Solomon Perel (center)

Europa, Europa
The Story of Solomon Perel

by Ruth Geffner

December 5, 2005, updated 8/28/06

for Prof. Marcuse's lecture course
Interdisciplinary Perspectives on the Holocaust

UC Santa Barbara, Fall 2005
(course homepage, web projects index page,
Jewish Survival project main page)


Summary
Struggle to Hide Identity
Publication History
After the War
Links & Bibliography
About the Author

Summary (back to top)

Solomon Perelís amazing story is retold in both a book, Europa Europa - originally in French, and the movie Europa Europa. Perel is born on April 21, 1925. A Jewish boy growing up in Germany (in Peine, near Hanover), his family realized it was not safe when Hitler came to power. When Perel was ten they went to Poland, Lodz, where they think they will be safer. Poland falls as well however and Perelís parents decide to send Perel, who is fourteen, and his older brother Isaac, to safety on the Soviet side. Perel and Isaac get separated on the crossing of the river. But they end up finding each other and continue on to a Jewish organization for refugees where they send Perel to a Soviet orphanage in Grodno to keep him safe. His brother leaves him to continue on.

This next section marks Perelís time in the orphanage with the Russians. He lives as close to a normal life as he can for two years. Perel does not have to hide his Jewish identity here or any of his background. He gets into the Komsomol, the Communist youth organization, since the orphanage is Communist. Perel writes to his parents and receives letters while here. All of his family is still alive so far.

Then, Hitler comes to Poland and the orphanage is evacuated. In the confusion Perel gets separated and is found by some Germans. He makes a choice and decides to bury his papers so there is no proof of his Jewish identity. Since he speaks perfect German he tells them he is an ethnic German. This saves his life and they take him out of line. Perel says the Russians killed his parents and forced him into the orphanage. He changes his name to Josef Perjell and becomes the translator for the German Wehrmacht unit that is fighting on the front line. He has to hide his identity completely, but one soldier who tries to make advances on him finds out that he is circumcised but promises not to tell. This soldier ends up dying in battle meanwhile Josef proves himself to be a "good German" and they decide to send him to Germany to go to school.

At school it is even harder to hide his Jewish identity. He cannot get too physical with Leni, a girl he likes, or she will find out that he is Jewish. Leniís mother figures out that he is not German, but he spills to her that he is Jewish and she also keeps his secret. Perel successfully pretends to be a German for four years. When the war is finally over he tries to find his family but only his brothers David and Isaac have survived. Perel decides to go to Israel and finally arrives there in 1948 and lives there even now.

While the movie is very close to the book, there were some slight differences. In the movie Perelís sister dies before he goes to the orphanage instead of during the Death March. When he is in the German army as a translator he tries to go to the Russian side but ends up showing the Germans where the Russians are and becomes a big hero. The love story between him and Leni is pushed more and she ends up becoming pregnant by his roommate in the film, which is not true in life. The ending has him go over to the Russians where they do not believe he is Jewish. When he is about to be shot by a Jew who was in the concentration camps, his brother sees him and stops it just in time. The movie tries to capture the essence of Perelís life but adds a few dramatic twists to the story for emotional effect.


The Struggle to Hide His Identity (back to top)

While Solomon Perel did not have to physically hide in a hiding place like some Jews, he did have to hide his identity to keep alive. Perel played his role so well that at times he almost forget he was Jewish but he could never truly forget his roots and waited for the day he could be free and not have to "hide". His motherís last words "You must stay alive!" (Perel, p.7) and his strong determination to live kept him going even when he thought he could take no more. His story retells his amazing experience of how far one boy went to survive and of the ultimate masquerade. This story is a "testament to survival through adaptability." (New York Film Criticsí Circle Awards for Foreign Films)

Perel keeps his Jewish side hidden almost completely, but he never forgets about it. While many Jews just gave up when the Nazis came in, Perel refuses to not only give up his life but even under his disguise manages to keep his Jewish identity alive. "This was one Jewish boy who wasnít going to knuckle under so easily." (Perel, p.42) Perel does not become a Nazi because he wants to or just for fun but merely for survival, to get by. As a young boy wanting to survive, he is willing to go to the extremes to stay alive and adopts their ways to fit in. However he does confess later on that it was difficult to play the role he did where he had to pretend to be German. "I gradually suppressed my true self. Sometimes I even Ďforgotí that I was a Jew." (Perel, p.58) In the movie, viewers perceive the struggle that Perel goes through between his two personas. But, "I knew that I had to find some solution for my identity problem until these dark times were overÖthe faith and certainty that I would not be in this place forever sustained me." (Perel, p. 77)

The movie showcases the struggle that Perel goes through. Perel feels kindly towards the men in his fighting unit because they are so kind to him, while at the same time feeling conflicted knowing they are the enemy. He ends up accepting the fact that they are doing things he does not agree with, but likes them anyway. As a young boy put in his position it is very confusing. He has no one else around him to turn to for support since his family is gone, so it is only natural that he will turn to those around him. While in the German Wehrmacht unit Perel becomes close to the German soldiers, but still does not identify himself as one of them. Perel has to work to keep his two separate identities from crashing together. "I had worked out a compromise, a sort of mental balance, between Jupp (Josef) and Perel. I had fused the two selves into a new personalityÖ" (Perel, P.83) But, Perel pledges that the "spark of Solomonís Jewish origins would continue to glow, never to be extinguished." (Perel, p.112) and he waits for the war to end when he can once again show his true identity.


