Before the War
My father never talked about his childhood and spoke only rarely about his experiences during the war. They say that there are two kinds of survivors, those who do not say a word and those who cannot stop talking. My father was clearly in the first group.
Yet, in spite of the silence, we all knew that something terrible happened. Something terrible that would change our family’s dynamic forever and the primary relationships between our father and his children.
I will try to recreate his early childhood and his experiences before the war as best I can. My information is put together primarily from my father’s testimony to Judy Breuer, who interviewed him for Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Visual History Foundation on August 27, 1997.
My father was born in Galoşpetreu, Romania, in 1925, the second child to Avraham and Sarah Chana Perl. At a young age the family moved to Nagyszalonta, where his father took the position of a shochet (a person trained to slaughter animals according to Jewish ritual law). It was a good-sized town of about 25,000, but the Jewish community was very small; there were about 200 Reform families and only 30 Orthodox families. My father attended public school for half a day and cheder (a traditional elementary school teaching the basics of Judaism and the Hebrew language) for half a day.
Being the only Jewish child in his school during the day, and one who was visibly religious with a kippah (skullcap) and payos (side curls), sometimes presented as a problem. While most of the time the kids got along fairly well, there was the odd time when my father was grabbed and punched in the nose, while the kids spewed something obscene. Shrugging it off as if it were nothing, my father said, “It was just part of their surroundings and their tradition.”
With the Orthodox community being as small as it was, my grandfather had very few animals to shecht (slaughter) and the wages were paltry. In the winter, things were a bit better. My grandfather would slaughter geese, and they would be exported to Bucharest, the capital of Romania. Often my father would hear his mother lament because of the chronic shortage of food: “What will I cook today?”
The Rabbi of the city, Nosson Tzvi Brisk, was a very kind, older man who learned Torah day and night, my father being one of the students with whom he learned regularly. Sadly, the rabbi would be among the families of Nagyszalonta who was deported and killed in Auschwitz.
Nagyvarad Oradea, Romania
In 1937, at the age of 12, my father moved to the home of his mother’s parents, Yaakov Moshe and Bleema Langsner, in Nagyvarad Oradea.
His grandfather was a well to do man, who supplied kosher milk to private homes. He owned his own stables with about 25 cows from Switzerland; each cow supplied 25 litres of fatty milk per day. And in those days, the best milk had fat in it. But life was tough. My father was expected to wake up at 4 a.m. each day to learn (i.e., bible and rabbinical commentaries as codified in the Talmud) with his grandfather, and then at 7 a.m. he left to pray for an hour. He had just enough time to eat a quick breakfast and then left in a hurry to go to cheder. At lunch, he received one piece of bread, which hardly sustained him for the rest of the day.
His bar mitzvah was celebrated in meager style in Nagyvarad without his parents. He was called up to the Torah (bible) to read, and the rabbi of the shul (synagogue), who was also the town dayan (judge), gave him a bracha (blessing) as he descended from the bima (platform). A shot of whiskey was served with a few cookies that his grandmother made, and he promptly went back to cheder. Just over a year later, my father, then 14, heard the news that war had broken out and the Germans had occupied Poland. At that point, he had no knowledge of the existence of the concentration camps or ghettos.
In 1939, at the age of 14, my father left his grandparents’ home to learn in a yeshiva in Tasnad, Romania. There were about 360 boys in the yeshiva headed by Rav Shaya Brisk, the brother of the rabbi in Nagyzsalonta. Life was extremely tough there. Only lunch was served; the boys were expected to purchase food for the other meals. But since his father sent him only enough money to last a week, for most of the month, one meal a day was all he had.
In 1941, Tasnad fell under Hungarian rule, a collaborationist government under the leadership of Miklos Horthy. While many anti-Semitic policies were instituted under Horthy’s rule, he resisted the order to round up the Jews and turn them over to the Germans. The Hungarian authorities closed the yeshiva and my father went home for a few months.
After Tasnad, my father, at the age of 16, went to yet another yeshiva in Békéscsaba, Hungary. As before, hunger continually gnawed as there was a shortage of food. Private homes opened their kitchens to feed the boys, but it was understood that this arrangement would not include serving the boys bread, the main part of a meal. For the next three years, life took on a routine. And then in the spring of 1944, the Germans rolled their tanks into Hungary. While life was never easy, the worst was yet to come.