Josef’s incredible story of survival is best told by him. On this page, you can read a summary of his story, prepared for Holocaust Memorial Day 2010, or you can scroll further down and click through to the original recording of Josef telling his story, now held by the British Library in London. There is also a page written about Josef on Wikipedia and a video showing Josef speaking.

This text has been taken from “Josef Perl story for HMD 2010″. The second part, in quotations, was presented to an audience after hearing Josef speak.

My name is Josef Perl. I was born on 27th April 1930 in Veliky Bochov which was then part of Czechoslovakia.

I was the eighth child of Frieda and Lazar. I am their only son. We lived on a small holding with all of our animals and my father also owned a sawmill.

We are an Orthodox family and although we were not fanatical we took our religion seriously and our house was next to the synagogue. We also owned our own Sefer Torah that had been handed down from my great grandfather. Although it was kept in the synagogue it would be brought home each year for the Festival of Simchat Torah when all of our friends would join with us for a meal with singing and dancing. As a happy family we believed in sharing our joy with others.

Every Sabbath my Mother would prepare our meal but she would make more than for us alone. This was because she always made sufficient for visitors and the poor people of the community. No-one was ever turned away. Our house was always full for Sabbath. My Father was respected for his wisdom and my Mother for her goodness. My memories of my childhood are all happy, we were not especially rich but we were respected and close to each other and secure.

I went to the local school where everyone, Jew and Christian sat together and played together. Anti-Semitism just did not exist in our little world. What was happening in Germany was far away. The Anschluss, Kristallnacht and the Sudetenland Crisis although they worried our parents meant little to the children of Veliky Bochov.

In 1938 Germany and Hungary signed a peace treaty and German laws began to be enforced in Czechoslovakia which had been abandoned by Britain, France and Italy at the Munich Conference. One result of this was that our teachers were replaced by Hungarians who were sympathetic to the Nazis.

We children were all confused when our new teacher divided us so that we Jews had to sit together away from our friends. Our calm, happy world was shattered as our friends were taught to hate us. I still remember the day one of my best friends turned and spat at me, telling me “Keep away from me, you dirty Jew”

As the law became more restrictive soldiers would force their way into our homes, sizing up the contents. The day my dog Bondi, snarled at one who raised his hand at me a soldier took out his gun and shot my closest friend for trying to protect me. Then they left and took our horses with them.

I now had to walk to and from school instead of riding. When I got there the Jewish children were constantly abused by teachers and former friends. Then one day I had to pass a group of soldiers. As I was wearing a skull cap and the traditional peyot or side curls it was obvious that I was Jewish so one of them grabbed hold of me, took out his bayonet and cut my curls off. When I was 8 years old my education ended although I still attended Cheder classes which were being held in secret in the synagogue.

It was about this time that my Father and I did what many other Jewish families were doing. we buried our most treasured possessions in our garden intending to retrieve them when times got better. Our Torah was buried as deeply as possible. I was not to see it again for 4o years.

In the spring of 1940, about Passover time it was obvious something terrible was about to happen. One day the area of the town around the synagogue where most of the Jewish population lived was surrounded by Hungarian Militia, commanded by Germans. We were all forced to leave our homes taking only food and blankets. It was, we were assured only for a short while and so we were not to take our valuables or lock the doors.

Everyone, including the very young and very old, the sick and dying had to find their way to the synagogue which was soon bursting so that many people had to remain outside.

In the middle of the night, at 4am the doors burst open and Hungarian soldiers and German SS men with dogs came rushing in kicking and screaming they drove everyone towards the railway station where a line of cattle wagons were waiting. Those who could not keep up were beaten and if they fell down they were shot. Soon the road to the station was littered with dropped bundles, the bodies of old people, babies, the sick and infirm. At the station we were all forced into the wagons, those who were with their families were lucky. I even saw one baby torn from its mothers arms by a soldier who swung it around his head and hurled into the nearest wagon(31)

Eventually the train started to move and for two days and nights it travelled without any stops until it arrived in a forest somewhere in Poland. During that time we had no food or water, but we had still had to go to the toilet as best we could. Many people had died but we were so tightly crammed together they had remained standing upright.

When the train did stop and the doors were opened and everyone, the living and the dead fell out. Those who could move were driven into a large tent, the type that is used for circus performances. Those who fell remained where they were and were crushed to death. It was always that way, all movement was at double speed, to be slow or fall was to die.

In the tent there was no food, no water, no sanitation and when a group of men approached the guards to ask for them they were shot out of hand. The bodies lay where they fell for several days.

We were taken out of the tent a few at a time and made to hand over any valuables we had and then kicked back inside. After a few days without food several of us sneaked out at night and went into the fields to lift vegetables which we took back and shared out.

One day my father and I witnessed a man trying to rescue his son who had fallen foul of a guard. They were both shot. My father and I agreed that if either one of us was ever in trouble the other would not try to help him. The reason “One of us has to survive this to continue the family line”

That night my father came to me just before I left to search for food “Yassel, tonight I want to do something that under normal circumstances I would not do until just before your Bar Mitzvah, when you are old enough to become a man in the eyes of the Law. You are already carrying out the duties and responsibilities of a man. God knows when we will see each other again.” Just before he left to search for food Josef’s father gave him the blessing he would normally give his son when he became a man in the eyes of the Law.

It turned out that this was in fact a turning point in Josef’s life. When he returned it was to find that the only people left in the clearing were dead. The others had been taken to who knows where.

Josef was to spend many years searching for his family in ghettos and camps. There came a time when he was outside of a town in Poland attempting to get into the ghetto when he was caught and pushed into a long column of prisoners being marched out. When they were deep inside a forest they saw a huge pit had been dug.

