For decades, Mr. Perel lived a quiet life in his adopted home of Israel, making zippers for a living and raising a family. Only in retirement, after a heart bypass surgery forced him to spend hours sitting in a park in reflection, did he begin to publicly tell his story — one that even in the bottomless depths of Holocaust sagas stands out as remarkable.
He recounted the events of his life in a memoir first published in French in 199o and translated into English seven years later. The book was the basis for director Agnieszka Holland’s acclaimed drama “Europa Europa.”
The film occasionally diverged from Mr. Perel’s experience but was nonetheless, he insisted, an accurate representation of his odyssey and its conundrums as he donned the uniform of the Hitler Youth.
Wearing a swastika on his chest, the young man formerly known as Shlomo or Solly went by the Germanic name of Josef, taking on the identity of a young Nazi in a desperate bid to survive.
“To this day I have a tangle of two souls in one body,” Mr. Perel told The Washington Post in 1992.
“By this I mean to say that the road to Josef, the Hitler Youth that I was for four years, was very short and easy. But the way back to the Jew in me, Shlomo, or Solly, was much harder. And it is still not finished.
“I love him,” Mr. Perel said of the young Nazi he had outwardly been, “because he saved my life.”
Shlomo Perel was born in Peine, a city in northern Germany near Hanover, on April 21, 1925. His father ran a shoe store, and his mother was a homemaker. They raised Mr. Perel, his two older brothers and his older sister in an observant religious environment, speaking Yiddish at home even as their children spoke German to assimilate.
Mr. Perel recalled a happy childhood until Hitler, after becoming chancellor of Germany in 1933, began introducing antisemitic legislation and fomenting violence that would upend Jewish life. Mr. Perel, the only Jew among his classmates, was expelled from his school in what he recalled as the most painful experience of his early life. Germans were barred from patronizing his father’s shoe store, and the family’s synagogue was attacked.
Mr. Perel’s parents were of Eastern European heritage and decided in 1936 to move the family to the Polish city of Lodz. Three years later, Hitler invaded Poland, marking the beginning of World War II.
Mr. Perel and his family were placed in the Lodz ghetto, where thousands of Jews were confined in deplorable conditions. His parents sent him with an older brother to eastern Poland, then under Soviet control, hoping that there they might stand a better chance of survival.
“I recall the last words of my parents,” Mr. Perel said years later in an interview with the Indian publication the Week. “My father told me never to forget that I was a Jew. God would protect me, he sincerely believed. My mother simply said, ‘Go, you have to live.’”
Mr. Perel was separated from his brother and taken to a Soviet-run orphanage in the city of Grodno, now in Belarus, where he was inculcated with Socialist philosophy. He was 16 when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, its former ally. The morning of the invasion, he recalled, all the children in the orphanage were roused from their sleep and told to run. He reached the city of Minsk, where he was apprehended.
“The [Germans] surrounded us in an open field and ordered us to stand in a line, and then it was my turn,” Mr. Perel told the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth. “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,” he continued. “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.’ ”
In what Mr. Perel described as a “miracle,” the German officer believed him and absorbed him into his unit. Mr. Perel became a translator, at one point translating for Stalin’s son, Yakov Dzhugashvili, who had been taken prisoner by the Germans.
Impressed by his abilities, Mr. Perel’s superiors sent him back to Germany to join the Hitler Youth. Among the other young men, whom Mr. Perel described as friends, he was known as Josef, or Jupp.
“Europa Europa” depicted one of his constant struggles: Every shower or medical examination, which might have revealed that Mr. Perel was circumcised, was a threat to his survival. He was discovered when an army doctor attempted to rape him in the shower.
In the end, the doctor did not turn Mr. Perel in, telling him: “Know that there is also a different kind of Germans.”
“He didn’t inform on me so as to not expose himself as a homosexual,” Mr. Perel told Yedioth Ahronoth. “I knew his secret and he knew mine, and after that incident he took care of me until he was killed.”
Mr. Perel remained with the Hitler Youth until 1945, forming a deep bond with a young German girl he dated and whom he described as a “fanatic” Nazi.
“I was schizophrenic,” Mr. Perel said. “During the day, I was a German youth who wanted to win the war, I sang songs against Jews and yelled ‘Heil Hitler’ — and at night, in bed, I cried out of longing for my family.”
Mr. Perel was eventually sent to the front, but the German surrender came soon after. He was arrested and briefly held by the Americans.
“It was another irony,” he said. “A Jewish boy in a Nazi uniform in American captivity. I could have told them the truth, but it was daytime, and I was thinking like my Nazi self. The Americans released us all two days later, as they considered us underage. But, I had to sign a document saying I would not take arms against the Americans. As if I would.”
Mr. Perel’s parents and sister had perished in the war, along with 6 million other Jews. In 1948, after serving as a translator for the Soviet army, he immigrated to what was then the British mandate of Palestine, fighting in the Israeli war of independence before marrying and starting his family.
“Europa Europa,” in which Mr. Perel was portrayed by Marco Hofschneider, was the object of considerable controversy when it was released, despite strong reviews. Critic Janet Maslin, writing in the New York Times, observed that it “accomplishes what every film about the Holocaust seeks to achieve: It brings new immediacy to the outrage by locating specific, wrenching details that transcend cliche.”
The German movie industry, over the objections of many German filmmakers, refused to submit the work for the Academy Award for best foreign film. (It was nominated for best screenplay adaptation.)
Explanations of the hostility to the film varied. According to one, some Germans had tired of efforts to force the country to confront its wartime past. According to another, the film’s depiction of a Jew who attached himself to the Nazi apparatus, although solely in an effort to survive, was simply too uncomfortable.
Mr. Perel, for his part, embraced the complexity of his story.
“Jupp saved Shlomo by playing it so well that he became an organic part of the Nazi world,” he told The Post. “He would yell ‘Heil Hitler’ willfully, not as an act. He rejoiced at their victories. He mourned their defeats. And Shlomo the Jew was forgotten. Today the characters are reversed. Today Shlomo is the dominant one. And Jupp is also pushed aside. But he still exists.”
Mr. Perel and his wife, the former Dvora Morezky, were married in 1959. She died in 2021. Their son Ronen “Noni” Perel died in 2019. Survivors include another son, Uziel Perel of Givatayim, and three grandchildren.
Mr. Perel told the Jerusalem Post that he was “virtually paralyzed” by the question of whether he had “the right to compare myself with the survivors of the Holocaust and to place my memories on the same level as theirs.”
“The answer I have arrived at,” he said, “is that I survived the war for a reason, and that is to tell my story.”
He returned to Germany to speak with his aged former colleagues from the Hitler Youth, whom he said he still considered friends, as well as with neo-Nazis.
“They accept me like a comrade,” he said. “When I tell them the truth about racism [and] Nazi ideology and the concentration camps, they listen with a different ear,” he said. “I have received letters saying that after hearing me speak, some of them have begun questioning the Nazi line of thinking. I want to reach the depths of their young souls to help them to think independently, and to see clearly what is good and what is bad.”
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