Calel Perechodnik as a student
8 September 1916|
Otwock, Kingdom of Poland
|Died||1944 (aged 27)
Warsaw, Occupied Poland
|Cause of death||Disputed (Suicide or burned to death)|
|Known for||Jewish ghetto policeman who wrote a memoir of his experience; participant in 1944 Warsaw Uprising|
Calel (Calek) Perechodnik ([Tsaˈlɛl Pɛˈrɛxɔdnik]; 8 September 1916 – August/September 1944) was a Polish Jew who joined the Jewish Ghetto Police in the Otwock Ghetto during the Nazi German occupation of Poland. His wartime diaries were published posthumously as Am I a Murderer? (Polish: Czy ja jestem mordercą?) in 1995 by the Karta Centre of Warsaw.
A secular Jew, Perechodnik was born in 1916 to an Orthodox Jewish family in Otwock, south east of Warsaw. He earned a degree in agronomy at the Warsaw University of Life Sciences. Perechodnik's wife Chana (née Nusfeld) was also from Otwock; she ran a cinema named Oasis with her two brothers. Calek and Chana's only daughter Alinka (Athalie), was born on 19 August 1940, a year after the German invasion of Poland. To provide for his family, Perechodnik joined the Jewish Ghetto Police in February 1941. In the summer of 1942 he personally put his wife and daughter on a Holocaust train to Treblinka.
Am I a Murderer?
The Jewish Ghetto Police which Perechodnik joined, was not a benevolent force by any means. Emanuel Ringelblum referred to it as "the direct instrument of extermination". One of the first clandestine operations of the Jewish Combat Organization (ŻOB) in Warsaw, was to assassinate its commanders. Perechodnik's account therefore, needs to be seen in its proper perspective. His memoir describes such events as his and his father’s compliance with the Polish radio broadcast command to go eastward to fight in 1939, the formation of the Judenrat in Otwock, Himmler’s visit to Warsaw, the death of Czerniakow, the rounding up of Jews in the ghettos; life in, and escape from, a work camp; the experience of being hidden in Warsaw, the beginning of understanding of what was happening in the death camps, the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, and the 1944 Warsaw Uprising. His information is now considered by various researchers and experts on the Holocaust to be remarkably accurate, and according to these researchers, the notes show proof that the Jews at that time knew what was happening.
The memoir was written between 7 May and 19 August 1943 in Warsaw, during Perechodnik's stay at the home of his Polish rescuer. When describing the German occupation of Poland he attempts to explain his own actions which were inspired by fear, but also, blames the Jews for claiming to have been a chosen people, thus encouraging anti-Semitism among the gentile population. He expresses his outrage at the refusal by some Orthodox Jews to sent their children to Polish orphanages which would have saved them from the Holocaust. Perechodnik expressed his anguish and astonishment at the savagery of war. It was, he wrote, "the greatest disillusionment that I have endured in my life."
Content and historical background
In 1940, Perechodnik and his family, along with the 8,000 other Jews of Otwock, were transported to the Otwock Ghetto. In February 1941, fearful of being sent to a labour camp and hoping that the job would provide a shield for himself, his wife, and their daughter, he joined the Jewish Ghetto Police, organised by the local Judenrat councils under German Nazi orders to maintain order in the ghetto.
In early 1942, the German authorities began rounding up Jews to be put into trains which were destined to go to Treblinka. The Jewish police were ordered to assist in this effort and they complied with the orders. Assured by the commandant of the Ghetto Polizei that his family would be protected, on 19 September 1942, Perechodnik brought his own wife and daughter to the ghetto's main square. But he was betrayed: Anka and Athalie were among 8,000 Otwock Jews sent to their deaths in Treblinka. Subsequently, he was sent to a labour camp. Perechodnik constantly blamed himself for the death of his wife and daughter. Prior to their shipping to Treblinka, Chana asked Calek on several occasions to obtain a false Kennkarte for her, identifying her as an ethnic Pole (Chana did not have the typical Jewish looks and Calel wrote that she could easily pass for a Pole if she dyed her hair). Perechodnik failed to obtain the kennkarte for Chana in time, partly due to his laziness and partly do to his "lack of trust in such things".
On 20 August 1942, Calel Perechodnik escaped to Warsaw, where he spent 105 days in hiding with his mother and other Jews in the apartment of a Polish woman whom he thanks in his memoir. His father, Aryan in appearance, remained at large to support the family until he was captured by the Gestapo and executed. While in hiding, he spent the time writing. The last entry in his memoir concerns his last will and is dated 23 October 1943. He then joined the Polish Underground; it was during this time that he contracted typhus.
On 1 August 1944, the Warsaw Uprising began as part of a nationwide rebellion, Operation Tempest. Perechodnik participated in the uprising as part of the Chrobry II Battalion. There are several theories as to how he died. One states that he committed suicide by swallowing cyanide after the Uprising failed. Another claims that he was killed by pillagers after the uprising. Another account (stated in the letter of Henryk Romanowski to his brother Pesach Perechodnik, following the memoirs in the book) claims he was burned alive in the bunker, unable to get out because of the typhus. He was aged 27 .
Shortly before Perechodnik died in 1944, he entrusted his manuscript to a Polish friend. After the war ended, the memoir was given to Perechodnik’s brother, Pesach Perechodnik, who had survived the war in the Soviet Union. The original copy of the memoir was presented to the Yad Vashem Archives, and a copy was given to the Central Jewish Historical Commission in Poland, which today is the Jewish Historical Institute. This document was first published as a complete book in 1995 by the Karta Centre of Warsaw. It remained virtually unknown in English-speaking countries until Frank Fox's translation in 1996. It was released in Polish and Hebrew prior to its translation into English in 1996. Since then, it has been translated into many languages.
Its original title was A History of a Jewish Family During German Occupation, but its title was later changed to Am I a Murderer?: Testament of a Jewish Ghetto Policeman. It was recently republished in Poland in an unabridged version, with comprehensive sidenotes and references, under the title Spowiedź (Confession).
In his final years, Perechodnik completely changed his attitude towards the Jews and the Jewish faith and traditions. In his memoir, he rejected belief in God and the religious traditions of his Orthodox Jewish family. He became very bitter toward the Jews and frequently criticised them, even blaming them for bringing these events on themselves because of their insistence on cultural and religious isolation. He was sarcastic about others, as well as self-deprecating about his own Jewishness.
- Sebastian Chosiński, "Przez siedem kręgów Piekła." Review of Calel Perechodnik Czy ja jestem mordercą? Magazyn Esensja, nr 7 (XXXIX) September 2004 issue. (Polish) Retrieved 9 October 2011.
- Emanuel Ringelblum, Joseph Kermish, Shmuel Krakowski, Polish-Jewish Relations During the Second World War. Page 62. Northwestern University Press, 1992. ISBN 0-8101-0963-8. Retrieved 9 October 2011.
- Israel Gutman, Resistance: The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Page 169. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1998. ISBN 0-395-90130-8. Retrieved 9 October 2011.
- Barbara Engelking, Dariusz Libionka, Żydzi w Powstanczej Warszawie (Jews in the Warsaw Uprising), Polish Center for Holocaust Research Association, 2009, pgs 184–190
- Calel Perechodnik, Czy ja jestem mordercą?. Ed. Paweł Szapiro. Żydowski Instytut Historyczny – Instytut Naukowo-Badawczy: KARTA, Warsaw, 1995.
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