As the Germans marched toward the tiny French hamlet of Autrans, 10-year-old Eva Perlman (nee Gutmann) watched as an obviously frightened 17-year-old boy fled from a sawmill into the woods. The Germans shot him on sight.
It was 1942, and the boy wasn’t even Jewish, Perlman says.
“To this day, I’m afraid to go in the woods,” she said. “It makes me think of dead bodies.”
It’s one of several stories the Holocaust survivor recounted to wide-eyed teens as she participated in last year’s March of the Living in Poland for the first time.
Perlman, now 79, is attending again next month, but this time she plans to bring her daughter and granddaughter. And once the April 16-30 event ends, Perlman and her family will take a detour to France to retrace her Holocaust-era experience.
“It’s an incredible opportunity, said Ilana Meskin, Perlman’s daughter. “An entire generation alive during the war is not going to be here very much longer, and to hear their story is a privilege. I’m very honored.”
While in France, they will visit the house in Autrans where Perlman and her family hid in plain sight from the Nazis from 1942 to 1944. There, Perlman will meet with people she knew as a child as well as descendants of those non-Jews who aided her family.
Before reaching Autrans, however, Perlman will visit family in Paris and travel to a town near Nice, where she plans to reunite with her girlhood crush — and meet his wife.
Perlman first heard about March of the Living two years ago, when two students spoke about it at Temple Adat Ari El in Valley Village. The annual educational program takes students and survivors from around the world to Poland, where they explore remnants of the Holocaust and march out of Auschwitz on Yom HaShoah. From there, participants travel to Israel, where they observe Yom HaZikaron and Yom HaAtzmaut.
“The girl was unemotional, but the boy broke me up,” Perlman said. “I was so moved by his experience, and the thoughts, and the feelings, and the emotions of the trip.”
Perlman said she turned to her daughter and told her that she never had wanted to visit a concentration camp, but now she did. A friend arranged for Perlman to interview with a March of the Living official, who invited her to participate as a survivor.
Unlike many Holocaust survivors, Perlman carries no personal scars in the form of tattooed numbers on an arm; nor did she have to hide in a secret annex like Anne Frank. Yet she carries vivid memories of the time she and her family rented the upstairs rooms in a yellow house in Autrans, nine miles from Grenoble, in the French Alps.
Some of these memories hurt; Perlman to this day refuses to speak German, and if someone hears her German accent and tries speaking German to her, she will reply in English that she does not wish to speak or hear German.
She is considering documenting her life experiences in a book, which she would title, “A String of Miracles.”
One of these episodes was the time her mother, Charlotte, suffered a bicycle accident, preventing her from reaching her husband, Rodolfe, who had joined the French Resistance. Without the accident, Perlman says, she would have ridden right into the Nazis’ hands.
Another time, her mother carried a trunk loaded with silver and nearly missed her train. As it pulled out of the station, Charlotte saw that Nazis had set up a checkpoint on a bridge she would have had to walk across had she missed the train.
“How about that?” Perlman said recently. “So many times we could have been captured, and some invisible force kept us safe.”
Another stroke of good fortune was their genetics. Eva and her two brothers had blond hair and blue eyes, causing a Nazi to remark, “[They remind] me of our lovely German children.”
He wasn’t far off. Perlman was born in Berlin in May 1932, followed by her brothers Ernest and Raymond, who were born in France. The family had moved in 1933 partly because Rodolfe could get work as a patent attorney.
Her parents sought French citizenship and falsified papers. They wanted to change their last name, because Gutmann sounded too Jewish, but French authorities wouldn’t allow French identification cards to be reissued unless they were illegible. So her mother dropped them in the wash.
The family became the Gallians.
After the Germans marched through France and arrived at Autrans, Perlman said there came the time when a Nazi officer and his aide stayed in their house for two weeks. Her mother had to give up her bedroom and move to the attic.
“It was like letting the lion into the lamb’s cage,” Perlman said.
To avoid suspicion, German-born Charlotte spoke French with smatterings of broken German, mangling syntax and grasping for the right words.
“I cannot, for my part, imagine how I could have done what she did,” Perlman said.
In many ways, Perlman and her family were lucky. French non-Jews betrayed thousands of Jews. The Nazis deported 76,000 Jews, of which about 2,500 survived the death camps. All told, the Nazis wiped out almost one quarter of the Jewish population in France.
When she arrives in Autrans, Perlman said, she expects the yellow house will seem smaller than she remembered, but it won’t dampen her excitement.
Because she was so young at that time, she said she failed to understand the magnitude of the Holocaust. Perlman said she did not feel the mortal terror of the Germans or the Vichy government that her mother felt at that time. As a result, she says, her detailed recollections and her writing about that time lack emotion.
As an adult, however, she said she recognizes the importance of all survivors telling their stories, which is why she attends events such as March of the Living and why she’s bringing her daughter on this trip.
“My daughter will be the eyewitness,” she said. “Saying the story makes it more believable. Pictures are not as graphic as a number on an arm. It’s important.”