They wrote a book about Manya Perel, a Holocaust survivor turned educator and activist who died on July 29 at the age of 97. Plays, too, and movies, written and shot by students at Temple University, Stockton University and Rowan University.
Not that Perel needed any help telling her story: Over the course of almost five decades, she described her experience in the Holocaust to thousands of students, Jewish and non-Jewish, and made a recording of almost two hours with the Gratz College Holocaust Oral History Archive.
Perel was born Manya Frydman, the youngest of 10 children born to a pair of bakers named Abram and Hannah in Radom, Poland, a small city about 60 miles south of Warsaw. Growing up, she went to school with non-Jewish Poles, attended Zionist meetings and generally navigated her town without an acute fear of anti-Semitism. She was 15 when the war broke out and was soon shuttled into a ghetto, along with most of her family.
In the next few years, she’d survive Treblinka, Majdanek, Płaszów and Auschwitz, among other concentration camps. Both of her parents died in the camps, along with five of her siblings. She witnessed horrors everywhere she went, but at the end of the war, she was alive and determined to make a stable, comfortable life for herself.
She reunited with two of her sisters in a displaced persons camp in Stuttgart, Germany, where she spent three years before traveling to Montreal along with one sister to meet up with an aunt who moved there before the war. After some red tape barred her and her sister from going to Buenos Aires, Argentina, where one of their brothers had moved in 1933, they decided on Philadelphia. In 1958, Manya — now Perel, having married Rafael Perel — settled with her children, Marvin and Sylvia, near Magee and Algon streets, in Oxford Circle.
Always the talker, Perel began to speak more openly about what she had experienced. But it was not until the early 1970s that she began to give public addresses on the matter, repeatedly recounting her story for students. To Perel’s children, it did not seem burdensome to her to describe what she had seen; in fact, it was a source of
Beth Razin saw that, too. Razin, the senior manager of community engagement at the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, recalled Perel signing up for long car rides to West Chester well into her 90s so that just a few more people would know what had happened to her.
“She saw this as her calling,” Razin said.
Speaking to Jewish children and non-Jewish children, Perel told her story with vigor each time she took the podium. Over the years, she became well-known to the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, according to son Marvin Perel, and they frequently asked her to speak to students.
Perel devoted significant time to the Association of Jewish New Americans, the Oxford Circle Jewish Community Centre, the Holocaust Awareness Museum and Education Center and KleinLife of Northeast Philadelphia. KleinLife released a tribute to Perel, noting that she “was often seen dancing at our Active Adult Life holiday parties or speaking at our Holocaust education events.”
Perel, a passionate Zionist, also fundraised for an organization supporting a hospital in Nahariya.
It was not all seriousness, all the time for Perel. She tried hard to become conversant in the Philadelphia sports teams that her children and grandchildren adored, her Polish-inflected pronunciation of “Eric Lindros” standing out. Her accent was a source of humor for her, too. Her favorite joke, deployed whenever anyone asked her where she was from, was to smile and say, “Oh, can’t you hear I’m from Alabama?”
“She thought she was funny,” granddaughter, Rina Wagman said. She certainly made her family laugh; Perel chafed at the idea that she would move into an elder care facility for the simple reason that there were too many old people there.
More than anything, Perel got what she wanted out of being an American — a sense of safety and stability, for herself and her children.
“She just wanted a normal life. And she got it,” Marvin Perel said. “She just wanted to be human again.”
Perel is survived by her children, Marvin (Lois) Perel and Sylvia (Mark) Perel Wagman, five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.