Christian by Disguise
Hate is not uncommon. There are so many that wanted to annihilate all of the Jews during the WWII that it became hard to find those that did not. A story that will haunt you after reading it and a woman who survived what most could or would not.
What would you do if you had to change your identity, give up your birthright, forget where you came from and pretend to be of another faith in order to survive? Christian by Disguise is the true story of one young Jewish child who spent most of her childhood in fear of losing her family, her life and going hungry. How can someone live within the confines of a small space, run in the woods, never stopping to rest and pray that they escape the hands of both the Russians and Germans before they are killed, never seen again or sent to a labor camp?
Erna Kamerman Perry waited over 70 years to relate her story. Her accounts are vivid, painful at times to read and more than heart wrenching as she and her mother fled so many places, hid under floorboards in their small home in order to escape what the Germans had in store for them. At the age of three, in the year 1939, the war began and her world fell apart and the country she lived in would no longer be hers.
How do you survive running for your life? How do you act when you are told to pretend you are not who you were born? A father who was conscripted to work for the enemy or die and others who eventually never came back. A grandfather whose health was in question and a grandmother who chanced going out for food and what he needed to survive. But, tragedy hit and she never came back leaving her with her mother to tend to the grandfather but not for long. How do you hide from the terror of the Nazis hoping you would not be next to endure what others have at their evil hands.
Erna was smart and her father realized that someday he might not return. Insisting that she learn all of the Christian prayers while they were in hiding just might save her life. How did she manage to recite these prayers, lie and convince a group of soldiers in a train station that she was Polish when someone kept shouting out that she and her mother were Jews? A Polish Christian girl she became leaving her Jewishness behind. Many different places, people who would take them in and others that would not. What happened when she became ill and the people that were asked to take them in wanted to refuse? How did they manage to survive?
Why did her mother decide to ask to become a forced slave laborer working in the rectory of a convent? Erna became the helper of the cook and although she was given horrific jobs, she still managed to keep a cool head. Living as Christians and hoping to not be discovered Erna became involved in Catholic studies with the nuns even though her mother would remind her that she was Jewish. Erna tells readers about her time with the nuns, taking her First Communion and even being sent to live with another family learning much more about life than her mother would have liked. But, Erna made friends, got clothes from the nuns, was able to get more food and did not care at one point that she did not see her mother. Living in a home where they took fairly good care of her, she had her Catholic Studies she also learned and observed her so-called parents that she was living with having a séance. Erna tells the story about the first ten years of her life in a vividly depicted and graphically described manner allowing readers to experience her fear, the terror and the abuse many had to undergo at the hands of those in charge. How could this not affect her and what about now?
So many people have family members that lived this nightmare yet never want to relive it. So many still have the same fears of the Gestapo coming to their homes, breaking down the doors, killing loved ones or just dragging them out to be shot. As Erna grew more attached to living in the rectory, she also learned Italian and enjoyed learning the customs and the language. At one point she and her mother were given a store to own, a general store of some type but when the war ended they were so what liberated and would finally be reunited with her uncle.
Throughout the memoir, Erna prayed that somehow, her father would return but he never does. Hope is a wonderful thing but even her mother realized that someday she would have to move one with her life. No knowing is what makes it really hard and tragic.
Erna realized at a young age that life was going to change and although when her family was alive and before the war raged she lived in what many would think was luxury. Her family even had a maid that was taken from them when the war began. They even forced them out of their home and most of the time she would say she and her mother were just two more Displaced Persons.
Smart, astute and wise beyond her years in manner respects, knowing when to question, when to keep quiet and naïve about life itself, Erna battled many obstacles. A father and mother that tried to protect her yet really could not.
Wanderers you might say looking for their own Promised Land that had yet to be created. Jews of Lwow was what they were and told without any choice to leave their home. Ghetto: interesting word and place that would soon become her home. Imagine living in a poor area of a city whose inhabitants are mainly people of the same race, religion, or social background. Living there because they have been discriminated against and put out of their homes. Although she was at this time with her parents and her uncle, Erna and her mother did not work but her father got a job that would take him away for many hours and sometimes for days. Her father found a job tieh the Jidenrat, which he hated. He and the other men would work all day and the information needed to warn the women and children of an Aktionen. When they knew an attack or raid was coming, they would hide. The men built a false walk within a barn that housed so many. Privacy was at a minimum.
But, when her father insisted they leave their mode of escape almost got them killed. How would you fair if you had to climb out of a window? What if your mode of safety was not a ladder but old blankets that your mother tied together and then attached to a pole? Setting out for Drohobyez was their goal and convincing someone not to turn them in their hope. Always in her mind that he father might never come back and his words to her mother that they would have to fend for themselves without him. With her grandfather and uncle were forced to work long hours in a quarry and the fear of being found out, Erna and her mother chance an escape only to be caught by a soldier. Just how they manage to convince him to look the other way is quite compelling and where their next journey
Finding their way back to Drohobycz would allow them to be recognized and acknowledged as a Jew to Krakow. No one would know them there and this is where things begin to take on another dimension for both Erna and her mother. Her mother worked as a maid or house cleaner in the men’s or priest’s quarters. Erna helped doing menial tasks for the nun who ran the kitchen. Erna loved to read and had some education but needed to learn the languages spoken by others. Reading opened up new worlds and doorways for her to explore.
When the war finally ended they went to Italy and then to the United States. Living in Italy was an amazing time for Erna as she became so involved with her studies, making new friends, learning the language and trying to find her own individual place in a torn apart world. When they finally emigrated from Poland and went to live with her Uncle Majer one look at Erna and he seemed displeased, as the one thing her family regarded as important was appearance. She had put on too much weight and he insisted she lose some of it. Describing her mother at one point as controlling and even some rituals that she insisted Erna adhere will help readers understand the struggle, the tension and fears that people incurred. But, Erna was resourceful and loved her Hebrew classes, loved living in the villa in Italy, enjoyed the extra food and except for certain subjects in school she did fine. Find out which ones she loved and which she did not when you read pages 107-108.
Imagine living in fear knowing that as a child you were expendable and that children under the age of ten were useless to the Germans and would be killed if found and seen. What would you have done if you were Erna? Would you have lived as a Christian and endured what she did in order for you and your mother to live? Just how did she learn all of the Catholic prayers and how did she calmly recite them? Death camps were the future of so many and this memoir and true story of her life comes alive with the photos she included and even the documents that her mother needed to allow them to leave plus one that gave her permission to become a forced laborer.
So many forced to do jobs that went against their beliefs in order to survive. So many sent to death camps because they were Jews. Told in the author’s own words vividly remembering and describing times that most would rather forget, Erna Kamerman Perry reminds everyone that the Holocaust really did happen, so many lives were senselessly taken and that prejudice and hate were just some of the issues brought to light in this outstanding book. This is more than just a story of survival. Lies, betrayals, fears, deceits, trust, loyalty and most of all hope are some of the other themes presented. A story so honestly told and an ending that will bring tears to your eyes as Erna describes her first and most precious vision of our Lady of Liberty.
An outstanding way to teach children of all ages and remind adults that the Holocaust did happen and about a period that we can never forget.
I dedicate this review to the memory of my grandmother: Katie who lived it and her sisters who bravely escaped with her through the Underground with the help of so many who cared.