His masquerade — a tale recounted in a memoir and in the film “Europa Europa” — saved his life. But “to this day,” he said, “I have a tangle of two souls in one body.”
Feb. 11, 2023
6 MIN READ
Solomon Perel, a German Jew who saved himself from death by posing as a member of the Hitler Youth during World War II and later felt gratitude for the Nazi he pretended to be in order to live, died on Feb. 2 at his home in Givatayim, Israel, near Tel Aviv. He was 97.
His great-nephew Amit Brakin confirmed the death.
Mr. Perel, who was also known as Shlomo and Solly, recounted his survival story in a 1990 autobiography. It was adapted into a German movie, “Europa Europa,” released in the United States in 1991, which won the Golden Globe for best foreign-language film.
Like many other Holocaust survival stories, Mr. Perel’s began with Nazi oppression, which led his family to move in 1936 from Peine, Germany, to Lodz, Poland. After the German invasion on Sept. 1, 1939, they were forced into a ghetto that would house as many as 164,000 Jews. He fled later that year with an older brother, Isaac, in the hope of finding relative safety in Soviet-controlled eastern Poland.
In Bialystok, where he parted with Isaac, Solomon was placed by a Jewish assistance organization in a Soviet orphanage in Grodno (now part of Belarus). He stayed for two years, until Germany invaded the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941; he recalled that the Jewish children at the orphanage were roused from their sleep and told to flee the German attack.
Solomon became one of many refugees captured by the German Wehrmacht in an open field near Minsk.
Fearful that his captors would learn he was Jewish and shoot him in a nearby forest, he dug a small pit in the soft ground with the heel of a shoe and buried his identification papers.
After waiting on a long line, Solomon was asked by a German soldier, “Are you a Jew?” Heeding his mother’s last words to him, “You must live,” but not his father’s, “Always remain a Jew,” he lied: “I’m not a Jew. I’m an ethnic German.”
Not only did the Germans believe him; they welcomed him into their unit under the name Josef Perjell, and made him an interpreter. One interrogation in which he participated was of Joseph Stalin’s son Yakov Dzhugashvili.
“I became a split personality — a Nazi by day and a Jew by night,” Mr. Perel told The Week, an Indian magazine, in 2019. He remained there until his commanding officer sent him to the Hitler Youth boarding school in Braunschweig, Germany, during the winter of 1941-42.
If anyone discovered he was Jewish, “they’d deal with me like cannibals,” he said in “Because You Must Live: The Story of Shlomo (Solly) Perel,” a part of the Survivors Testimony Films Series produced by Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial. He was relieved that the school’s showers had separate stalls, which prevented anyone from seeing that he had been circumcised.
But, he said, “nobody suspected me because it was impossible to think that some Jewish boy would sneak into the center of that protected country.”
He became, to the young Nazis surrounding him, a true believer, absorbing the lessons of National Socialism, wearing a uniform with a swastika and a Nazi eagle on his chest and preparing for military service.
“I was a Hitler Youth completely,” he said in the Yad Vashem film. “I began telling myself, ‘Wow, I’m part of a force that’s conquering the world.’”
But he could not switch off his real self entirely. In 1943, during the Christmas holiday, he received a holiday pass and took a train back to Lodz. For 12 days, wearing the black winter uniform of the Hitler Youth, he searched for his parents in the ghetto.
He rode a streetcar, which Jews could not board, back and forth. He walked the city’s streets. He saw men rolling carts piled with Jewish corpses.
But he did not find his mother, his father or his sister, Bertha, none of whom he would ever see again. His brothers, Isaac and David, survived.
Solomon was nearly 8 years old when Hitler seized power in Germany in 1933, but his life did not change appreciably until two years later, when antisemitic laws stripped Jews of their rights and citizenship. He was expelled from school.
“It was my most traumatic childhood experience,” he said in “Because You Must Live,” “that barbaric expulsion from school because somebody considered me different.”
The family moved to Lodz after his father was forced by the Nazis to sell his store for nearly nothing. Solomon attended a Polish state school for Jews. It was after the Germans invaded Poland and Jewish families were ordered into the Lodz ghetto that he started on the path that led to his lifesaving masquerade as a Nazi.
Simmy Allen, a spokesman for Yad Vashem, said that Mr. Perel’s life as a Jew among the Hitler Youth was more than unusual.
“We know of Jews using false papers and presenting themselves as non-Jews, even Aryans, during the Holocaust in different places throughout Europe, even in Berlin,” Mr. Allen said in an email. “But to be in the heart of the lion’s den, under that level of scrutiny all the time and, in a sense, part of the ideology of the ‘enemy,’ as Shlomo was, is a very unique and rare position.”
Mr. Perel recalled how invested he had become in the Nazi philosophy even as the war turned against Germany.
“I was deeply involved in a world that had been forced upon me, my reasoning powers had finally been completely anesthetized,” he wrote in his memoir, published in English and French as “Europa, Europa,” “and my mental faculties were so befogged that no ray of reality could penetrate. I continued to feel just like one of them.”
As the war neared its end, Mr. Perel was sent to the Western Front, assigned to a unit guarding bridges. When American soldiers arrested him and his squad and briefly held him in a prisoner-of-war camp, his war was over. He was no longer Josef Perjell. He was once again Shlomo Perel.
Mr. Perel moved to Munich, where he was a translator for the Soviet Army during interrogations of Nazi war criminals. He emigrated to the British mandate of Palestine, fought in the Israeli war of independence and managed a zipper factory.
In 1959, he married Dvora Morezky. She died in 2021. He is survived by a son, Uziel, and three grandchildren. Another son, Ronen, died in 2019.
For many years Mr. Perel put his memories of the Holocaust aside. But in the late 1980s, after a near-fatal heart attack, he began to discuss his past and to write his memoir.
The film adaptation, written and directed by Agnieszka Holland, starred Marco Hofschneider as Mr. Perel. It earned Ms. Holland an Oscar nomination for best adapted screenplay.
In addition to winning the Golden Globe for best foreign film, the movie was named best foreign film by the New York Film Critics Circle, the Boston Society of Film Critics and the National Board of Review. But the German Export Film Union declined to select it as its entry for an Academy Award for best foreign film — a decision that prompted many of Germany’s leading filmmakers, including Wolfgang Petersen and Werner Herzog, to sign a letter of protest that was published in Daily Variety.
Mr. Perel attended the film’s premiere in Lodz.
In 1992, he reunited with some of his former Hitler Youth comrades and revealed to them that he was Jewish. Some years earlier, he had gotten together with surviving members of the Wehrmacht unit that had accepted him as a German.
He lectured about his experiences in Israel and around the world.
“He insisted on including, with every lecture or talk he gave, a message for accepting the other,” Mr. Brakin, his great-nephew, said in a text message, “including the one that is different, and a message against racism in any form it might take.”
But Mr. Perel never fully purged himself of the Nazi identity he had adopted.
“To this day, I have a tangle of two souls in one body,” he 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.”
“I love him,” he said, referring to Josef, “because he saved my life.”
Richard Sandomir is an obituaries writer. He previously wrote about sports media and sports business. He is also the author of several books, including “The Pride of the Yankees: Lou Gehrig, Gary Cooper and the Making of a Classic.” @RichSandomir
A version of this article appears in print on Feb. 13, 2023, Section A, Page 17 of the New York edition with the headline: Solomon Perel, a Jew Who Posed as a Nazi To Survive, Dies at 97. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe