, Peter returned to Israel. Marilyn followed soon after and the couple married in 1951.
Marilyn related what it was like to live as a young couple in Israel during the early 1950s. “No one had a refrigerator. We had ice boxes. I was a Jewish American girl, raised with maids, and now found myself living in a shared apartment with another military family, and food rationing. But I was Zionist, so I was happy because I felt I was living history.
“We were rationed to two eggs a week per person. Every once in a while, we got a live fish and a quarter pound of meat per month. But we had plenty of eggplant to eat,” she laughed.
“I learned to make eggplant several different ways to make my husband feel he had something different to eat each night.”
After seven years in the IAF, Peter decided to complete his long-delayed university education. He and his wife packed up and moved to America with their Israeli-born toddler. Peter earned a master’s degree at the Illinois Institute of Technology and a doctorate at the University of Southern California in Engineering/Science.
His temporary stay in America turned into 20+ years. During those decades, he worked on the Apollo space missions. In six tension-filled days in April 1970, when the Apollo 13 craft and crew were stuck in space, Peter was one of 11 scientists called to Texas from all over the country. The team got the Apollo 13 crew back to earth safely.
Of those years, Marilyn said, “We were always thinking we’re coming back [to Israel] next year.”
They finally returned in 1979. First, they purchased a Volvo station wagon in Sweden and drove through Europe with their two younger sons. They drove to the death camps and showed their sons what happened to the Jews, and to their family, and why it was important that they live in Israel.
In Italy, they boarded a ferry. Arriving in Haifa, they drove to the maon olim (immigrant absorption center) in East Talpiot.
They have lived in Jerusalem ever since. At 90, Peter still conducts research in physics and speaks to groups at Yad Vashem. Of his amazing life, he is most proud that he finished the education that Hitler disrupted.
Asked what message he has for Jews in the US, Peter recounted going with his father to hear Ze’ev Jabotinsky speak in 1938. There Jabotinsky famously warned the Jews in Poland that they were “living on the edge of the volcano” and they should leave for Palestine as soon as possible.
Peter recalled the reaction of Jews in Poland. “They didn’t listen. Instead, they told each other, ‘We Jews have survived, so why leave and lose everything we have worked for? The Russians and the Americans will come into the war, and it will be over in six months.’ Oh, how wrong they were!”
Today, Peter says soberly, “[American Jews] should come as soon as possible, because America is also becoming antisemitic. It reminds me of what happened in Poland.”
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