“It was unreal. We heard the sound of machine guns but couldn’t believe what was happening. In the freezing cold we were told to strip and as the column shuffled forward I could see what was happening. Today I was going to die, it was happening to others; soon it would happen to me. I would be lying with them in that pit. Gradually I could make out faces of those approaching the head of the column. The soldiers who were carrying out the executions had hot drinks to keep them warm. To them it was just another day at work.
Then to my horror I saw a face I recognised. It was my mother and four of my sisters were with her. Before I had a chance to call out to them they were gone, down into the pit. I couldn’t move when the next row moved forward; it was my little nephews and nieces. “Hold hands, hold hands” the guards called out, and as they did the bullets hit them, threw the little bodies up into the air to fall into the pit with their mothers and grandmother. For me at that moment the world unhinged itself.

And then an aircraft flew over us and the guards screamed at us to fall down on the ground. Most people did but several of us took the chance to run for our lives. Running higgledy-piggledy among the trees, I ran and ran and ran until I could run no further. My mother, my sisters and their children were dead but where was my father?

Over the next two years Josef continued his wandering and was in many of the camps that we have all seen pictures of, including Crakow-Plaszow, made famous by the film ‘Schindlers List’,

Auschwitz, the Liberation of which took place 65 years ago today, Dachau which was eventually liberated by the American Army, Bergen-Belsen liberated by the British Army just after Anne Frank and her sister perished.

He was a slave labourer in a factory at Balkenheim for most of 1944 and was involved in a failed uprising and as a result was transferred to Gross Rosen to be hung. The night before this was to take place he escaped but was shot in the leg and left for dead in the snow. The next day he managed to join a column of prisoners, taking the identity of a dead man.

For the next 5 months he lived as this man in Hirschberg from which he was eventually transferred to Buchenwald by train and Death March during which hundreds died. He has lost count of how many men he promised to say Kaddish for, but he still goes to Synagogue each day and fulfils his promise to them

On 11th April the American Army entered Buchenwald. Josef, who was 16 days short of his 15th birthday looked at the US troops with their well fed bodies, guns and clean uniforms and then at his own filthy emaciated body and asked “Who am I? Where do I belong?” He knew most of his family were dead but what about his father? Once he was strong enough to travel Josef hitched a ride to Prague which had become a meeting place for people like himself. He remained there for several weeks becoming stronger all the time and helped by the various groups who had formed to help Survivors. He looked at hundreds of photographs but saw no-one he recognised.

Eventually he set off east and travelled by various means until he reached Sighet Railway Station from where he walked the familiar road to Bochkov. When he reached his home on a glorious summer’s day he walked up to the front door….

To be greeted by his next door neighbour who pointed a gun at him and told him “Get off my property Jew or I’ll finish Hitler’s job for him.” Josef pointed his pistol at the man who just laughed at him and repeated the threat. All Josef could do was to sit down on the road side and sob for all that was lost. He had never felt so alone.

For months he wandered from one refugee centre to another always hoping to meet someone he knew, until on 11th June1 946 he and 120 other boys and girls were taken from Dieppe to Newhaven. Even when he arrived in England it was as someone else. A boy had the good fortune to be given a home in France by an uncle. He was only too happy for Josef to take his place and so Josef landed in England again asking the question “Who am I?”.

To supply the answer to that would take another evening. He lived in London, Brighton Bournemouth , and even just a few miles away from here in a hospital in what is now Lord Trelors School, Alton. It was here that he was offered the chance for an operation which could save his leg which still had the SS bullet in it. The risk was that the last patient had died shortly afterwards. It was obviously a success because he is here with us tonight along with his family.

Josef has been to Courtmoor several times to tell his story. He has also been to Calthorpe Park, Cove School, Robert Mays, Eastleigh and many, many others around the UK. Some of who have contributed to this evening.

One question that is always asked is “Did Josef ever find any other members of his family who had survived?”

The answer is “Yes” but in common with most others it has to be qualified with “… but not many.”

In 1954 he visited Israel and there he met his sister Sara who because she was working as a nurse in Budapest had somehow managed to avoid being sent to Auschwitz with the rest of the Jewish population when Hungary had left the Axis in 1944.

Rachel, another sister had not been as fortunate as she had been deported and become one of those who had been used for experimentation by Dr. Mengele although she had survived.

5 years later, out of the blue Josef received a letter from his father who had also returned to the family home but he had managed to wrestle it back from their onetime neighbour. He still lived there with his new family.

As travel to what was now part of the Soviet Union was restricted a meeting between his father, Josef, Sara and Rachel was arranged in Budapest.This took place in May 1966. After a few days they were joined by his aunt Devorah who lived not far from his father with her children and grandchildren.

Josef met his father again in 1975 in Israel where he now lived with Devorah. It was during this visit that Josef, as the eldest son was given the Sefer Torah which father had recovered from the garden where it had been buried. It now lives in Josef’s synagogue in Bushey Heath.

It is in Bushey that Josef lives with Sylvia who he married in November 1955. Their daughter Frances lives not far away with her husband Albert and their children. Their son Mark married Mandy in South Africa which is somewhat further away than Bushey, but they all meet as often as possible.

Like many other Survivors Josef often asks the question “Why did I survive when so many others perished?” There isn’t an easy answer but one of the answers could be to keep alive the memory of those who died. Today you can join him in his task. There are envelopes on each seat. Inside there is a photo of Josef’s and nieces and a card impregnated with seeds. If you take that card and plant it you keep alive the memory of those happy, smiling children who died in a forest before they even started school. Take the seeds and the photograph. KEEP THEM ALIVE.

Josef Perl's book,
Faces in the Smoke

A letter from Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks.