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From shtetl to Gulag: a saga of survival

  • MirahGulag5
Mordechai Perlov’s memories of his escape from a Soviet Union Gulag during World War II are as vivid as if it happened yesterday.
by MIRAH LANGER | Aug 02, 2018

His is a true story of survival, not just of himself, but of those members of his family that he could rescue.

Perlov, now aged 92, recounted his experience recently at the Jewish Life Centre at Chabad of Strathavon in Sandton. Perlov was in conversation with Michael Kransdorff, who offered historical context to Perlov’s personal description.

Born in 1926 in the shtetl of Rasein in Lithuania, Perlov’s family were part of about 5 000 Jewish residents, who made up about 40% of the town’s population.

His family owned a timber and flour mill. As such, Perlov describes having grown up with a “silver spoon in my mouth”. His home was a “little palace”, he attended Hebrew school, and even got to complain about having to take piano lessons.

“Life was good,” he declares, adding that he did not experience any anti-Semitism during those years.

All this would change when Stalin occupied Lithuania in 1939. “Overnight, from being high up, we became very low.

“With the aid of some Jewish Communists, they nationalised our business, and evacuated us from our home.”

Perlov, his parents, and siblings – a younger brother, Yakov, and sister, Tova – were separated, staying with various grandparents.

By June 1941, their situation had become worse: “Stalin and Hitler were doing deals between them, and Stalin became aware that Hitler was planning to invade Lithuania.”

A week before the expected invasion in June 1941, the Perlov family were deported by Communist officials. “They knocked on the door at midnight, and told us to pack a few belongings.”

They were taken to a train station, and loaded onto cattle trucks that travelled to Kotlas in Northern Russia.

Here, the prisoners were put on a barge that travelled to Syktyvkar, the capital of the Komi Republic.

While some had jewellery or foreign money, and could bribe the guards to let them disembark at this town, the rest, including the Perlovs, continued their journey until they arrived at a Gulag, a forced labour camp, in the area. The prisoners were told they had been brought there to chop down trees.

In the barracks, one room was allocated to Perlov’s family of five, as well as his uncle’s family of four. For food, each family was given a pot of “a few leaves of cabbage and hot water”.

Further food was rationed according to whether prisoners could work or not: “Those who were able to work got 500g of bread a day, and those who were incapable of work got 300g of bread.”

Yakov, Mordechai’s younger brother, was 12 at the time, but presented himself as older in order to get extra rations.

The conditions were near impossible. In winter, there were three hours of sunlight, and temperatures dropped to minus 40 degrees.

Outside in summer, the swarms of mosquitoes were so thick, “you couldn’t see the man next to you”.

When eventually there were no more trees to chop, Perlov and his brother were relocated to a different temporary camp. His sister and parents, who by then were ill and weak, were forced to remain there.

The conditions at the new camp were “the nearest to what you call hell”, says Perlov. He decided he would try to escape rather than die in that place.

He and Yakov made it out on their second attempt, walking for three days to their parents and sister.

“I will never forget it,” he recounts of their arrival back at the family’s barracks. “I opened the door, and there both my parents are lying dead on the bed, and my sister Tova is lying in between them, sobbing …

“I didn’t even have enough time to cry.”

Perlov’s parents, like about a quarter of those sent to the Gulags, died of hunger and disease.

It took Mordechai and his brother three to four days to be able to dig a sufficient space in the frozen ground to bury their parents.

Perlov became adamant that he would fight for his freedom.

Teaming up with a friend from kindergarten called Yitzak, as well as two Polish-speaking Lithuanians, the group escaped, returning to the town of Syktyvkar.

By means of various schemes and plans, the four found ways to survive. They managed to pass themselves off as Polish. By then, Stalin had promised to release all Polish prisoners of war in the Gulags in exchange for the Polish army’s assistance against the Nazis.

Yet, Perlov’s only thought was to save his siblings.

He hired a guard with a boat to go and bring them back. However, the guard returned empty handed as Perlov’s aunt refused to believe the story of Mordechai’s escape.

Undeterred, Perlov sent the guard back again – this time with instructions to kidnap his siblings. While his brother proved too big to “capture”, Tova and Mordechai were reunited.

Shortly thereafter, Perlov, under the guise of being a Polish prisoner of war, was due to be sent to the Ukraine.

He was advised to put Tova, then about ten, into a Polish orphanage in the interim. Since she could not speak Polish, “in order not to reveal her identity, she didn’t speak at all”.

When the war ended, Perlov travelled from the Ukraine to Lodz in Poland.

Here he met up with Zionist organisations and decided to make Aliya.

But, first Perlov needed to get Tova back. At the time she was in a Catholic orphanage in Lodz, and the institution’s management refused to release her, saying she was to become Catholic.

So, using a ladder leading up to the window of the orphanage near where Tova slept, Mordechai kidnapped his sister for the second time.

Over the coming years, both siblings made their way to Israel.

Perlov later joined the Haganah, and was amongst the troops who marched on Yom Ha’atzmaut in 1948.

It was an invitation to be a pole holder at the wedding of family based in Johannesburg that brought Perlov to South Africa.

In the 1950s, he settled here, working in his uncle’s business, the Crystal Bakery in Doornfontein, before later starting a successful sock manufacturing company.

He learnt English via a Dale Carnegie course, got married in 1959, and went on to have three children.

Mordechai and his brother Yakov were eventually reunited in the 1990s, meeting in Israel.

A few years ago, a cousin began to write a book about Perlov. Poignantly, it was only then that Perlov revealed his Gulag experience to his children.

Perlov who was celebrating his Hebrew birthday on the day of the talk, proudly goes to gym every day.

He is looking forward to his next overseas trip in September, when he will travel to Israel to attend the wedding of Tova’s great granddaughter!

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