History of the Perl Family | by Warren Goldie
Europe and the U.S., 1920’s-1950’s
The following account was sourced primarily from interviews with my aunt, Piri Fiegler, and my mother, Fritzi Goldie, conducted by Steven Spielberg’s Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation in 1995, and from conversations. The Perl sisters grew up in northern Romania in the early 20th century. During World War II, they were in a Nazi concentration camp, a forced-labor facility and refugee camps. After the war, they lived in Cuba under the rule of the dictator Batista, and then, as Castro’s revolution took hold, emigrated to the U.S. to New York and Miami. This is their story.
As the doors of the cattle car slid open, my mother and her family and more than a hundred exhausted, starving Romanians gazed terrified at the entrance of the concentration camp, Auschwitz, beyond the train tracks. Several hundreds more from the adjoining cars stepped out into the light and the noise — and the hard look of the Gestapo officers who pushed, struck and herded them to form up into queues. Crowds swarmed and chaos reigned. Suitcases and belongings were hauled away.
Each person who made their way to the front of the lines was ordered to “Go left” or “Go right.” My mother (Fritzi) and her sisters, Shari, Piri and Susy, like most of the Jews of their small town, did not understand German. But it became clear that going to the right meant survival while walking left meant death in the gas chambers. The very young, the old and the infirm were all sent to the left.
The sisters clung together yet were being pulled apart by the crowd. Piri remembers the mental fog she felt from extreme hunger after the nightmarish four-day journey. Pressing up against Rose, her mother, she reached into her pocket for her last crust of bread. “Here, you take it,” Piri said to Rose. Rose responded, “No, you take it…”
What was clear to Piri was not evident to Rose. In the confusion, communication was difficult and no one knew what to do. A neighbor from their town and her eight children were told to go left, and Rose, wanting to help, decided to go with them. Piri screamed out her objection. But a Gestapo officer shoved her aside and told her she would be allowed to see her mother at night. Rose, who was 48, was led away, never to be seen again.
Shari, the second oldest of the Perl daughters, refused to be separated from her son. When she ignored the command of the Gestapo, she and her boy were both shot on the spot. The crowd parted slightly to make a path around the bodies. Piri, horrified, watched.
Youthful and fit from a healthy life in their mountain village, the sisters—Susy, 21, Piri, 19, and Fritzi, 17—were ordered to the right. As they passed through the camp’s entrance, several inmates, some reduced to near skeletons, stood beyond the fences pleading for food. When the terrified sisters had no answer for them, the prisoners yelled, “Tomorrow you will look like us!”
The young women were all led into a building and into a holding room. Female attendants ordered them to remove their clothes. One of the prisoners scoffed at the request and she was shot dead.
The women’s body hair was clipped off. Eyeglasses were confiscated but shoes were retained. Each woman was given a single dress and no underwear. As they emerged from the building, the Perl sisters clung to one another in the stunned, petrified crowd, afraid they would be pulled apart and never see each other again.
After just a few days, it would become nearly impossible for the sisters to recall what had come before: the peaceful, bucolic life they had lived with their family in harmony with their neighbors and the land itself until that day the train arrived in mid-May 1944.
Romania: The Good Life
For generations the Perls lived in Visuel de Sus (VEE-show duh-soos), a picturesque village in Maramures County on the gentle western slopes of the Carpathian Mountains, a range also known as the Transylvanian Alps. The area had remained unchanged throughout the centuries, a medieval landscape of villages and hamlets scattered amid vast forests, a few kilometers south of Ukraine (which the Perls referred to simply as Russia).
The area’s principle industries were tannin extraction, tanning, stone quarrying and flour milling. Wolf Perl, the family’s patriarch, owned a tannin extraction plant on the outskirts of town and was expert in producing tannin, the essential ingredient used in tanning, the process by which leather is made from raw animal hide. Tanning dates back to antiquity.
In the 1920’s, Visuel was home to about 10,000 residents, a mix of Christians and Jews who had coexisted semi-harmoniously over the centuries. Most of the area’s Christians were Romanian Orthodox. Transylvania was also home to large minorities of Catholics and Roma, or gypsies. Historically, anti-Semitism was epidemic in Romania, but the Perls, who were Jews, experienced little discrimination in Visuel de Sus.
The Warmth of Home
The Perl home was a large second-story apartment with a curved ceiling located directly above the factory floor. Most of the neighbors were poor farmers and gypsies. Wolf, who was a warm and convivial man, would have preferred to live in the village center, but Rose, ever fearful for his health (he had an enlarged heart), wanted him close to her and their six children, which meant living on the factory premises.
Tannin is produced by sheering the bark from trees and melting it and other plant materials in large, heated vats, which creates a thick, soupy compound. Noxious smoke is belched out of a chimney; thus, extraction plants are almost always located away from population centers.
Wolf’s business had been handed down through generations of Perls and thrived through the teens and 1920’s under his stewardship. Great racks of logs would arrive in Visuel by steam train, which were hauled to the plant floor where workers operated bark peeling machines. The finished product (tannin) was sealed in barrels and shipped to leather manufacturers in European capitals.
