I grew up in a suburban neighborhood a few miles north of Baltimore that seemed very ordinary, though there was nothing ordinary about the vibes whooshing around my family’s dinner table.
My mother Fritzi was born in the Transylvanian Alps of Romania in 1926. She and my father, Harry, were so bonded that when he died, in the prime of life, at 56, she told me she would never look at another man. She probably never did.
My father was raised in an orphanage in Brooklyn, New York, one subway stop away from the apartment where his mother, my grandmother Tibbie lived. The reason was that Tibbie’s husband, Joseph, my grandfather, had lost his business in the stock market crash and decided to depart the planet rather hastily, leaving Tibbie on her own with no means of support.
She found herself with three toddlers on her hands in the midst of an economic collapse. And though she had converted from Judaism to Christian Science a few years earlier, religion didn’t help much. The money ran out.
She decided she could afford to raise only one of her three sons, and chose Arthur, her oldest, depositing my uncle, 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, virtually none at all. The boys toughed it out, surviving a string of foster homes into their late teens.
My mother, Fritzi, on the other hand, some 4,800 miles away in Romania, was living a very different kind of life—a fun, carefree existence. Her parents, my grandparents Rose and Wolf Perl, were loving and generous. My mother, the youngest of six (five girls and a boy), was masterful at her primary childhood occupation: dodging kisses.
The family lived in a picturesque village in Matamures County, 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 1944, Visuel de Sus was an excellent place to be.
Before all that, before the war, my mother’s oldest sister, my aunt Estie, saw disaster looming in Europe, as so many did, and sought a way out. So, when she met Luis, a young Cuban guy vacationing at a local hot springs and spent some time with him—and when, later, he proposed by letter from Havana, 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 aunt Estie as one brave woman for taking that one-way trip across the pond. (All turned out well.)
A few year later, in May 1944, the fateful Nazi steam trains pulled into tiny Visuel de Sus, bringing the hiking and skiing and dodging kisses pretty much to a halt.
Just as the trains were arriving, my mother’s brother, my uncle Anci, ran (literally) north into Ukraine where he became a forced conscript in the Russian army. He survived that by hiding his heritage. After the war, Anci walked across a good piece of Europe to Tel Aviv where he married my aunt Rozi and had two daughters, my cousins Leah and Ziva. Ziva was runner-up for Miss Israel, back in the day.
Many of my mother’s family—my family—perished on the train to Auschwitz. One of the tragic parts of this all 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. My mother’s family were that close to escaping, scot free.
So it went.
Stepping off the train at the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland, my grandmother Rose and my mother and three aunts and 3,000 fellow Romanians had a pretty good idea of what was about to happen. They were met by SS offers wielding truncheons and ordering them to form into queues. Going to the “right” meant surviving while going “left” meant death in the gas chambers. My grandmother chose to “go left” to help a friend’s family. It was the worst possible move. Going right meant working — and living. No one saw Rose after that. My mother’s sister, Shari, and her son, were shot by the Gestapo at the entrance of the camp and lay where they fell. The crowds parted to walk around my aunt and cousin, or went right over them.
More than a million people died in Auschwitz during World War II. It was all part of the “Final Solution.”
That left my mother and my aunts Piri and Susy heading for the barracks at Auschwitz – for seven horrific months. You may know the gist of that story. If you don’t, watch “Schindler’s List.” Or read the detailed account of my family’s experience in the camp here. The sisters were then transported to a munitions factory in the Fatherland itself to work as slave labor for the Third Reich. But, at least, that meant staying alive.
At war’s end in May 1945, the sisters were liberated along with the rest of Europe. My mother contracted typhoid fever and was quarantined for several weeks. Her brain was probably damaged. Later, she discovered sizable gaps in her memory. She told me on more than one occasion that that was probably a good thing.
She and my two aunts made their way to a DP (displaced person) camp in Paris.
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 British officer who helped them. There was lots of good will to go around after that Holocaust. He wrote a letter for them to “Family Rosenthal Havana Cuba,” hoping to contact with their oldest sister, my aunt Estie, who had married the Cuban, Luis Rosenthal.
Luis immediately sent funds to a cousin in Paris who arranged for passage for the sisters on a ship bound for Havana.
After the horrors they’d endured, imagine what it was like now: living in posh comfort on Tio Luis’s estate. My uncle Luis was a prosperous watch maker and a distributor, and a generous and genial guy. The sisters played tennis, ate sumptuous meals and did their best not to think about what had happened to them in the war.
One day, wanting to help his sisters-in-laws, Luis posted a letter to an old friend, a Hungarian, my uncle Alex, who was living in Brooklyn, New York. Alex had enlisted in the U.S. army during the war and was thus automatically granted U.S. citizenship. In the letter from Luis, he found a photo of three young women—the Perl sisters. My mother and aunts.
A bachelor in search a partner, Alex was intrigued by Piri’s image. He drew a circle around her face and mailed the photo back to Luis — and before you could say geographical undesirability be damned the couple were wed and setting up house in Brooklyn. Around this time, in Cuba, my aunt Susy married Tio Moises. Over the next 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. Not true. He was just a lab tech. A lab tech nursing a massive crush.
My father attempted to woo Fritzi by reading her the poetry of Robert Service — a curious choice, since Service had written about grizzled frontiersmen like Dangerous Dan McGrew who tramped up to the Yukon territories in search of gold. But my mother didn’t speak any English. And Harry had a great voice. Six weeks later, they were married.
My father surprised everyone, possibly including himself, by becoming a talented scientist who would find fame as an inventor. But until he 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 from Flatbush Avenue. It was a warm and welcoming place.
Not having had much of a family, my father loved my mother’s large European clan. Everyone was very tight back then. Piri and Alex and my cousins Sharon and Rita lived right across the street. Along with the neighborhood kids, I played punch ball, stoop ball and stick ball in alleys, on stoops and in streets.
A few years earlier, in 1959, Castro took over Cuba and the communists began to confiscate peoples’ property. Not wanting to live under that system, my relatives left. They moved to Miami, where we visited them every year.
Though our life in Brooklyn was good, one could sense Europe seething below the surface. My mother mostly kept quiet about what happened at Auschwitz. My aunt Susy never said a word about it. Not one word.
But Piri spoke about it. Sometimes, at holiday meals, she 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’d ever walked the planet, the mastermind of the gruesome medical experiments carried out on the defenseless inmates of Auschwitz. We kids, in our safe world, listened to these stories. We took them in without realizing it
While my father was supporting our family at his day job, he was attending Cooper Union college at night to earn a master’s degree in electrical engineering. In 1962, Westinghouse made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. Our family moved to Randallstown, Maryland, just north of Baltimore.
My parents loved their ordinary suburban existence. In fact, all they really wanted was ordinary. On the outside, they were secure and happy. But on the inside, the currents of their tragedies and traumas flowed unseen.
What was interesting, to me, was that my parents seemed to be complete opposites. Yet totally enamored of each other. If they were seeking love today, they would have surely have clicked over to the next profile.
Not long after my father 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, drugged, shockingly different than the way that you knew them. My mother was at his side every day, often sleeping in his hospital bed with him.
Many people loved my father. Most of all my mother, who would sometimes speak to him in the early morning hours, in the hypnogogic state between dreaming and waking, when the line between what’s real and what’s desired blurs, and maybe isn’t important at all.
There all gone now, that generation.
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. Susy passed away in March 2018 at 94.
Read more: A History of the Perl Family.
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