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German Jew Recounts How He Survived the Holocaust Disguised as a Member of the Hitler Youth and Even Crossed Paths With Hitler Himself


"I looked him in the eye."

Shlomo Perel in 1943. (Image source: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum)

For four years, Shlomo Perel didn't dare go by his real name.

A German Jew by birth, Perel managed to survive the Holocaust as a teenager concealed as a member of the Hitler Youth and serving as a young translator for Nazi soldiers.

He even once saw Adolf Hitler up close.

In an interview with Israel’s Ynet, Perel, now 89, recounted how he took a photograph of Hitler from some 200 feet away when the German leader visited the Nazi division that had invaded the Soviet Union — and marked the beginning of Perel's double life he took on to survive.

Image source: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

“I looked him in the eye,” Perel said. “I was 16 years old then, a translator in the German army, with uniforms and a swastika, and I didn't know who I was at all."

Perel was born in Germany, but his parents took him and his three siblings to Poland after the Nuremberg Laws, which severely limited the rights of Jews in Germany.

The Germans invaded Poland three years after the Perels relocated to Lodz and forced the Jews of that city to move into a ghetto. Instead of going to the ghetto, Perel’s parents sent their 14-year-old son and his older brother Isaak to eastern Poland, then controlled by the Soviet Union.

"Before we left my father told me in Yiddish: 'Don't ever forget who you are.' Meaning, 'Stay a Jew.' Mother added in Yiddish: 'Go, you must live,'" Perel told Ynet. "When a mother sends her children away knowing she'll never see them again - that's the greatest love of all."

The brothers made it to Grodno, now Belarus, where Perel was taken in by a Jewish orphanage.

But in 1941, the Germans invaded the Soviet Union.

Perel recalled that on the morning of the invasion, the children tried to flee to the approaching Nazis. He remembered his mother's words.

"The German[s] surrounded us in an open field and ordered us to stand in a line, and then it was my turn. The German soldier who stood in front of me ordered me to put my hands up and asked: 'Are you a Jew?'" Perel told Ynet.

During that selection, Jews and Communists were murdered by Einsatzgruppen units.

While he was waiting for his turn, Perel surreptitiously destroyed his identifying documents. His answer to the Nazi’s question was that he was a German named Josef Perjell who had lost his documents during the bombings.

"And then a miracle happened — for some reason he believed me,” Perel recalled. “All of the men had to pull down their pants and those found circumcised were executed, but not only did that soldier not order me to take off my clothes, he called me a ‘Volksdeutscher,'" an ethnic German living outside Germany.

The German soldier took Perel back to his unit, where he was appointed as a Russian and Polish translator and was given the nickname Jupp.

He crossed paths with Hitler on one of the German leader’s visits to the front lines.

"Only the high-ranked generals approached him and were allowed past his wall of bodyguards. I was hiding with a camera," Perel said.

"After the war, I was asked many times: 'Why did you photograph Hitler instead of killing him?' And I tell the truth: Had I shot Hitler, I'm not sure I would've hit him, but I would've surely been killed on the spot. And I didn't want to get into the history pages as a hero, I preferred being an anti-hero and survive,” Perel told Ynet.

Identifying document for Hitler Youth member "Josef Perjell," the name Shlomo Perel took on. The document states that he was a Catholic of pure German nationality, according to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. (Image source: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum)

Perel described the lengths he went to in order to avoid being discovered, including making sure nobody ever saw him undressed and reveal that he was circumcised. He said he tried pulling on his foreskin every night in a futile effort to reverse his circumcision.

The survivor recounted that an army doctor who was secretly homosexual – considered criminal by the Nazis — tried to rape Perel while he was showering. After seeing that Perel was circumcised, the doctor realized that he was Jewish.

“He didn't inform on me so as to not expose himself as a homosexual. I knew his secret and he knew mine, and after that incident he took care of me until he was killed,” Perel told Ynet.

Perel was later taken under the wing of one of the unit’s commanders who enrolled him in a Hitler Youth school back in Germany.

"I felt like any other Hitler Youth and I was so convinced, that no one suspected I wasn't,” Perel said. “I stopped eating kosher and believing in God, but I believed I'll stay alive. I felt immortal, like 'it won't happen to me.'"

"I was schizophrenic. During the day, I was a German youth who wanted to win the war, I sang songs against Jews and yelled 'Heil Hitler' — and at night, in bed, I cried out of longing for my family,” he said.

"When talking about the Holocaust, there's a clear division: The victims were Jews, and the perpetrators were the Nazis, while I was both," Perel told Ynet. "From the moment I wore the uniforms with a swastika on, I became my own enemy and I had to escape myself to survive."

According to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, Perel was singled out during a lesson on racial science where the teacher pointed to the secretly Jewish youth as a “model of a typical eastern Baltic, ethnic German.”

He was later armed and sent along with his fellow Hitler Youth to the front to fight U.S. troops.

"When the American army came, I was taken hostage, but the lie was so deeply ingrained within me that I didn't even tell the Americans I was a Jew,” Perel told Ynet. “I sat in captivity like everyone else, but for me it was a surreal situation: A Jewish youth wearing a Nazi Army uniform in American captivity."

After the war, Perel learned that his family had been killed except for the brother with whom he had originally escaped. Perel moved to Palestine where he joined the Haganah – the pre-state Jewish defense force – and fought in Israel’s War of Independence.

Perel later wrote his memoir which was adapted into the 1990 film "Europa Europa."

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