A Well-Treated Minority
Visuel’s Jews received better treatment than their brethren elsewhere in Romania, being neither discriminated against nor merely tolerated but viewed more as co-citizens. Wolf employed many gentiles, including a local family who had the Perl children to their house every Christmas to help decorate the holiday tree.
Visuel’s summers were temperate and breathtaking (the town was a climactic resort) and during the warm months Wolf limited his business travel, spending leisurely afternoons attending to his apple, plum and pear orchards. He was a self-taught botanist. Often he could be seen painstakingly brushing insect repellent onto the saplings; when he was done, the trees looked as if they had been smothered in white paint.
Relatives from the region’s largest city, Sighet Marmatiei, visited the Perls a few weeks every summer, enjoying the pleasant environs and the clear mountain air at 1,670 feet (510 meters). The warm months brought thousands of tourists to swim in Visuel’s sulfur hot springs, said to possess healing powers. Brilliant green oak trees towered high in the rolling hills above the springs, a beatific sight treasured by all.
In winter, the Perl children ice skated and skied. Sometimes Rose would lean out of the kitchen window to watch Fritzi, her youngest, skiing on the nearby slopes with the family’s dogs bounding through the snow behind her.
As the snows melted in the Transylvanian Alps, the Perl children would swim in creeks made swollen with the icy waters that flowed down the mountainside. Life was bucolic, lived in harmony with nature and in acknowledgment of an unspoken respect for life.
Although Romania is home to Europe’s largest population of sizeable carnivores, including half the continent’s bears and more than a third of its wolves, the Perls experienced no trouble with wild animals.
Wolf and Rose
As a boy, Wolf was a top student at Visuel’s Yeshiva, or religious Jewish school. Throughout his life, he remained close to the school and its community, mentoring boys and serving continuously on its Board of Directors. Wolf and Rose embodied the traditional Jewish values of social responsibility, morality, charity and service, which they endeavored to pass on to their children.
The political reality in the region created a household of polyglots. Through the centuries, control of Transylvania changed hands many times. From the 11th century until 1919, rule passed between Hungary and the Ottoman Empire. This was known as the “Hungarian era,” in which Wolf and Rose came of age. Thus, Hungarian was the primary language spoken in the Perl home.
When Transylvania was annexed by Romania in 1919, the Perl children were required to speak Romanian in school. The Perls, like most European Jews, already spoke Yiddish at home, making the children tri-lingual.
Breaking Bread with Neighbors
With five daughters and a son (Anci), the Perl household was bustling. Most of the activity centered around the large kitchen where Rose cooked throughout the day. A smaller adjacent room was used for baking breads and pastries. Jewish holidays were festive and exciting, and often included Wolf’s gentile friends and business associates as well as boys from the Yeshiva.
Though the Jewish population of Visuel (as in all Romania) was a segregated minority, Wolf endeavored to unite Jewish, Christian and Roma cultures, seeking common ground whenever possible. Though he was a practicing Jew, he often did not wear a yarmulke and was inclined toward a secular perspective.
On the Passover holiday, the family gathered at the long dining table for the Seder meal, a traditional feast celebrating the liberation of the ancient Jews from slavery in Egypt. The family’s ornate and expensive Rosenthal dishes, which Wolf had purchased while in Germany on business, were brought out at such times. Wolf had in fact made many trips to Germany, where he purchased most of the machinery used in his plant. Being enamored of the country, Wolf had named his youngest, Fritzi, following a popular German name at the time, Fritz.
A Joining of Two Worlds
The Perl children, awed and deferential to the patriarch, obediently looked on as their father, wearing his white yarmulke, performed rituals at the head of the table. After a sumptuous holiday meal, Rose would employ the children to surreptitiously transfer leftovers to the area’s poor.
Wolf was an intelligent man and a formidable business strategist. Though he had grown up in the backwoods hamlet of Visuel (which none of his customers had ever visited) he had attained a cultural sophistication. He made frequent business trips and was at home in many of Europe’s cosmopolitan centers.
Rose, or Riesel (her Hebrew name), was a generous woman who placed the needs of others above her own. Unlike Wolf, she grew up in a city, Sighetu Marmatiei, a half-hour’s train ride from Visuel. The couple were probably joined in an arranged marriage, or shiddach.
Sharing the Wealth
The Perls would have been considered affluent for the time and place. The children’s needs were well met—in contrast to those of the destitute peasants and gypsies of the region.
Children from the neighborhood routinely arrived at the Perl doorstep holding out tattered containers and water skins into which Rose would pour milk from the Perl cow. She gave the children pears and apples from the orchard, as well as potatoes and other vegetables.
In the fruit picking season, Rose oversaw a collective effort in which the Perl children worked alongside the neighborhood children to stew pears and apples. The stewed fruit was then stored in jars. The task took a full day and into the night, and was a treated as a party.
