Mending a Split Personality : Movies: The identity of Solomon Perel, the subject of ‘Europa Europa,’ the story of a Jew who survived the Holocaust by posing as a Nazi, took on a life of its own.
Every once in a while, Solomon Perel’s other personality, an alter ego named Joseph, surfaces in disturbing ways.
“Once, I was watching a film, an American one with lots of blood and shooting. It was by a Jewish director, and Jupp began to say things like, ‘Look at the Jews. They are poisoning Western culture,’ ” Perel recalled, using Jupp, a teen-age nickname for Joseph.
Solomon Perel, 66, is a Holocaust survivor who, as a teen-ager, joined the Nazis to escape persecution and almost certain death. It was more than a pose: He assumed the name Joseph, took on a German ethnic identity and hid his Jewishness to such an extent that he now believes he was, at times, another person: “To become Joseph was easy; to return to Solomon is slow. The process is still going on.”
Perel’s adventure of self-preservation inspired the movie “Europa Europa,” a joint German-French production. The picture became the subject of controversy after the German Export Film Union failed to nominate it for a best foreign-language film Academy Award. Due to the intervention of leading German filmmakers and American critics, writer-director Agnieszka Holland has been nominated for an Oscar for her adapted screenplay.
The film, dramatic as it is, falls short of conveying a shocking turn in Perel’s odyssey. His new identity, assumed at a critical moment of choosing survival, took on a life of its own.
Perel refers not only to Jupp but also to Solomon in the third person. He describes the adventures and attitudes of each with the detachment of a theater critic. “I want to get rid of Jupp, but it’s difficult. Solomon owes his life to Jupp. He likes him. This is the price I paid for survival,” Perel admitted in an interview that took place in Givatayim, a modest bedroom community of apartment blocks northeast of Tel Aviv.
Perel’s family fled Nazi Germany for Poland in 1935. He and his brother escaped again, this time to Soviet-occupied parts of Poland in advance of the German blitzkrieg. The rest of their family chose to stay behind.
Perel, then 14, took up studies in a Communist youth movement orphanage where, he said, he turned into a committed Marxist-Leninist. Germany’s unrelenting sweep eastward again threatened his refuge. He fled but was captured in Minsk, in what was then the Byelorussian republic of the Soviet Union.
“When the Germans came, they forced us to stand in line. I heard talk that they would not take Jews alive. I buried my papers and Communist youth card in a hole in the ground I dug with my foot. When my turn came, I said I am Volksdeutsche-- a German.
“That was the important moment. Afterward, all kind of changes became possible.”
He was employed as an interpreter by the Wehrmacht unit that took him in and adopted him fondly--too fondly, in one instance. In an incident portrayed in the film, the unit’s medical officer trapped him in the bath of a peasant home and tried to rape him. In the tussle, the German discovered that the circumcised Jupp was Jewish. “For some reason, he didn’t betray me,” Perel said. “We became friends, and he never tried to get sex with me again.”
Another officer adopted Jupp as a son and sent him to an elite Hitler Youth training school. The switch produced yet more trials. “The young Nazis were full of ideology. The lectures in race theory were torture for me. . . . Week after week, we would study how to recognize a Jew.”
Along with the agony came a metamorphosis.
“I believed I was Joseph--a German. The Jew began to disappear. It was a split-mind situation, with Joseph dominating. Solomon, the Jew, was almost forgotten. He became just a little part hidden away in me.
“I never hated Jews. But Jupp accepted Nazi ideology. The Germans were superior and the Jews subhuman. Jupp hated Jews, and Jupp is still inside. I cried when the Germans lost the battle of Stalingrad.”
“Europa Europa” takes liberties with parts of Perel’s riveting account. In the movie, his brother rescues him from execution after the war at the site of the liberated Dachau concentration camp. Actually, Perel was never threatened with execution but found his brother at Dachau.
The movie version is fairly faithful to Perel’s story of his trip to the Polish town of Lodz in search of his ghetto-imprisoned parents. “It was Christmas, 1943, and I asked to take my leave in Lodz on the excuse that maybe my parents, who I said were missing, had fled from the Russians.
“But in the city, no outsider could enter the ghetto. I stood at the gate, staring. I saw a woman. I thought it was my mother. But I dared not say anything. Germans were all around.
“There was a tram that ran through the ghetto to connect other neighborhoods. I took it every day for the next 12 days to get a glimpse of the woman. I never saw her again. To this day, I don’t know if it was my mother.”
Later, Perel would learn that his mother had been killed by the Germans, forced into a sealed ambulance into which was pumped carbon monoxide from its engine. His father died of starvation.
Toward the end of the war, Perel was sent to the Western Front as part of a Hitler Youth bazooka unit. An American platoon of black soldiers overran the position. Rather than take the mostly adolescent Nazis prisoner, they sent them home. Perel returned to the Hitler Youth school.
Perel emigrated to Israel in 1947 and fought in the War of Independence the following year. He ran a zipper factory, married and now has two sons and an infant grandchild.
Perel said he was approached by the film’s producers, who heard about him during a visit to Israel and asked him to tell the story of his life. The story was then turned over to the screenwriters.
Nonetheless, he had difficulty finding a publisher for his memoirs in Israel. “The Holocaust is not a best seller,” Perel was told.
The movie, which was filmed in Europe, received a cool welcome in Israel. Presented at a film festival here, it has yet to be released commercially in this country. A critic called the movie kitsch for the unrestrained sentimentality of the finale, in which Perel himself is shown strolling against an idyllic Israeli landscape.
Israeli reluctance to embrace the tale may also stem from deeper misgivings, other observers contended. “This is the ultimate story of trying to fit in, of ‘passing’ for a non-Jew,” said Paula Weiman-Kellman, who researches Jewish and Israeli films for the Jerusalem Cinematheque. “Israelis are also uncomfortable with the idea of dual identity. You’re supposed to possess only one identity, and that’s Jewish.”
The film also runs up against the phenomenon of guilt among Holocaust refugees--a complex that Perel said he does not share. “It is the Germans who should feel guilty about putting Jews in this situation, not me,” he said.
Curiously, he harbors a degree of tenderness for his tormentors, due perhaps to what remains of Jupp in his personality. In 1987, he attended a reunion of his German Wehrmacht comrades. The invitation included a teaser that “our translator, Jupp” would attend. “It was pleasant. Everyone came with their wives. Many said that they knew all along I was Jewish. I don’t think they did,” he said.
Perel’s continuing struggle with identity was indirectly reflected in the various titles of his memoirs, which have been published in French, German and, last May, in Hebrew.
The French title, “Europa Europa,” refers to a kind of discovery of the continent through Perel’s eyes. The German title, “Hitler Youth Solomon,” addressed the issue of a Jew posing as a Nazi.
The Hebrew title, which Perel chose, recalled the first difficult step in recovering Solomon and shedding Jupp. After returning from the Western Front to his school, Perel observed an old man wearing a yellow Star of David patch, which the Nazis forced Jews to display as a form of identification.
“I went up to him to ask if he was really a Jew. I told him that I thought Europe had been cleaned of Jews,” Perel said. “The man was afraid. I had to run after him. To calm him, I recited the first words of a Jewish prayer.
“Then I whispered, ‘My name is Solomon Perel.’ ”
That is the title of the Hebrew edition.