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Christian by Disguise
A Story of Survival

by Erna Kamerman Perry ©2014, Paperback, ISBN: 978-1-935232-78-0, 122 pp
 

For nearly all of the sixty-odd years since the end of World War II, I hardly mentioned the Holocaust or my experiences in it.

 

And yet, this period covered the first ten years of my life and has had a dramatic and traumatic effect on me.  Life kept me busy and I buried the memory of that time fairly deep.  My mother, my uncle, friends and acquaintances familiar with my past—or those who shared in it—occasionally would remark on an episode.  For the most part, however, we were mute on the subject.  Neither my husband nor my children knew much about it, just a single event mentioned in passing and made to sound irrelevant.

 

But years have passed and those who have experienced the Holocaust are disappearing.  Death is no longer something far on the horizon but a frequent visitor to many around me.  And so, it seems that I must take the chance of telling my story, a story that was a part of the horror my people experienced.

 

I have no illusions that another thread in the weave of the narratives about the Holocaust will make any difference: the deniers of it will keep denying, the haters will keep hating, genocides will keep occurring.  I only want my children, my (few) relatives, my friends, and those readers interested in the historical horrors of the twentieth century to know that once there was a little girl who, through no fault of her own, had to lie and pretend so she could live to see another day.

 

This book, then, is dedicated to my husband, who knew my many irrational fears and my need for a father figure, and never ceased to treat me as a princess; to my children, Adria and Jeff, who did not even notice that I spoke English with a bit of an accent until their friends mentioned it; to my relatives spread around the globe, in Australia, Israel, and Italy, who always wanted me to write about my life; and to the many friends, old and new, who motivated me to write and supported me in the endeavor. Thanks so much Sharon, Yvonne, Robbie, and a special thanks to Alice Kemper, who suggested the title.

In memory of my cousin, Gino Berlin, the eldest son of my uncle Majer, who had taken over much of my upbringing in the absence of my father.  Gino passed away suddenly, much too soon, much too young, and before he could translate this book into Italian so that his extended family would know about the past.

We walked and ran, ran and walked, for an eternity. Once in a while, out of breath, we stopped by a haystack and drank in the sweet smell of the hay while our hearts lessened their racing. Fear was stronger than fatigue, however, and we dared not stop or linger for long. I was a small girl, barely five years old, and I had not eaten anything of substance in several days. Mother was dragging me by my hand but I was numb with fear and fatigue, and was not making her progress any easier.

Night had been approaching when we had started to run. Now the sky was very black, and out here in the country the stars stood out like silver coins on black velvet. A full moon illuminated the stacks of hay. I had never been outside at night in the country and the shapes I thought I saw in every direction added to my fear. I determined to stop thinking about our current situation. In fact, I thought, it would be better not to think about anything, and just focus on running. But I could not control my thoughts. 

Stories I had heard kept going through my mind, stories from my previous life. What I was seeing now, for instance, reminded me of a book Mother had read to me, about Africa. In the book there was a picture of an African village. The haystacks in the fields we were crossing now looked just like those African huts, and they shone like gold in the moonlight. Gold made me think of another fairy tale, about an old man who was able to turn hay into gold. I couldn’t remember the details of the tale, nor its entire plot, but only the fact that at least in fairy tales, hay could be turned into gold. These thoughts kept me busy so that I was able to continue running, in spite of being exhausted. It also made me forget—for a moment—the terrible danger we were in.

Out of breath, gulping for air, we were finally nearing our goal: the train station of Drohobycz, the town we were desperately trying to get away from unnoticed. Drohobycz was Mother’s native town, and many people knew her there and would easily recognize her. Though she had many friends there, of all religions, this time she wouldn’t be greeted as a friend. She would be pointed out as a Jew, walking outside the ghetto minus her armband. This was our reality now: we were no longer normal people, living normal lives, walking normal streets, in the cities and villages of Poland. No, we were being hunted and killed, on the streets by violence and gunfire, or in slave labor camps by violence and starvation. This was how Mother and Dad had explained to me the horrific events of the recent past, and the constant need to hide, to flee, to dissemble, if we were to survive. But I did not understand why.

By the time we approached the station the sky had begun to gray. There was no suggestion of dawn yet, none of that lovely pink on the horizon that I had observed when I would wake early, the sun beginning to peek out from behind the clouds, waking from its sleep as well. It was simply no longer pitch black. And the stars were beginning to fade.

We could see the lights of the station, although they were rather dim, not at all as sharp as they had looked before the war. Still, they were the first lights we had seen in a long time, and their brilliance hurt my eyes—a knife splitting the darkness of the night.We stopped to shake out our dresses and attempt to construct the image of just another middle-class Polish lady and her daughter, dressed for a trip to visit relatives. Pieces of hay had stuck to our hair, and we did our best to compose ourselves. I was so tired that I wanted to sit down, right there on the sidewalk. Mother wouldn’t let me, of course, but continued to primp.

Mother had a beautiful face, perfectly oval, with large dark eyes and shiny coal black hair wound around her head in a braid. But now her beauty was veiled with worry, with uncertainty, and mostly with unadulterated fear. I thought she looked a bit scary, as she did when we were playing and she pretended to be “Baba Jaga,” the witch. I was always somewhat afraid of her when we played that game, not sure who she really was at the moment. I knew that she was my mother, but I was also afraid that some transformation could have occurred, some magic could have happened, and that she really had become a witch. She looked like this now, but now it was she who was afraid.

She pulled out a scarf from the one small bag we had managed to bring with us and put it around her neck, not on her head like the peasant women wore. She adjusted the collar on my dress and pulled out the necklace I wore with pride. It was a silver crucifix with the figure of Jesus on a silver chain, and it had slipped underneath: “Danusia,” she said, “You must remember that this is your name now.”

“I know, I know.”

“This is very important. If you make a mistake, they will arrest us, or shoot us right here on sight, or we’ll end up in a camp, and they will separate us, and who knows what will...“

My life in the United States was much less dramatic than my past life had been. We were sent to Detroit, at that time a lively metropolis, where I graduated from Central High School, an overwhelmingly Jewish school. I received a scholarship to Wayne State University where I majored in Romance languages, ultimately receiving a Master's Degree (I started work on a Ph.D, but the birth of my two children interfered in this endeavor).


In Freshman English I met my future husband who eventually became a professor of sociology and political science. His position  took us to Cleveland, Ohio, where I taught part time and where the two of us began writing college textbooks used in the Social Sciences—we have produced thirteen editions of one book, and a number of other texts with shorter lives.  We have been extremely lucky in that our children have become productive people who have given us three wonderful grandchildren.  To date, our health has allowed us to lead active lives in very pleasant surroundings.  But the memories of my childhood would not be still.

Christian by Disguise

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  • Christian by Disguise

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