On Purim, a joyous Jewish holiday, Rose baked cakes under which she placed bills and coins. The cakes were then delivered by the Perl children to the area’s poor.
Since Rose loved animals, the family owned dogs and cats. Every morning, Rose was the first awake; she would wake the live-in maid, a gypsy woman, to milk the cow after which Rose would bring fresh milk to the children before they headed out to school. Rose wore a wig at all times. Her head was clean-shaven in the style of Orthodox Jewish women of the period.
City Life: Sighetu Marmatiei
Visuel had no secondary school, so the Perl children had to attended high school in Sighetu Marmatiei, a city of 40,000 situated 60 kilometers northeast of Visuel. Sighetu, Hungarian for “island,” offered a rich cultural life. (Sighet Marmatiei was the childhood home of Holocaust writer Elie Wiesel, who, like the Perls, was deported to Auschwitz in 1944. Estie’s oldest daughter and my first-cousin, Daisy, married Alex Gross, a Holocaust survivor who grew up with Wiesel and remained his lifelong friend.)
Many generations of Perls attended public school in Sighet as well as Hebrew school. Each Perl child, on first setting eyes on Sighet’s high school, was said to have been spellbound and speechless at its large classrooms and gymnasium, which dwarfed all the buildings in Visuel.
Whereas Visuel was looked down upon as backwoods, Sighet was cosmopolitan, boasting theatres, restaurants, specialty shops, and had a Yiddish newspaper.
Rose’s parents, Hershel and Gittle Berkowitz, lived in Sighet. The Perl children regularly visited them and their many aunts, uncles and cousins in Sighet, boarding the train at the Visuel station for the short ride. Estie, the oldest of the Perl children, often traveled to Sighet on her own.
In summer, Hershel and Gittle stayed with the Perls in Visuel for several weeks.
Wolf’s parents, Yankle and Elka, lived in Visuel. Yankle was a stern, religious Hasidic Jew feared by the Perl children. Whenever they visited Yankle’s house, they were required to yield to strict Orthodox law.
Peace Amid a Gathering Storm
When Hitler came to power as Germany’s chancellor in 1933, he immediately ordered a boycott of Jewish shops, banks, offices and department stores in Romania. Under his rule, anti-Semitism spread throughout the country.
Remote Visuel de Sus, however, remained an island removed into the mid-1930’s; the trouble in Germany and the approaching cataclysm remained a few years off. Life continued on as usual. The Perl children attended school in Visuel and Sighet, and Wolf’s business thrived.
Esther (Estie) was the boldest and most glamorous of the Perl daughters. She possessed movie-star beauty and a self-assured, adventurous spirit similar to her father’s. Feeling perpetually stifled in tiny Visuel, she traveled often to Romanian cities for fun and excitement.
In the summer of 1937, the 22-year-old rode the train with an aunt to Vatra-Dornei, a resort town in the neighboring Bukovina region. Vatra-Dornei was home to a popular summer spa, a kosher restaurant and Jewish-owned hotels and businesses.
It was there that Estie unexpectedly ran into a friend from Sighet who introduced her to a nephew from Cuba, Luis Rosenthal. Luis was an effervescent and ambitious young man, also Jewish. He had grown up in Budapest and spoke Hungarian.
Thirteen years earlier, in 1924, Luis, desperately wanting to avoid having to serve in Hungary’s rabidly anti-Semitic military, hatched a plan with a few friends to sail for America. The boys were off to seek their fortunes. But when the ship approached American shores, it was not allowed to land; the quota for Hungarian immigrants had been filled. Dispirited, the boys disembarked in Cuba instead.
Luis’s visa to the U.S. was approved nine months later. But by then, he already owned a thriving watch repair shop in Havana. He chose to remain in Cuba. Over the next decade he would build his business into a prosperous jeweler’s supply shop. Although Luis was contented, he remained unmarried into his late-30’s.
Missing his parents in 1938, he sailed across the Atlantic to visit them in Budapest. Once he arrived, the whole family traveled to Vatra-Dornei, where he met Estie.
Luis fell in love with her. After a short time together, he sailed back to Cuba. Sad and love-struck, Luis wrote to her. The couple commenced a year-long, cross-Atlantic letter-writing courtship in their native language of Hungarian. Later, in 1938, he mailed her a marriage proposal. She accepted. Within a month the adventurous Estie was sailing for Cuba and an unknown destiny.
The Winds of War
Around this time, the brutal Goga-Cuza government had seized power in Romania. It was a regime that not only preached anti-Semitism but made it state policy.
For the Jews of Transylvania, the tide was turning.
Bad news became worse news. In 1942, Wolf died suddenly of a heart attack. He was in a hotel room in Sighet playing chess with a physician friend. Rose and her children would have to find their way without him. Life for the Perl family was falling into discord and disarray.
Like everyone in Europe, Estie had known war was coming and that the country would soon be thrown into horrific circumstances. Her hope was that once she was settled in Havana she could arrange to get her family out of Europe.
But war would come too fast.