Publication History (back to top)

The story does not get written for some time afterwards. Solomon waits until he is much older to tell his story to the world. In an interview, he says that he did not tell his story until 1983, before an open-heart surgery, because " I felt maybe this operation will not be successful and I didnít want to take the story into the grave." (Katz, The Ethnic News Watch) Another reason that he waits so long may have been that he felt many would not believe him. After he was liberated and he found out about the concentration camps and what happened to many of the Jews he felt he had it easy compared to them. "What would those who had survived the death camps think of me?" (Perel, p. 196) "I constantly found myself comparing their bitter fate with what I had endured, and I realized how much life had spared me." (Perel, p.200-201.) Because he did not go through the horrors of the camps and have the same struggles they did, he felt he did not have as much right to compare himself to other survivors and to their suffering.

Written in Hebrew, the book was first published in French in 1990, then Hebrew in 1991, Polish in 1992, German in 1993, and English in 1997. The film version by Agnieszka Holland came out in 1990. (see Links section, below)


After the War (back to top)

When he does tell a few people of his story after the war the response by many is "Most of them donít believe me, and one man went so far as to brush off what I said, calling it fantasy." (Perel, p.208-209) Because he went through the war and was even lauded for his good German behavior, his story seems unbelievable that they did not find him out. He was in plain sight and went through the war pretty much physically unscathed. In the book Perel even mentions that he is amazed that they never even checked his papers or tried to figure things out but believed him. Bryan Rigg, a researcher, looked into Jews in the Nazi Army and found that there were maybe hundreds of Jews or more, whether fully Jewish or only partially, that were actually in the army. (Postel, chronicle 2002) There is another story similar to Perelís called Au Revoir, Les Enfants where a French Jewish boy had to hide his identity in a French boarding school. (JHVC)

After Solomon Perel with friends in Peine, 1985the war, Perel moved to Israel. He became a soldier in the 68th Regiment of the Jerusalem Division, led by Moshe Dayan (Perel, p. 213). Now, Perel is a businessman and lives in Tel Aviv. Perel did not go back to Germany until 1985. He was asked by the Mayor of Peine to be the guest of honor "at the dedication ceremony of a memorial to commemorate the destruction of the Peine synagogueÖas a Jew born in Peine who had survived the Holocaust." (Perel, p. 69) Perel also still keeps in contact with some of the men he knew from the Hitler Youth, (Katz, The Ethnic News Watch) and they remember him and can vouch for his story. He visited some of them on his visit to Germany in 1985.


Links & Bibliography (back to top)

Links

Book

  • French: Perel, Shlomo, 1925-, Europa, Europa (Paris: Ramsay, 1990), translated from the Hebrew Korim li Shelomoh Perel by Lysette Hassine-Mamane, 265 pages.
  • Hebrew:
    • Korim li Shelomoh Perel! (Tel-Aviv: Yedi`ot Aharonot, 1991)
    • Eropah, Eropah (Tel-Aviv: Yedi`ot Aharonot, 1994, 2004)
  • Polish: Europa, Europa (Warszawa: Wydawn Cyklady, 1992)
  • German: Ich war Hitlerjunge Salomon (München: Heyne, 1993; Berlin: Nicolai, 1998, 2001)
  • English: Europa Europa (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1997).

Movie

  • Holland, Agnieszka. Europa Europa, 1991, (114 mins.), starring Marco Hofschneider.
    • Internet Movie Database. Europa Europa. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0099776/
      This Internet movie database gives a short synopsis about the movie, the actors in it, and
      comments that people left about the movie.
    • Review: http://www0.epinions.com/content_160570904196 [updated 8/28/06]
      Background about the director, with detailed summary and assessment of the film after it won the 1991 New York Film Criticsí Circle Awards For Foreign Films.
    • DVD is $8 used/$13 new on amazon
    • Surprisingly, the movie Europa Europa did not get rave reviews in Germany, but it was a huge success in the US. It won the 1991 Best Foreign Film Award. While many of the IMDB viewer reviews are very positive, some viewers thought the acting poor and were not as thrilled. Almost 90 percent of the comments talked about how amazing it was that the story was true and it was either the best or one of the best war movies they had ever seen. Many loved the acting and thought the movie was very well done. A few comments thought the acting was horrible, and a few were sorry they had seen it.

Additional Links


About the Author (back to top)

Ruth Geffner
I am a 3rd year student at UCSB hoping to graduate this summer. I am majoring in Religious Studies. The Holocaust as always been interesting to me and I have read a number of books on it. I followed the life of Solomon Perel in his book and movie Europa Europa. There were numerous websites that discussed his book and movie or talked about similar issues. This topic was very interesting and brought up issues of how he dealt with his form of hiding during the war where he had to hide his identity from those around him and the effort it cost him.


prepared for web by Harold Marcuse on12/6/05; last updated: 12/15/05
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