'You have to grow up quickly in places like that but luck kept me alive'

Josef Perl, pictured in 2010.

Josef Perl, pictured in 2010.

First published in Memories
Last updated
Watford Observer: Photograph of the Author by , Web content editor

By the time Josef Perl turned 15 years old, he had spent a third of his life incarcerated in Nazi concentration camps.

He endured the horrors of electric-shock torture, was shot twice and watched nine members of his family executed in a mass grave.

He was one of the 700 inmates who survived long enough to see Americans soldiers liberate Buchenwald Camp, which originally held 21,000.

Mr Perl, from Bushey Heath, has dedicated the rest of his life to ensuring the things he experienced during the Holocaust are never forgotten.

In April 1930, Josef was born in Velicky Bockov, Czechoslovakia, the only son in a family of eight girls.

During the spring of 1940, along with his mother, father, four sisters and five cousins, Josef was rounded up by Hungarian militia and taken by train to a prison camp.

While camping, he snuck away to find something to eat one night and when he returned, he found everyone else had been rounded up into lorries and driven away.

Josef searched the slums and ghettos of Poland for the next year, desperate to find his lost family, and was eventually forced into a column of hundreds of marching prisoners.

As he got closer to the front he saw the column was being lead into a forest where a huge pit had been dug, and saw Nazis gunning down the prisoners, who fell into a mass grave.

As he stood helpless to intervene, he recognised the faces of his mother, three sisters and five cousins, who were shot and buried.

Before he suffered the same fate, an air raid siren rang out causing the group to scatter, and Josef escaped again.

He was caught and sent to Cracow-Plaszow camp, before being “selected” for a move to the infamous Auschwitz camp.

Josef was moved around several more times, to Dachau, Belsen, Gross Rosen and then Bolkenhain in 1943.

It was here he was recruited by an underground movement, to help create a diversion to cover a sabotage mission, by throwing a hand grenade down a chute.

He said: “It caused a large explosion and the guards came in, killing people at random. I thought I was going to be killed anyway, so I wanted to save a few people. I ran forward and told them to stop and that it was me who threw the grenade.

“They thought someone else must have helped me and they wanted to know who, but I wasn't going to say.”

Torturers pushed pins under Josef's fingernails and administered electric shocks. His feet were whipped until they bled.

“After six weeks of crying out in pain I started laughing, and they said I had gone mad. They decided they were going to hang me as an example to the rest.

“I was put in a cell overnight but I escaped. I was shot twice in the leg as I crawled under the wire.”

He managed to join another column of prisoners and took the identity of a dead man, living his life for the next five months. He was eventually transferred to Buchenwald.

In April 1945 Americans liberated Buchenwald Camp where Josef was held, but only 700 of the 21,000 people survived, as most were too weak or ill.

He said: “We had no food or water for ten days after the guards left. I didn't touch anything the Americans gave me. I went to town and got a farmer to kill a chicken for me and I had that.

“You have to grow up quickly in places like that, but luck kept me alive. I've the luckiest man in the world, I have met the most fantastic people in my life.”

After liberation, Josef spent four years in hospital in Hampshire, with another Holocaust survivor in the bed next to him.

One day the other survivor had a visitor from Israel, who had been treated by a nurse with the surname Perl.

Josef said: “My sister Sarah had been training as a nurse and wasn't at home when we were rounded up. I immediately thought it must be my sister, so I wrote to her.

“She wrote back and said it was her and my sister Rachel was there too, I saved up every penny and went to Israel to visit them.”

At 21, Josef took on a City and Guilds qualification in Westminster Polytechnic, having left education at eight years old.

He said: “I knew I had to look after myself again so I learned how to be a fashion designer. I moved to Brighton to work as a cutter and designer in a clothes factory. It was an absolutely fantastic time.”

In 1954, Josef was at a fund raising dance for Norwood Orphanage in Brighton, which he helped organise as part of a charity committee.

It was here he met his wife-to-be Silvia, who attended the event as part of her 21st birthday party.

Josef and Silvia married in 1955, had a daughter, Frances in 1958, and a son, Mark in 1961.

In 1966 Josef was reunited with his father for the first time since 1938, not even knowing that he was still alive.

The family moved to Bournemouth in 1969 and opened a hotel called Sunnyside Court, retiring after the 16th holiday season.

Josef and Silvia moved to Bushey in 1995 in order to be closer to their family, where they have watched their grandchildren Ben and Ella grow up.

Josef said: “We are their witness today, and they are our witnesses tomorrow. If we don't learn from the mistakes of the past we won't have a future.

“It's not just important that it's never forgotten, but the people we speak to must make sure it never happens again.”

Comments (1)

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3:52pm Mon 28 Jan 13

MarsLander says...

“It's not just important that it's never forgotten, but the people we speak to must make sure it never happens again.”

“It's not just important that it's never forgotten, but the people we speak to must make sure it never happens again.” Amen MarsLander
  • Score: 0

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