History and the people who make it: Perla Meissner

Perla Meissner [M], Holocaust survivor, was interviewed by Jessica Alpert [A] in September, 2005.

This is the 45th in a series of transcript excerpts from the UF Samuel Proctor Oral History Program collection.

Transcript edited by Pierce Butler.

M: I was born in a place [in the Czech Republic] called Munkatch on 11 February, 1926. My mother’s name was Yitta Bernstein. My father was Avram Shlomovic.

We were three girls. I was oldest. My sister Rahel that I call Ruchi, three years younger, and I had one more sister a year younger than Ruchi who perished in Auschwitz – Elky.

My earliest memory would be my grandfather teasing my mother, asking how come she has red hair. He said my mother was blond, and my father was threadbare, and how come she has a red? Red was not appreciated at the time. Red people—most of them are bad, angry, not trusted.

A: Your home, what it was like?

M: Some were very religious, some were less, and some were Zionists. I just tumbled there in an organization called B’nai B’rith, a youth organization of Mizrahi. I liked it very much. I disliked going to school, because I was maybe the only one who couldn’t write on Shabbat. I hated school, hated studying, hated everything! But in B’nai B’rith, I belonged.

My parents belonged to the part of the Czech Republic called Karpat Rusia, that was so Jewish that I saw the non-Jewish world as the outskirts. Then we moved to Prague. I think I was seven. My parents had a kosher delicatessen. I loved to read, and next door there was a library for young people, a lovely library. Whenever I didn’t go to school, I spent my time there. And movies! Mm! I was given money to go to the movies once a week.

I got money to take the streetcar to go to school. Never used the tramway because I used everything for movies. Even that wasn’t enough. I was stealing a little bit from my parents—only for movies.

I lived in a world of dreams. I probably didn’t like myself too much; hated school, hated seeing myself being a bad student. I would have never been disrespectful to my parents, never. But I lied! [Laughter] And I could steal. Shabbat afternoon, a very respectful member of the Jewish community in Prague had a group of girls who were talking about Bible stories. I came from a background where on Shabbat you had onion with eggs. My German was very Yiddish, and I knew it sounded terrible. They were making fun of me. I heard one girl remark, “You can feel the onion.” I said to myself, “I’m not coming back.”

The following Shabbat, we’re sitting around the table having the Shabbat meal, and Mami mentioned that I’m going to this group and I said, “Mami, I’m not going.” My father said, “Tell us why.” I didn’t want to hurt them, so I didn’t want to give the reason. I didn’t give in, and never explained why not.

A: When did your life begin to change?

M: It had several changes. We came from a village into a big city. Prague had one million. It didn’t take long before another change: in [19]39, Hitler’s march into Prague. By birth we were Hungarian, so we were given permission to leave. I was twelve, and didn’t know Hungarian. They figured, “We can’t send her to school!” [Laughter]

I stopped schooling even before, because I was very disrespectful to one teacher in Prague who declared that all the Jews should be shot. I said, “I wouldn’t go so far. I would shoot you.” Eleven, something like that. She was a jinji ,and so was I: redhead. I hated her so much. Every time, remarks about Jews. The time I thought that she’s going to hit me, I hit her first. I was thrown out. I didn’t mind. [Laughter]

There was no reason to send me to school: no Hungarian. All the teaching was in Hungarian. I accompanied my father very often. He left every Sunday and came back Thursday night. I had family almost in every second village. Since I didn’t go to school, I traveled with my father, which I loved very much. He was my hero. Lovely man, really.

That was a turning point in my life, where I started to be aware that life might change dramatically, and I should cherish every day.

Carpathia is a country where winter reigns: months, and months, and months of snow and cold. On Shabbat, you had to wait for a little Shabbas goy to come and put the match to this. I found that stupid and pretentious, and I never stopped questioning. My father said, “Let her at least ask!”

Then we were in the concentration camp for one year. I don’t want to talk about the concentration camp. Not the suffering. It was this disappointment in everything the Jews believed in: that God will protect you. I was so angry, until today. I love to go to the synagogue, when I respect the rabbi, and the people, but I can’t say the prayers. For me, the prayers are a lie. All I was left with is my sister. I wanted her to finish high school. She made me proud. She’s everything that I could have asked for.

I came to Israel, because I couldn’t live among the goyim. My resentment toward them was so—I was so disappointed in humanity, what they were capable of doing. I felt anti-Semitism even more, because before I didn’t care so much. I knew that they didn’t change, and I wanted away.

There was a possibility to get to Palestine. Illegally. I registered for illegal transportation with Ruchi. There was a Czech village restricted to people getting prepared for war under the communist regime. The Russians believed that this large group of Jews would come to Palestine, and vote for communists. They didn’t know that everybody who left was anti-communist. We arrived the first of January, 1948, and went straight to the Army.

I didn’t have any profession. I didn’t know what to do. When I came out of the Army. I don’t know how to speak Hebrew. How ridiculous, no? So I worked as a maid for a year.

I went to the seminary for kindergarten teachers, just for six months, and I was working for five years as a kindergarten teacher. Then I met Werner. When I met him, I felt very comfortable. I said to myself, “This is a person I would not be afraid to grow old with.” [Laughter] Well, we grew old enough! We both grew old.

Leaving Israel, that was so traumatic.

