While Calaveras County itself is rich in history, people often move here with interesting stories of their own.
At the Calaveras County Historical Society’s (CCHS) monthly dinner meeting at the Jenny Lind Veterans Memorial District Hall in Valley Springs on Jan. 23, Mokelumne Hill resident Irene Perbal spoke on her experience as a young girl in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam.
“I think this is historic,” CCHS President Roark Weber said as attendees filed into the hall. “I don’t think we’ve ever had anything like this presented to us, and I’m really looking forward to it, as I’m sure our full membership is.”
Weber said that the public is encouraged to attend CCHS meetings, which are held at different locations across the county on the fourth Thursday of every month, except August and December. In November, the meeting is held on the third Thursday of the month due to the Thanksgiving holiday.
“This is a good turnout,” Weber said. “When we get 100 people – and we’ll have 100 people here tonight – it’s something we’re happy about.”
After each member of the audience was seated with a meal – catered by De Vinci’s in Valley Springs – Weber introduced Perbal.
“We typically talk about the history of Calaveras County, and it’s a real special treat to me to be able to introduce her to talk about the Holocaust,” Weber said. “We’ve all heard about it; we’ve all seen movies about it; we’ve all seen documentaries. But if you didn’t live it, you really don’t know anything about the Holocaust, and we are really honored tonight to be able to hear from her.”
An attentive silence overtook the audience as Perbal began to speak.
“Those who do not look upon themselves as a link connecting the past with the future do not perform their duty to the world,” she said. “And a survivor fears he or she may be the last to remember, the last to warn, the last to tell the tale that must be told in its totality before it’s too late.”
Born in the Netherlands in 1933, Perbal’s earliest years were spent quietly in Amsterdam with her parents, little sister and two little brothers, bicycling in the summers and ice-skating in the winters.
“We had a lot of friends at school, and a very nice, beautiful, sheltered life,” she said. “Until May 10, 1940, when Germany invaded the Netherlands. Within four days, Holland surrendered. The Nazi war apparatus was so enormous that within a couple of days, the whole of Europe was bulldozed.”
The Germans appointed a governor, a hardline extremist who enforced strict conformity and was later sentenced to death in Nuremberg.
“The aim was to make the Netherlands a part of the Drittes Reich over our own system, and cultural values and all that had to disappear,” Perbal said. “They wanted to dissolve the country. Within hours, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and of the press were suspended.”
Following the invasion, the flow of information was tightly controlled.
“We could not listen to any kind of broadcasting than the German radio distribution,” Perbal said. “All our correspondence was opened and inspected. All Dutch associations and clubs were forbidden. Very soon, we had the curfew. Nobody could be in the streets after 8 p.m. until 6 a.m. the next morning.”
Hundreds of planes from the Royal Air Force flew over the country to bombard Germany every night, but because Holland was occupied, Amsterdam was considered enemy territory by the Allies. Households covered up their windows so that no light could be seen from the air.
“Wherever they saw a light, they dropped bombs,” Perbal said. “We had sirens warning that there was an air raid coming. Everybody went to the shelters and basements. We were literally living in darkness and fear.”
In March of 1941, the Germans began issuing identification cards to the population of Amsterdam. Jewish residents received cards marked with a “J,” and were forced to wear the Star of David.
Perbal attended the same Montessori school as Anne Frank, though four years apart, and showed school pictures of each of them had taken in a similar way.
“The Jewish children were banished from public schools,” Perbal said. “Jews had no right to have their own business; had no right to use telephones. Public transportation was void to them, and they only could shop between 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. They also were forbidden to enter homes of non-Jews, and the other people were forbidden to go into Jewish homes.”
Soon, the mass deportation of Jewish residents to concentration camps began.
“The Nazis raided all of the houses in our neighborhood in search of Jews,” Perbal said. “Usually, it was early in the morning. They shut off the street on both sides, and went into one house after the other, taking away whole families – separating women, children, men. There was a lot of screaming and crying. And we actually didn’t know what happened to them.”
Perbal’s home was raided along with all of the others.
“One morning, I woke up and my father was standing next to my bed with what seemed to me a giant German soldier, armed from head to toes,” she said. “He had hand grenades in his boot, and it was just at my eye height. It was the most scary vision I ever had in my life.”
From the beginning, Perbal’s grandfather, father and uncles became active in the resistance to the occupation.
“We called it the Underground,” Perbal said. “When injustice becomes law, resistance becomes your duty.”
Perbal participated herself, often delivering messages for her grandfather by hiding written notes in the handlebars of her bicycle.
“My father from the get-go was outraged with the Nazis’ behavior, and he started hiding Jewish people from the very beginning,” Perbal said. “We didn’t even know their real names. They had false papers, and for us children, they were just uncles and aunts.”
Days after Perbal’s 10th birthday in 1943, the Gestapo raided her home.
“Those were not even Germans; they were Dutch traitors working for the Nazis,” Perbal said. “It was early in the morning. They rang the bell. I opened the door and three men came up the stairs.”
The officers found two Jewish men in the house. Because Perbal’s father wasn’t home, they demanded Perbal’s mother give them her husband’s work phone number and the name of their doctor. The officers called her father and – claiming to be their doctor – told him that he had to return home immediately because the oldest of his two young sons was dying. Perbal tried to leave to warn her father not to come home by saying that she had to go to school, but no one was allowed to leave.
“When my father came in, he looked at my mother, who had my little brother on her lap, and they smacked him to the ground and mistreated him,” Perbal said. “They said horrible things, and finally took him away to the Gestapo headquarters, together with the two Jewish gentlemen. And we didn’t know what to do. All of a sudden, our whole life was upside down. The day after, they came back with moving vans and confiscated everything we had.”
Perbal never saw her father again; she later learned that he perished in a concentration camp.
As the war dragged on, Perbal and her family endured continuing hardships. Attending school became increasingly difficult, and rations increasingly scarce. Perbal said that every month each person was only allowed a small quantity of butter, a half-cup of sugar, a cup of flour and a loaf of bread, while meat and eggs were only available on the black market at exorbitant prices. No soap was available, only bars made out of clay, and water was very limited. Many people contracted skin diseases like mange.
“Not only food and medicine, but everything else was scarce,” Perbal said. “I remember that the upper part of our shoes was cut off and nailed to wooden soles so that we could use them a little longer. When that became too short, they just cut off the front and our toes would go through.”
The winter of 1944-45 became known as the Hunger Winter.
“It was the coldest on record,” Perbal said. “We were starving. We had no means to warm our houses, and even the food stamps were useless because all of the stores were empty … Very often we saw people dropping dead in the streets from starvation.”
The public kitchens only offered “one scoop of a watery mixture made of cabbage stems, potato peels and residues of sugar beets,” Perbal said. “In Amsterdam alone, 2,500 people died from malnutrition, lack of medicine and the cold.”
Residents survived by using small wonder stoves made of milk cans and fueled by paper, cardboard, small twigs, chopped up furniture and anything else that could be found. After a pot came to a boil, it was placed in a hay basket and covered with a blanket to continue cooking and keep warm.
Perbal later became an enthusiastic teacher of solar cooking, due to her experience that winter.
Fortunately, it was the last one endured under the occupation.
“On May 6, 1945, the Canadians entered in Amsterdam, followed soon by the Americans,” Perbal said. “We were free. Everybody was in the streets dancing, singing, greeting our liberators. You cannot imagine the joy.”
Soon after, Allied bomber crews began to make food drops over the Netherlands.
“We saw the planes swooping over Amsterdam and dropping packages of food,” Perbal said. “We all went to the roof – ‘Thank you, Allies!’ Everybody was incredibly happy. Two-thousand-eight-hundred Lancaster planes dropped almost 70,000 tons of food.”
More recently, Perbal was able to meet a man who participated in the food drops over Amsterdam, and was able to thank him after 75 years.
“It was so emotional. He had tears in his eyes and so did I,” she said. “I think very few people of my generation have an opportunity like that.”
Soon after, survivors began to return from the concentration camps.
“It was heartbreaking to see those living skeletons, still in their ragged blue and gray uniforms,” she said. “There are no words to describe the atrocities committed in the concentration camps. No films or books come close to reproducing the atmosphere of suffering that still impregnated the walls of the barracks.”
The Holocaust was a crime against all of humanity, Perbal said.
“Besides the 6 million murdered Jews in the concentration camps, journalists, intellectuals, handicapped and disabled people, homosexuals, Slavic people and Gypsies were among the 12 million victims,” she said.
Perbal said that the experience taught her to never give up hope, to never lose her sense of humor and to never compromise with intolerance.
“Right after the war, we were very angry with the Germans,” she said. “Only later, I understood that wars have no winners, there’s only sorrow and destruction on both sides. The German civilians, mostly women and children, died from bombardments, from hunger, and suffered as much as we did. I realized that I never should direct any resentfulness or bitterness – no matter how justified in my eyes – to any group of people.”
However, Perbal said that there is still one thing that she will not tolerate.
“But until today, I have to admit I have one zero tolerance, and that is Nazi flags in the streets of America – it scares me to death,” she said, to applause from the audience. “Hatred must be exposed and denounced. It is poison. It divides, it perverts and it destroys and leads to new wars.”
Perbal said that she became a Rotary Club member and a member of a Rotary Intercountry Committee in order to make the world a better place by practicing peace through service.
“Don’t waste your energy judging, polarizing, attacking,” she said. “That just deepens the separateness from our fellow humans. We have an immense power, and can support whatever is needed if we are wise and brave enough to promote peace around us, standing in our own environment, no matter how small. Trust and vibrate your light in peace. Souls are like candles; we can light up each other.”
The audience gave Perbal a standing ovation.
“Thank you so much for sharing your story, and your history, and your message,” Weber said. “I think this is one of the best programs we’ve ever had.”
At the next meeting on Feb. 27, Ron Fillmore will speak on the history of Murphys at the town’s Native Sons Hall. Fillmore often leads historical walking tours of the town, which depart from the Murphys Old Timers Museum at 10 a.m. every Saturday.
Those who wish to attend CCHS meetings can RSVP by calling 754-1058. More information on upcoming meetings can be found at calaverascohistorical.com.