Josef Perl lived a charmed life on his family’s sawmill in Veliky Bochov, in what was then Czechoslovakia, in the 1930s. The only son in an Orthodox family of nine children, his father Laser gifted him a trusted guard dog, Vondi, and a loyal horse, Shori, to escort him to and from school every day. “Me, the horse and dog were like one,” he recalls. “They dropped me to school and came back to get me at the right time. I didn’t know anything but happiness then.”
That childhood bliss was shattered in 1940 when the Hungarian army invaded the town at the behest of the Hitler regime. A soldier made off with the horse and shot the brown Alsatian as he barked in protest. Another soldier approched the 10-year-old boy, on his one-hour walk from school, held a knife to his face and sliced off his peyot.
“When that soldier cut off my ringlets, I felt I had lost everything I treasured. It was like they cut my head off,” says Perl, who is sharing his story at length for the first time to mark Holocaust Memorial Day — and also because “I don’t know how much longer I’ll be around”.
Now 83 and living in Bushey with Sylvia, his British-born wife, he talks of having survived line-up shootings, a death march and countless concentration camps, among them Krakow-Plaszow, Dachau, Bergen-Belsen, Auschwitz, Gross-Rosen and Buchenwald. He was liberated from the latter by US servicemen in April 1945.
Perl is tall, handsome and robust with eyes that convey intelligence. “My father always told me: ‘Listen, say nothing, but listen,’” he recounts to the amusement of his wife, who is obviously well familiar with the anecdote. I follow him into the dining room, full of pictures of his grandchildren and old friends and an image with David Cameron taken at a Holocaust Educational Trust dinner. Before the interview begins in earnest, he hands me a copy of his biography, Faces in the Smoke. “It’s my story, but she wrote it,” he explains, pointing to Sylvia. “This is only the skim off the top. I’ve left out a lot, because I wrote it for the children.” Perl estimates that through the HET, he has spoken about his experiences to thousands of children at school assemblies.
“I don’t know where to start. The end, the beginning, the middle? There’s too much to tell. If I told the whole story, I wouldn’t have any time to live.”
After the 1940 invasion, life for Jews changed in Veliky Bochov, where his father employed around 300 Christians in his business. Before, “Jews and Christians got on very well together. We danced together, ate together and children played together. There was no antisemitism in this village, like there might have been in others. Before 1940, life was heaven. Visibly I was a Jew, but there no name calling, no bullying — nothing.
“But after, when we went to school, we all took our seats as normal, but were told that Jews had to sit on a different side. The teacher said: ‘Jews are thieves and rogues.’ In the playground, I went to friends that I had grown up with, but they told me: ‘Go play there, you can’t play here.’ I was lost for words, I was sad. I said: ‘I’m not different, I’m still me.’ My friend said: ‘You are different.’”
Jews had their property confiscated and were rounded up and taken to a makeshift camp, where Perl first learnt to defend himself. He was one of a group of eight boys who took it upon themselves to escape to the forest and collect carrots, potatoes and sweetcorn for the camp. And one food-gathering mission turned out to be life-saving. “One day we were out and when we got back to the camp we heard screaming. People were being taken out of the tent and put on lorries, so we waited.
“We went back into the tent when we saw they had gone. [The soldiers] had shot all the old people and babies and left them for the animals to devour. Some were still alive, but there was nothing we could do to help them.”
The boys fled to the forest where they spent four weeks, before splitting up in a bid to avoid capture. “As a Jew, I started to say my afternoon prayers — what I could remember by heart — and I looked up to the heavens. I had a good cry and said: ‘God, look after me.’” He traipsed from village to village and ghetto to ghetto looking for his father, mother, sisters, nieces and nephews. “I was in one ghetto, looking for my family and they [soldiers] took us to the forest. I saw my mother [Frieda], sisters and their children. Before I could call out ‘mummy’ they had shot her. There was an air raid siren. People started to run and I wasn’t going to hang about, so I ran too.”
Moving on to his early teenage years, I ask how many camps he survived. “There are too many to say,” he replies. And the secret of his survival? Perl says his faith and the angels protected him. But his practical side moves him to add: “I always kept busy. I was always looking for something to do and then I was out of sight. Because of that, I started to get a little respect.”