The first ten years in Salvador, I did not permit myself to enjoy what Salvador offered. Because I came from Israel, they said, “Why don’t you prepare us a Hanukah celebration?” I didn’t know how to say no. Then they asked me to a Purim celebration. I was very busy. I had many students for Hebrew, and my Hebrew wasn’t perfect.

I was teaching Israelis Spanish. I learned English, and Spanish. I was teaching the children Hebrew, and grown-ups, like your grandfather. I had a group of women   —Jewish, non-Jewish, half-Jewish, married to Jews—who wanted to know about holidays and how to celebrate, and songs. I really, really loved it.

Judithka was eight, and Ronit six, when I took them [to Israel]. Ruchi had a very small apartment, and the three of us came. We went by boat. Ah, it was wonderful. I realized that I don’t have to live with a bad conscience all the time.

I had my classes, and my friends. Above all, I loved being a mother. Judithka was born. Then, I was fulfilled. Then Ronit, something was wrong with her heart, and hips. Traveling from doctor to doctor, it was very, very difficult. But she was so sweet, so patient. She was put in a cast from here to that, and one foot like that because she didn’t have the hip bone, here.

A: Hip socket.

M: It was so painful, and the child didn’t know why all of a sudden she can’t move. She was two months old, and I was holding her with this terrible cast. I was crying because I felt so sorry for her. On the third day, she looked at me and smiled. Accepted the situation as it was. I cried, laughed, because I was so grateful for that smile.

A: Tell me about raising your children in this different country.

M: I had this feeling that I have to present Judaism as a religion that has many positive sides. Holidays were very special. I decorated the house. Invitations, parties, synagogue. I was very active in having the children play an important role to bring the children to the synagogue, and make the grown-ups come because of the children. The children felt very important. Seder, they were sitting at the table. Thirty, forty children reading to everybody, and they know that the community is proud of them, and they are giving the community Purim, and Yom Ha’atzmaut, and Hanukah. They felt that the American schoolchildren envied them.

Judithka left when she was seventeen. I was sick at heart. I said to myself, “She’s doing exactly what you want her to. At that age, you went to the concentration camp; and your daughter’s going to Hebrew University in Israel. If you cry once, I’ll not speak to you”—I said to myself. I didn’t cry. Ronit stayed two more years, although they’re only a year apart. It didn’t take long before we came, too.

Werner was retired. We have enough money to live comfortable but carefully. Werner had his brother here, and I had my sister here with her family, and we had our girls here. The adaptation was much easier than I feared. The Guttfreunds lived here, Inge lived here. I was in Israel, but it was a little Salvador.

A: What about the civil war in Salvador? You left your home so long ago because of war, and now you’re leaving again because of war. Did that make it easier to leave?

M: Definitely. The Guttfreunds, the Bernhards weren’t there anymore. People were afraid to go out. They killed Ernest Liebes, who was Honorary Consul. That was a terrible, terrible time. And I have a very deep resentment against the communists.

There was so much hope, so much looking forward to the new world, and finally the Jews will have equal rights I think there is not a regime that caused more pain and disappointment than they did.

The fascists I hate because they are fascists. But communists for giving such false hopes! I had two uncles and two cousins who came back from Russia, and I knew exactly what was going on there, how antisemitic it was. In Latin America, if you were on the Left, you were automatically anti-Israel. I really hate it that because you belong to a certain ideology, you’re pro-Palestine, against the Jews, that’s something very, very wrong. So, it was easy for me to leave. I never allowed myself to become part Salvadoreñan. I did not want any attachments that would disappoint me again. Salvadoreñas didn’t disappoint me.

I didn’t talk to my children about the war, and they knew. Nobody ever thought that I went through the concentration camp. But I came home once, and Judithka didn’t notice. I see her hiding a book. I said, “Judithka, you know you don’t have to hide books. You read any book you want to.” She said, “Mami, I don’t want you to read that book.” That was a book about concentration camp. I didn’t tell her, and she knew.

In Israel, Judith was education officer in the Army. It was Yom Hashoah. She said, “Mami, the person who was supposed to talk to my group couldn’t come. I need somebody, and it’s time for you to start speaking.” I couldn’t let her down. Both girls were sitting in the first row, and I didn’t look at them. The moment I finished, I forgot what I was saying. They were crying. Ronit didn’t say a word, and Judith said, “Mami, muchas gracias. You were really good. ¡A ver que puede!”

Somebody told me about the seminary in Yad Vashem, preparing people how to talk, explain things. So I went. Most of the time, I talked to soldiers. It’s still a terrible thing for me. I’m telling the children things without making it easy, but they’re not shocked.

They think I was a hero; having lived through a concentration camp must be something very special. It’s not like, “Poor thing.” They listen, and then they listen to the tape. Ronen went to Auschwitz, and he said, “Oma, I don’t know why, but I was not too impressed.” I said, “You don’t have to be impressed, you have to be knowledgeable.”

When Jonathan came home, he wanted to know in Auschwitz, which was my block. He went to his mother, and said, “I want to light a candle, and to say kaddish. And it has to be Block 13 in Auschwitz.” It was traumatic for him. You see how different they are.

Search for “Perla Meissner” at http://oral.history.ufl.edu for the complete transcript of this interview.

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