I grew up in an ordinary suburban neighborhood a few miles north of Baltimore city, though there was nothing ordinary about the vibes whooshing around our dinner table.
My mother Fritzi was born in the Transylvanian Alps of Romania in 1926. She and my father Harry were so devoted to each other that when he died at 56 she declared she would never even look at another man. She never did.
My father was raised in an orphanage in Brooklyn, New York, even though his mother Tibbie lived only one subway stop away. The reason? Her husband, Joseph, my grandfather, had lost his business in the stock market crash of 1929 and decided to depart the planet rather hastily, leaving his wife on her own with no means of support.
Tibbie found herself with three boys and a Great Depression on her hands. And even though she had converted from Judaism to Christian Science a few years earlier with excitement and optimism, religion wasn’t going to help in this one. The money ran out.
She decided she could only afford to raise one boy, so she kept Arthur, the oldest, dropping off Buddy and my dad at the local orphanage. The two tykes possessed all the survival skills that any three- and five-year-old have, which is to say, none at all. The boys toughed it out, surviving a string of foster homes into their late teens.
Fritzi, on the other hand, some 4,800 miles away in Romania, was living a very different kind of life. It was a fun, carefree childhood. Her parents, Rose and Wolf Perl, were loving and generous. The youngest of six (five girls and a boy), Fritzi was masterful at her primary childhood occupation: dodging kisses.
The Perls lived in a picturesque village in Romania, a few kilometers south of Ukraine. The Perl children skied and hiked and swam in streams pristine and pure enough to drink right out of. Until the Nazis showed up in early 1944, Visuel de Sus was a most excellent place to be.
Some years earlier, Fritzi’s oldest sister Estie saw disaster looming in Europe, as many did, and opted out. When a dashing young Cuban guy vacationing at a local hot springs with his parents met her and spent some quality time with her — and later proposed from Havana by letter — she boarded a ship and sailed off to marry him.
I’ve heard it said that courage is doing something difficult by choice rather than out of necessity. I, for one, count my aunt Estie as one brave woman for taking that one-way trip across the pond. (All turned out well.)
In May 1944, the fateful Nazi steam trains pulled into my Mom’s hometown of Visuel de Sus, bringing the hiking and skiing and dodging kisses pretty much to a grinding halt.
Just hours earlier, Fritzi’s brother Anci had run (literally) north into Ukraine where he became a forced conscript in the Russian army. After the war, he walked across a good piece of Europe to Tel Aviv where he started a new life. He married my aunt Rozi and they had two daughters, Leah and Ziva. My cousin Ziva was runner-up for Miss Israel, back in the day.
Many of my mother’s family died on the transport train to Auschwitz. The truly tragic part of it was that the Nazis had arrived in northern Romania very close to the end of the war; a few months later and none of this would have happened (Would I have made a good Transylvanian? Hmm…). My mother’s family were that close to escaping, scot free.
So it went.
My grandmother Rose and her four daughters stepped off the train at the gates of Auschwitz. Rose chose to “go left” to help a friend’s family. It was the worst possible move. Going right meant working — and living. My mother’s sister, Shari, clinging to her young son, died along with her son at the entrance of the camp.
Which left Fritzi and her sisters Piri and Susie in the barracks at Auschwitz – for seven horrific months. You may know the gist of that story. A few months later, they were transported to a munitions factory in the Fatherland itself to work as slaves to the Reich. But that meant staying alive.
At war’s end in May 1945, the sisters were liberated along with the rest of Europe. My mother had contracted typhoid fever and was quarantined for several weeks. Her brain heated up pretty seriously, probably damaging it. She almost died. Later, she discovered sizable gaps in her memory. She has told me on more than one occasion that that was probably a good thing.
The three surviving Perl sisters made their way to a DP (displaced person) camp in France.
If God was now back on the Continent and bestowed a blessing on the Perl sisters, it came in the form of Charlie Battye, a friendly British officer who wrote a letter for the girls to “Family Rosenthal Havana Cuba.” Rosenthal was the family name of sister Estie’s husband, Luis.
Luis immediately sent funds to a cousin in Paris who arranged for papers for the sisters and put them on a ship bound for Cuba.