At Bolkenhain, the then 14-year-old developed a friendship with an SS officer and was appointed to head up a machinery section for explosives, with 30 boys under his management. “I was allowed to scrape for more soup at the bottom after everyone had eaten.” After nine months of hard graft, he was approached by a member of the underground movement. “This fella gave me a hand grenade. He told me to throw it into the pit and blow up my section. I said: ‘I can’t — I’m responsible for 30 lives.’ But he said: ‘You’re dead if you do it, and you’re dead if you don’t. You already know too much.’
“So I gave the boys a signal. I said to them: ‘When I make a move, you all go to the toilet.’ They did that, I pulled the pin and threw down the grenade. The whole thing blew up.”
Under interrogation — and “a good hiding” from the SS officer who trusted him — Perl admitted throwing the grenade into the pit. One officer made a throat-slitting gesture, urging that Perl be publicly hanged at the Gross-Rosen camp in the morning as an example.
“That night I dreamt of my mother. She said: ‘Joe, your time is not up. Do what I say, run away.’ So I did. I ran into the forest and found a dead horse after four days. As I was tearing the flesh from the horse’s body and eating, an SS officer saw me. I rolled down the hill as he fired two shots. He shot me in the left leg. The snow was covered in blood. There was so much blood. I stayed still on the ground so he thought I was dead and left me.”
Recounting such scarring memories, Perl constantly taps his head. “Oh, I’m jumping the gun,” he exclaims, recalling key facts that he’s missed, or doesn’t believe are in the book. “There’s too much to tell — this is a little bit.” Sylvia is always quick to help, knowing his story almost as well as he does and the connection between the two is touching.
In another fast forwarding moment, he remembers surviving another camp by leaping over a man-made ditch with a bullet in his leg — a test devised by the Nazis to separate the weak from the strong. “I jumped over that ditch like a lamb. I’ve got angels,” he smiles knowingly.
Still wearing the striped Buchenwald uniform, he tried to locate his lost relatives after liberation, risking the wrath of antisemitic partisans in a forest. He also had to get past border patrols as he made his way back to the family home. “I knew that my mother and sisters were killed, but I couldn’t believe my father was dead. He wouldn’t die from stress or work. If I survived, so did he.” As he neared the property, he spotted one of his father’s former farm workers, who had taken over the family land. “He greeted me with a shotgun and said: ‘If you don’t leave, I will kill you.’”
It took 26 years for Perl to discover that his father Lazar had not only survived, but taken back the family property.
Perl had come to England with the help of UK Jewish organisations. He studied design at a polytechnic before settling in Brighton, where he married Sylvia at the Middle Street Synagogue, the two having met at a Youth Aliyah dance. One morning, Sylvia was checking the post while Perl was at work at a garment factory. “I opened the letter and it was in Yiddish,” she recalls. “I saw it was from Lazar Perl, and rushed down to where Joe used to sit outside on his break for some fresh air. I was so excited, but he was placid. He told me he had received fake letters before [asking] for money and when he asked for a photo, there was no answer.”
But on this occasion the letter was genuine and they had an emotional reunion in Budapest. Lazar Perl had retrieved his grandfather’s Sefer Torah, buried near the local synagogue after the family had heard about Kristallnacht. Perl says the family used to dance in the street with the scroll on Simchat Torah, with local Christians joining in.
But it “needed koshering” and Perl took responsibility for the restoration, celebrating a belated barmitzvah with the treasured heirloom on his 60th birthday. “We still use it now when we can,” adds the Bushey Synagogue member.
He stresses the importance of relaying his story to the young generation. “They are the future. I have boxes and boxes of letters. To make a child sit and write a letter, that takes some doing.” His own son Mark is involved in Holocaust education. The Perls also have a daughter, Frances.
As I move to leave, Perl embraces me, insistent on helping me on with my coat as Sylvia wraps my scarf around my neck. “I’m a lucky man,” he concludes. “My life has been a horror, but in the end, I’m still here.” The couple then start the preparations for their Friday night dinner — a normalcy that he might once have never dared imagine.