The school hall is filled with young people, but you could hear a pin drop. We are at King David School in Victory Park, introducing the most amazing man who has come all the way from Tel Aviv to tell his life story. He was invited by the Johannesburg Holocaust and Genocide Centre, the Sylt Foundation and the Goethe-Institut and is in South Africa for the very first time.
Shlomo (Sally) Perel is 94 years old. Born a German Jew, his life was determined by the rise and horrendous crimes of Nazi Germany. Sally’s story of survival is extraordinary. He survived in the skin of the enemy, in an elitist Nazi school in which the most promising boys from the Hitler Youth were prepared to become leaders of the thousand-year Reich.
There is a jovial youthfulness and energy around Sally Perel – innocence as well. The generosity with which he shares his life story is rooted in a deeply felt humanity and his ability to love and embrace even those who reject him. While he is speaking and answering questions, there is an atmosphere of sharing, of compassion, that emanates from this humble man and extends to the excited young people.
Sally Perel was born in North Germany in 1925 into a Jewish family. After the Nazi party started pogroms against Jewish citizens, they fled to Poland where they were trapped when Nazi Germany invaded in 1939. The family was forced into the ghetto of Lodz, and it was agreed that he and his elder brother would flee to the east to Russia. Sally could not imagine that he was seeing his parents for the last time. Their parting words became their legacy. A contradictory one. His father told him: ‘Shlomo, never forget who you are, that you are a Jew’, while his mother told him ‘My son, no matter what happens, you must stay alive.’ Two messages that fought within him throughout the following years. To survive, he suppressed his father’s will. Sally landed in a Russian orphanage, and became a communist. This intermezzo ended in 1941 when the Germans invaded Russia. He was captured and queued with other prisoners while Nazi officers walked down the line. Everyone identified as a Jew was shot. Sally managed to bury his papers in the sand and claimed to be an ethnic German.
For reasons he has never understood, the soldiers believed him. When asked what his name was, he said the first German name that came into his head: ‘Josef’. When the soldiers discovered that he was fluent in Polish and Russian, he was welcomed into their unit, given a uniform and employed as a translator. His nickname among his fellows was Jupp. He became popular. Believing that Jupp’s parents had been killed by the Bolsheviks, his army officer, who had no children of his own, wanted to adopt him. He sent him to Germany to attend an elite school for the Hitler Youth.
The school he was sent to was in the city of Braunschweig, very close to his former home town. The three years he spent in that school felt like an eternity to him. The relief of being alive and his fear of discovery constituted Sally/Jupp’s internal war – something you could call an intrapersonal Stockholm syndrome. ‘I became my own enemy. Severe disorientation deeply rooted in my subconsciousness. Sometimes I still react as a Nazi if I see soldiers marching in a film and then Sally speaks out and says, “no, this is not what I do”.’