A wild child survives the Holocaust: The moving story of Avraham Perlmutter

Today, after many harrowing escapes during the Holocaust, the 94-year-old Perlmutter remembers being a wild child in school.

 A YOUNG Avraham Perlmutter (photo credit: PERLMUTTER FAMILY)
A YOUNG Avraham Perlmutter
(photo credit: PERLMUTTER FAMILY)

Avraham Perlmutter was a 10-year-old schoolboy when Hitler entered his native Vienna.

Today, after many harrowing escapes during the Holocaust, the 94-year-old Perlmutter remembers being a wild child in school.

The story is a telling example of sheer determination: When an angry teacher tried to discipline him with a cane, Perlmutter not only refused to submit to his teacher’s wrath, he returned to the empty classroom after school, found the cane and broke it in half.

Watching Determined: The Story of Holocaust Survivor Avraham Perlmutter, I wondered how much his defiance had anything to do with his survival during those terrible years.

I put this question to Perlmutter’s daughter Keren, who wrote, produced and directed the superb documentary about the confluence of her father’s escapes and the brave non-Jews of Holland, who hid him from the Nazis.

“Absolutely,” she said. “Whenever I give a talk, I mention these stories and say that these characteristics of being a wild child, being mischievous and wanting to escape, really helped him later on in his life, during the Holocaust.”

Avraham Perlmutter’s story is a profoundly uplifting tale of courage and perseverance in the face of unspeakable evil. Here was a young Jew hiding from the Nazis, who survived, fought in Israel’s War of Independence, and became an award-winning scientist and successful businessman in the US.

“My father has a number of universal, important messages, one of which is the importance of determination,” said his daughter. “The fact that my father, not only survived, but succeeded, will ultimately inspire people to overcome obstacles in their own lives and to be encouraged that they can have a good life afterwards.

“In addition, because of his focus on the people who helped him, my father’s story has a positive call to action that inspires audiences to be participants rather than bystanders when they see injustices.”

As the story unfolds, sinister changes are underway, after the Anschluss (annexation of Austria by the Nazis) in March 1938. The 10-year-old Perlmutter even witnesses Adolf Hitler riding in an open car through throngs of cheering Austrians in Vienna.

“Maybe a week before that,” Perlmutter noted, “the majority of Austrians, so far as I knew, were very much against him, and the moment he came, there was a sudden change. I really noticed that many of the Austrians really joined him. Even my schoolmates, and that’s when they started beating me up.”

PERLMUTTER SAW his father and an uncle, who was a rabbi, also being beaten and elderly Jews forced to clean streets with tooth brushes, as cheering non-Jews looked on.

In the face of growing peril, Perlmutter’s parents sent 11-year-old Avraham and his 14-year-old sister Thea to safety in Holland on a kindertransport. The plan was for Avraham to live with an aunt, while Thea was old enough to join a Youth Aliyah camp.

“I was wearing a suit,” Perlmutter recalled, “maybe my best clothes which I had at that time, and we also had a little valise. My mother packed our clothes. I think she even gave us some pictures. She also packed us some food.” Perlmutter’s father contributed a siddur.

Meanwhile, in June 1939 the children’s parents managed to smuggle themselves out of Vienna and get to Mandate Palestine, hoping for the children to join them. But in May of the next year, Germany invaded Holland, leaving the two children stuck there.

What was worse, by 1942 the Germans started rounding up Jews in Holland, supposedly to take them to work camps in the east. “None of us suspected that these camps actually were death camps,” said Perlmutter.

The Jews were first taken to a large theatre, which the Nazis had renamed the Jewish Theatre. The Nazis used this theatre as a mass deportation center from which thousands of Jews were deported to Westerbork, the Dutch transit camp, and from there to the Auschwitz or Sobibor concentration camps.