After the horrors they’d endured, imagine what it was like now: living high on the hog on Luis’s estate in Havana. Luis was a prosperous watch maker and distributor, and a generous and genial guy. The girls played tennis, ate sumptuous meals and tried to suppress the memories of the awful things that had happened to them.
Life went on. Luis’s thoughts sometimes flowed along these lines: What to do with all these sisters?
He posted a letter to an old friend, a Hungarian named Alex Feigler living in Brooklyn, New York. Alex had enlisted in the U.S. army during the war and thus was automatically granted U.S. citizenship. Inside the letter, Luis placed a photo of his three refugee sisters-in-law.
Alex, a bachelor, was intrigued by Piri. He drew a bold circle around her face and mailed the photo back — and before you could say geographical undesirability be damned the couple were wed and setting up house in Brooklyn. Next, my aunt Susie married Tio Morris in Cuba. Over the following years, my cousins started arriving in Havana — Daisy, Vivian, Robert and Lillian.
In 1952 my mother traveled to Brooklyn to visit her sister Piri and met my father Harry on a blind date. He told her he was an engineer. That wasn’t totally accurate. He was really just a lab technican.
Harry attempted to woo Fritzi by reading her the poetry of Robert Service — not exactly appropriate material for courting, since Service wrote about grizzled frontiersmen like Dangerous Dan McGrew who tramped up to the Yukon territories in search of gold. But Fritzi didn’t speak any English and Harry had an amazing voice. They married six weeks later.
My father surprised everyone, possible including himself, by turning out to be a brilliant scientist. But until he got married and settled down, he didn’t know what he was capable of.
My parents, my sister Rhonda and I lived in a brownstone on 41st St. between 15th and 16th avenue in Boro Park, Brooklyn, a few blocks away from famed Flatbush Avenue. It was a warm and welcoming place.
Not having had much of a family, my father loved my mother’s sprawling, boisterous European clan. Everyone was very tight back then. Piri and Alex and my cousins Sharon and Rita lived right across the street from us. We played punch ball, stoop ball and stick ball in alleys and on stoops and in the street.
Though life was good, one could sense Europe seething down below the surface. My mother and Susie kept quiet about what happened to them. Not Piri. At holiday meals, Piri would start in with the hair-raising stories. There was the one about the kapo (concentration camp guard) who made lamp shades out of human skin. And the line-ups and selections with Josef Mengele, possibly the most deranged graduate of medical school who has walked the planet, who performed gruesome medical experiments on the defenseless inmates of Auschwitz.
While my father was supporting our family at his day job, he attended Coooper Union college at night. He earned a master’s degree in electrical engineering and managed, while still in college, to invent a new new way to protect radars from high-frequency incoming signals. In 1962 Westinghouse made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. He moved us to Maryland to see what that was about.
My parents loved their ordinary suburban existence (not me; I pined for Brooklyn). In fact, all they wanted was ordinary. On the outside they were secure and happy. On the inside the currents of their tragedies and traumas flowed unseen.
What was interesting, to me, was that my father was this super sharp creative guy who had earned an international reputation for his work – in some ways not unlike my grandfather Wolf, who traveled all over Europe selling his product, tanin – and my mother was a simple, good-natured, nonintellectual woman. Complete opposites. Yet totally enamored of each other. If they were seeking love today, they would have clicked over to the next profile.
Not long after Harry logged his 35th U.S. patent for yet another invention that would make Westinghouse millions (while he drew a modest salary) he was diagnosed with colon cancer. He died the way many cancer victims do: diminished, shrunken, dazed, shockingly different than what you were used to. It’s so painful to see that happen to someone you love. My mother was at his side every day, often sleeping in his hospital bed with him.
The line of cars traveling to the cemetery for his funeral must have been a mile long. Many people miss him. Most of all my mother, who sometimes speaks to him in the early morning hours in the hypnogogic state between dreaming and waking, when the line between what is real and what is imagined blurs, and maybe isn’t important at all.
Piri passed away in 2011 at the age of 90. Fritzi passed away in 2016, also at 90. Estie passed away in January 2018 at 104. Susie passed away in March 2018 at 94.
Read more: A History of the Perl Family.
Writing Samples > First Person Essays