Solomon Perel, who will be 96-years-old this April, survived the Holocaust as a member of the Hitler Youth movement. When Polish film director Agnieszka Holland adapted his life-story to the 1990 film Europa Europa, the actor chosen to portray him, Marco Hofschneider, met with him for an intimate conversation.
“I told him about the tricks I came up with,” Perel explained, “luckily, the showers we had were divided into cubicles so I had some privacy. The trick was to never be completely naked in the company of others. I would, for instance, enter the shower wearing underwear.”
Born to a German-Jewish family, he was circumcised. During the four years he lived under the swastika, getting the same education and indoctrination as other young members of the Nazi Party, he was torn between his true self and the allure of safety – mourning his lost family, and slowly getting used to living life as his “Aryan” self, Josef Peters.
When the Nazis rose to power, Perel’s family thought they’d be safer in Poland and moved to Lodz. When Germany invaded Poland, the family members lost touch with one another and he ended up in a Soviet orphanage. This is where Nazi soldiers found him after Hitler decided to invade the USSR. Desperate, he lied, and told them he was German. They believed him.
“Josef” proved useful to the soldiers as he spoke fluent German, Polish and Russian. He even helped them interrogate Stalin’s own son, Yakov Dzhugashvili. Stalin refused Hitler’s offer to hand over his son in return for top Nazi officers. Dzhugashvili eventually died in Sachsenhausen camp.
“Josef” was so well-liked that he was adopted by the German officer in command and sent to Germany as a member of the Nazi youth party, where he began a radically different life.
“The Nazis knew how to bribe the youth.” he told me. “We got motorcycles, flew light planes, had an orchestra, summer camps, good food – which 14-year-old boy wouldn’t find that attractive? Who could say no to that? I was able to get into character to such an extent they gave me a bazooka [when the war came to an end] and told me to defend the fatherland against the Americans.” He was captured, revealed his true identity, and rebuilt his life in Israel.
“I tell my German friends from those days that they, too, were victims in a way,” he pointed out. “They gave them pretty uniforms and so, they were willing to die [for Hitler].”
While the film follows his life closely, some scenes are Holland’s artistic decision, among them a scene in which Hitler and Stalin dance together to mark their decision to carve Poland between them. It impresses the audience, but never really happened. Likewise, a German girlfriend “Josef” had, played by Julie Delpy, is presented in the film as deeply antisemitic whereas in his autobiography she’s presented in a more complex way.
Perel will attend a special screening of Europa Europa and discuss his unique life with Dr. Yitzhak Noy in a special panel jointly created by the Polish Institute in Tel Aviv and the Tel Aviv Cinematheque to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
“We’re really excited and honored to have Sally Perel as our guest,” said Katarzyna Dzierzawska, director of the Polish Institute. “His story proves to us that life is complicated and fate takes each of us to challenging and dramatic points to which we all react differently.”
Jews, and non-Jews, have struggled since 1945 with how to understand the Holocaust. Largely false concepts of passive Jews who “allowed themselves” to be murdered were replaced by other concepts of heroic Jews holding weapons in defiance. These are now being replaced by ever more complex stories of how people attempted, and often were unable, to maintain their lives and dignity.
“My own survival,” Perel points out, “had been unusual. I was a victim, because I was a Jew; I was also among those who committed evils. At night I missed my parents, during the day I shouted ‘Long Live Hitler! Long Live Victory!’
“It had taken me more than 40 years to confront these things,” he shared, “I will be happy if my book is read.”
Solomon Perel and Dr. Yitzhak Noy will discuss the film Europa Europa and his own unique personal history on Wednesday, January 27, at 7:30 p.m. The panel is online and free of charge. The movie can be seen via the Tel Aviv Cinematheque VOD service. https://instytutpolski.pl/telaviv/