In March 1943, Perlmutter, 15 at the time, was captured by the Nazis and brought to the Jewish theatre. Once there, said Keren, he “knew it wasn’t going to be good, and he looked around and he thought… I need to escape.” He noticed that during the changing of the guard an exit was unguarded, so he made a break for it.

Alone and vulnerable to capture, he tried to stay ahead of the Nazis, always listening for the warning sound of their heavy boots. In the dead of night, he knocked on the door of a house, his face darkened from hiding in a coal bin.

“Out came a young man,” Perlmutter recalled. “He said, ‘Who are you?’ I said, ‘Listen, I’m Jewish. The Germans are after me. Can you help me?’ He said ‘Sure, come in.’

“I become emotional when I talk about people who are complete strangers, who endangered their lives and the lives of their families to help somebody they have never met – a Jew that they knew was going to be picked up by the Germans and possibly killed. As time went on, I came to trust more and more the Dutch…”

One of these Dutch was underground leader Joop Westerweel, who helped hide the 50 Jews of the Youth Aliyah camp, including Perlmutter’s sister. Sadly, 20 of the young Jews and several counselors were discovered and killed by the Germans.

But the Westerweel group did manage to transfer some of the Youth Aliyah members to Spain via Belgium and France, a plan which included taking them to North Africa and from there to Palestine.

“On March 11, 1944, it was my aunt Thea’s turn to be transferred,” said Keren. However, things didn’t go as planned, and Thea and another girl were discovered and sent to Auschwitz.

Thea survived the war despite being on the infamous death march. In a discussion on the YouTube channel of Holocaust MuseumLA (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=muAHCWWL1hY), Keren noted that long after the war she found letters in which her aunt described the march. As for Wersterweel, he was executed by the Nazis one month before Allied forces entered the southern part of the Netherlands.

IN OCTOBER 1943, Perlmutter began one of the most important chapters in his wartime odyssey, leading to a lifelong friendship with Peter and Gertrude Beijers, asparagus farmers, and their family in the village of Grubbenvorst, which consisted of about 240 very religious Catholics, who collectively hid many Jews.

“The Beijers had six children,” Keren remarked, “and Harry, Sraar and Mientje were the three living with their parents when my father was hiding there.

“Harry was in his early twenties and the youngest, Sraar was the second youngest and Mientje was in her early thirties.”

The Beijers hid Perlmutter for over a year, starting from late 1943, at the request of Pastor Henricus Vullinghs, village priest and local member of the underground, who was later arrested and died in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

“My father made sure that Vullinghs was recognized as a Righteous Among the Nations,” said Keren, “along with Peter and Gertrude Beijers, all posthumously, by Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.” Joop Westerweel and his wife were also recognized.

For a time, the Germans quartered soldiers in the Beijers house, so Perlmutter was hidden in a large, ant-infested hole behind the house during the day.

Meanwhile, the Germans suspected that the family was hiding a Jew and threatened them with arrest if they didn’t confess. But the Beijers said nothing.

 MIENTJE BEIJERS and Avraham Perlmutter at a reunion (credit: ANDY GAVIN) MIENTJE BEIJERS and Avraham Perlmutter at a reunion (credit: ANDY GAVIN)

In an interview with the University of Southern California Shoah Foundation in 1997, Mientje Beijers recalled that when she first saw Perlmutter, “I saw a boy who was very skinny.”

“We were having dinner,” she remembered, “and he kept staring at the food. So my mother quickly made him some food and he ate and ate and ate.”

Describing himself as completely starved at about 36 kilos, Perlmutter said he ate “maybe 10 or 15 sandwiches” that first evening with the Beijers.

“They used to call me the Jew with the hole in his stomach,” he joked, “because I was eating like mad.”

Perlmutter’s liberation came on November 26, 1944, when he and Harry Beijers braved bullets, artillery and mines on a perilous journey to freedom in a nearby village occupied by the British.

For a time, Perlmutter worked as an interpreter for the British, but later went to Palestine, where he was reunited with his father and sister. His mother had died from a reaction to penicillin, so he never saw her again after leaving Austria.

