Past and Present

Jewish World Review Feb. 3, 1998 / 17 Shevat, 5759

Perl with Steven Spielberg
William Perl:
A Jewish Hero's Life

By Deborah Cymrot

FOR ME, THE MOST TOUCHING SCENE in the Steven Spielberg film Schindler’s List is the last one, in which the real-life survivors who were saved by Oskar Schindler and their descendants file by his grave. Their presence gives vivid testimony to the truth of the Talmudic dictum that he who saves a single life has saved an entire world.

On Dec. 24, the 4th of Tevet, a Jewish hero directly responsible for organizing visaless immigration that saved at least 40,000 entire worlds died at his home in Beltsville, Md. Dr. William Perl, 92, was a key leader of a rescue campaign known to friends and enemies alike as the Perl transports. Having recognized the Nazi danger early enough to save himself, Perl nevertheless remained in harm's way to effect the evacuation of as many Jews as possible to Palestine.

The 40,000 Jews, the majority of them chosen for their ability and willingness to help build up Eretz Yisrael and fight for a Jewish state, not only saved their own lives by joining a Perl transport, but also may well have helped tip the balance in favor of the Jews during and after Israel's War of Independence.

The Four-Front War, Perl's 1979 book detailing and analyzing the rescue effort (reissued in 1983 with an additional chapter as Operation Action), reads in part almost like fiction. The first chapter, set in Vienna in 1938, opens with a chilling description of an intelligent, efficient and ambitious, but low-level, SS officer named Adolf Eichmann jamming the barrel of his gun into a young Jewish lawyer's back and threatening to provide the nearest pigsty with a little kosher meat.

The lawyer was Perl, and after a few moments of "nightmarish paralysis," Perl piqued Eichmann’s curiosity by telling him about a plan that would expedite the Nazi goal of rendering Vienna Judenrein (free of Jews). Eichmann recognized that bringing large numbers of Jews to Palestine would not advance ultimate Nazi goals, but Perl, having survived the original death threat, outmaneuvered him. He went over Eichmann's head and convinced the Reich to authorize currency transfers that would enable his group to equip and outfit ships, make necessary bribes and pay the captains and crews for transporting their human cargo.

Perl was a leader in the Zionist Revisionist movement, and a key member of a group known as Die Aktion. The dire straits of European Jewry dictated that Die Aktion fight what Perl described as a "four-front war."

The group pitted itself against the Nazis, who were closing in on community after community, knowing that at any time the Nazis could stop the operations and arrest and kill its organizers. It had to prevail against the machinations of the British, who did everything they could to prevent Jews from entering Palestine. The transport organizers had to overcome the timidity, even hostility, of a Jewish establishment that not only disparaged the rescue efforts as too risky, but in some cases even worked with the British to thwart them.

They also had to battle the elements: extreme weather, rivers made unnavigable by ice and rough open seas that exacerbated the problems of hunger and disease. And yet time and again, Perl pulled off schemes of such audacity that his foes ended up doing what they had never meant to do, often without realizing who had manipulated them. In the end, before the last escape hatch was closed and Die Aktion ceased, tens of thousands of Jews had been saved.

Speaking at his funeral, close friend Winnie Meiselman described Perl’s cause as the physical and spiritual survival of the Jewish people. Perl was among the first to fight for the Jews whose spiritual survival was put at risk by Soviet policies. Having seen how little good quiet diplomacy had done European Jewry during the Holocaust, he was determined to make the biggest, splashiest fuss he could in order to change American policy and put human rights in the forefront of America’s Soviet policy. Again, he ruffled diplomatic feathers with his staged demonstrations and protests, and earned the enmity of Jewish groups who preferred to present a more dignified face.

But he helped put the issue on the Jewish community's agenda, and the country's. Those who knew Perl admired not only his brilliance as a strategist and fearlessness as an advocate of the Jews, but also his personal kindness, humor and abiding love for his wife, Lore; his sons, Solomon and Raphael; family; and friends. Over the last two years before his death, he was working with two authors on his autobiography.

I met Perl only once, spending a few hours with him in preparation of a newspaper article. Still, I consider it one of the most significant days of my life. Perl lived not by asking what can be done, but what must be done, and then doing it.

It is almost impossible to think what might have happened had the people on the Perl transports not made it to Palestine to fight for Israel’s existence, or to imagine what Israel would look like today without the influx of Soviet Jews who, in no small measure, owe their freedom to Perl.

Fortunately, we don't have to.

Deborah Cymrot is community editor for Washington Jewish Week.


©1998, Washington Jewish Week