On Tuesday I finally participated in an event I’ve wanted to volunteer for since I found out about it a few years ago. The high school that I graduated from hosts a Holocaust symposium yearly for the sophomore students, and a friend of mine helps to coordinate volunteers to drive the survivors to the event. She had asked me to help several times. This year I decided I had to make it happen. The survivors are not going to be around forever, and most of them are already gone. Meeting a survivor would be an experience to cherish.
I got an email with my assignment about a week ahead of time. I would be picking up Manya Perel from her home and taking her to the event. I called Manya to confirm, and she was extremely sweet on the phone. She asked what color car I’d be driving and told me she’d wave for me when I came.
When the day arrived I got up at 0-dark-thirty to make sure I wouldn’t be late. I made it to Manya’s, and she was waiting at the glass door of her complex, waving like she said she would. We had the most wonderful time in the car. She told me bits about her story, and we talked about traveling and our families, and she asked me why I had volunteered, and if I was knowledgeable about the Holocaust. I told her then that yes, I had learned a lot about it because I converted to Judaism. I was a little nervous, for reasons I can’t explain well in a few words, that she wouldn’t like the fact that I’d converted. But she was so interested, and we talked about my reasons for doing it, and she was so pleased that I had learned so much. I asked if she knew about Birthright Israel (a program that enables Jews under 26 to visit Israel for free) and she said of course! Her grandson was on a Birthright trip right now. She said I should go, and I told her I was too old. “You must go! Try! Tell them your story and they will make an exception!” she said, grabbing my arm. By the end of our ride, she was practicing her French with me, and we sang Frere Jacques, and she sang Shalom Chaverim, and she told me we were friends and that she was happy to have met me. It was beautiful.
When we got to the event, we joined the other survivors (maybe 20 of them) and drivers in the breakfast room, where sophomore students who had won the privilege of being a survivor’s chaperon for the day took over. Some of the other drivers had picked up several survivors, but I was lucky enough to have Manya to myself for the whole drive, and because we’d become friends on our short ride, I sat with her and her chaperon for breakfast and watched out for Manya like a mother hen. She brought out a copy of her book, Six Years Forever Lost, to show us. She showed us pictures from an envelope of herself with many, many important people she had met by speaking at different memorial events. She gave her testimony in a Holocaust survivor video series directed by Steven Spielberg in connection with the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, which lives in various museums around the world. She was so happy to have been part of it, and she even saw her video in a museum when she visited her sister in Israel. She said that the night before I picked her up she’d been singing and dancing at a reunion held for survivors in Philadelphia. She clearly loves life.
When the general assembly began, Manya was one of four speakers to give a presentation in front of all of the students. Each of the presenters had a different story of survival. Their stories were VERY emotional. One had been a 15-year-old son of a well-off family who was given false identity papers and sent alone to survive in another country. Another was the son of two survivors who explained the feeling of epic memory and the way his parents innately passed their passion for life, grief over loss, and story of survival to him. And then Manya told her story, and said she had committed herself to telling it to as many people as possible. So, I want to share it here, too.
Manya Frydman Perel was born in 1924 in Poland and was one of 10 children. Her family was forced slowly into horrid conditions in a ghetto in the late 1930’s. Her family was taken by the SS, leaving her behind, and then she was taken at age 15 “for hard work,” an SS soldier told her. She survived work in eight different concentration camps, including Auschwitz, and in 1945 was taken on a death march as the Nazis tried to avoid defeat by the Allied Forces. In the dark of night, while still walking, Manya told her friend she couldn’t walk anymore. She knew she would be killed if she fell, so she and her friend found a way to slip into the woods and escape. The two of them hid under a tree for 3 days, listening to bombs exploding, before they were found and liberated by Soviet soldiers. Manya spent 3 years in a displaced person’s camp in Germany, recovering from the effects of near-death starvation. (She was given a displaced persons pass, so she could have traveled anywhere in Europe by train for free, but she was too sick to travel.) Three of her sisters and one brother also survived, but the rest of her family was killed. Manya now has two children and five grandchildren. She speaks very highly of all of them and how much she appreciates every minute of her life. Here is video of her speech:
After the general assembly there were breakout sessions where small groups of students listened to the survivors’ stories. Of course I sought out Manya’s room. I was a little upset watching some of the boys looking overtly bored by her talk. Other students were very respectful, and I am hoping that those guys just don’t yet understand that when you’re watching someone speak in front of you, they are watching you, too. I hope these kids grasped the gravity of the stories they heard and the fact that they had the opportunity to meet Manya, who is a miracle. She even asked for hugs from all of the students after her talk.
I’ve added a photo of Manya with her chaperon, left, and me, right. I have this strange feeling now that I’ve been touched by something magical, having met her. I’m very lucky.