Perlmutter fought in Israel’s War of Independence, attached to the military police. He participated in the critical Burma Road operation linking Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, and in another operation, he was seriously injured in a crash on his motorcycle, while following a suspicious-looking vehicle. In a battle with Egyptian forces, he took part in surrounding an Egyptian unit headed by Gamal Abdel Nasser.

After being discharged as a wounded soldier, he sought to fulfill his dream of becoming an aeronautical engineer. But without more than a sixth-grade education, how could he do that? Well, he enrolled in a University of London school completion program and passed with flying colors.

“My father found out that the best schools in the world for Aeronautical Engineering were in the United States,” said Keren. Perlmutter earned a B.S. degree from the Georgia Institute of Technology, an M.S. in Engineering from Princeton University, where he spoke with Albert Einstein, and a Ph.D. in Aeronautical Engineering from the University of Pennsylvania.

HE MET his late wife Ruth, “to whom he was happily married for 62 years, in Philadelphia at the end of 1957,” Keren said, “and they were married the following year. They have four children and five grandchildren.”

Keren and her identical twin sister Sharon followed in their father’s footsteps, receiving B.S. degrees in Electrical Engineering at UCLA and M.S. degrees in Electrical Engineering and Statistics, as well as Ph.D.’s in Electrical Engineering at Stanford University.

Together, they developed the revolutionary Ultra-Resolution technology system to restore three-strip color films for Warner Bros., a technology considered for a Scientific and Technical Academy Award in 2007. Keren and Sharon have two brothers, Michael and David, who are both lawyers.

Keren published her father’s autobiography in English and Dutch. It was an Amazon No. 1 non-fiction book and a Wall Street Journal best-seller. Her documentary, with its haunting musical score by Steven Chesne, won the Audience Award for Best Documentary Feature at the 2021 San Diego International Jewish Film Festival and the Best Orchestration from a Documentary at the Garden State Film Festival in 2020, among other awards.

Perlmutter formed a number of companies in the US, including Dynasciences Corporation, a partnership specializing in aeronautic, video and electronic-related products. “One of their products,” Keren said, “the Dynalens image stabilization system, won a Technical and Scientific Academy Award in 1970.”

Coming full-circle, the Perlmutter family never lost touch with the Beijers, attending both the 50th and 60th anniversaries of the liberation of Grubbenvorst.

In 1984, Harry and Mientje Beijers and Harry’s son Henk visited the Perlmutter’s in Santa Monica, California. Henk also spent five years living with the Perlmutters, while earning a Master of Education degree and teaching at a school in Santa Monica.

In the summer of 1989, Keren and her sister decided to live for 10 weeks in Grubbenvorst. “At the time,” Keren explained, “we were studying for our B.S. degrees in Electrical Engineering at UCLA, and we felt it would be an interesting experience to live in Grubbenvorst for a summer and do an internship at a nearby company.”

They stayed with Henk and his mother down the street from the Beijers’ house, where they explored their father’s hiding places.

“It was a wonderful experience to live in Grubbenvorst and work in nearby Venlo,” Keren said. “The people were all so warm and welcoming, and we have such fond memories of our time there. At the end of the summer, my parents came out to join us and my father showed us around the area, as well, pointing out additional sites relevant to his life.”

Her father, Keren said, considers Peter and Gertrude Beijers his second set of parents, and in a kind of ironic twist to Perlmutter’s story, there was a moment when he wondered if he should turn himself in.

“Because if they catch me,” he told Peter Beijers, “they will shoot us all dead.” But Beijers replied very clearly, “What will happen, will happen. I will never let you turn yourself in.”

The documentary will be available to rent by individual viewers at https://vimeo.com/ondemand/determined/ from Sunday, March 6, through Sunday, March 20. Once you rent the film, it will be available to view online for a 72-hour streaming window. Schools and other organizations can contact [email protected] to arrange group screenings.