December 14, 2018

Holocaust Survivor Visits Topanga Elementary

 

A child that cares enough to make the effort to share with the whole school should be learned from.

—Rabbi Chaim Teleshevsky


PHOTO BY KATIE DALSEMER MESSENGER © 2015

Holocaust Survivor Visits Topanga Elementary

Fifth-grader Fiona Engstad was “determined” to meet Avraham Perlmutter. Ph.D., a Holocaust survivor, after reading his book, “Determined.” “It’s a dream come true,” she said.

When 11-year-old Fiona Engstad picked up a small paperback book from the living room coffee table, little did she know what effect the words within it would have on her and, subsequently, her fifth-grade teacher, Ms. Erin Saporta, who worked hard to get the books into the school, Topanga Elementary School principal Steve Gediman and her fellow students.

The book is “Determined,” written by Holocaust survivor Avraham Perlmutter, Ph.D. Engstad started the book on Friday and finished it on Sunday, took it to school on Monday to show her teacher who relayed it to Gediman.

“I was just so into it,” said Engstad. “Every chapter of the book made me want to read it even more because I experienced the good and bad in people.”

On Monday, April 27, Dr. Perlmutter, now an energetic 88, accompanied by his daughter, Keren, was the guest speaker at an assembly of third-, fourth- and fifth-graders to tell his story in person.

As a rule, children aren’t taught about the Holocaust until around eighth grade, but here were elementary school-age children who were learning about a young boy, who at their age, 11, whose parents felt compelled to send him and his older sister to the Netherlands when the Nazis annexed Austria.

Introducing Dr. Perlmutter, Gediman said, "Topanga Elementary has a great practice of living history. The boys and girls love reliving history with projects such as a Colonial Days and California Days. It is a rare occasion when we meet an author but today we have a living witness to 20th Century history."

“I think it is very important for the next generation to know what took place 70 to 100 years ago and I give speeches in a number of different schools,” said Perlmutter, who had donated copies of his book to Fiona’s class that has taken it on as their year-end project. More books are avaiable at the school for $10 and online.

“I want all of you to be ‘determined’ to continue your education as much as possible,” he admonished the children. “The more you study, the more successful you will be in the future, even when things get tough. The reason I’m telling you this is that it helped me because whatever happened in the last century shouldn’t happen here, especially in the United States.

"In those days, hardly any country was willing to accept refugees. Only The Netherlands and Great Britain accepted children [through] the Children’s Transport. We have a similar situation here, right now, with refugees from Mexico." he added.

PHOTO BY KATIE DALSEMER MESSENGER © 2015

Holocaust Survivor Visits Topanga Elementary

Mrs. Saporta (far left) and her Fifth grade class joined Avraham Perlmutter. Ph.D., a Holocaust survivor, at Topanga Elementary.

What Perlmutter presented to the children that day were the adventures that likely resulted from his misbehavior as a kid that enabled him to escape capture by the Nazis three times while hiding in the Netherlands during the Nazi occupation that came shortly after he and his sister arrived. That, he said, "was when my education ended," although during that time, he always found a way to learn. While he learned to read German, Yiddish and Hebrew since the age of four, by the time of liberation, he had taught himself three more languages: English, Spanish and French.

He started his escape strategies at the age of 2 ½. “I was a wild kid and that later on helped me during the war." He tells the story of how he loved looking out the window and always wanted to go outside and play. So he threw a tennis ball through the open window and convinced his nanny he had to get it. Instead of retrieving the ball, he ran away to the Danube river. A policeman found him and took him back to the station, where his frantic mother picked him up.

At the age of six, Perlmutter learned to question authority when he went to school: “I was often a class troublemaker and, as punishment, the teacher made me stand in a corner in front of the room. On one such occasion, I slowly moved from one corner to another while the teacher faced the class. Most of the other children watched me in amusement, ignoring the lesson. When the instructor realized I had moved, he took a small bamboo cane from his desk drawer, ordered me to hold out both hands and attempted several times to hit me, but each time he struck, I pulled my hands aside.”

Perlmutter was sent to the principal who admonished him and later snuck into the empty classroom and broke the cane in half. His parents were informed that he was not to return to the school the following year.

For the next hour, everyone in the auditorium was spellbound by his tales of escape and what it was like to live under Nazi occupation. When it came time for questions, hands instantly popped up.

How did your sister survive? I never asked her because she couldn’t speak about it. She may have worked in a factory but she also survived the death march to the Baltic sea when the Russians liberated Auschwitz.

Why were Germans killing Jews? Hitler. Propaganda saying Jews were bad. Remember. The same thing is going on right now in a number of countries. Religion is good but it’s being misused in the Middle East.

Do you know what happened to the people who hid you? Some survived and some did not.

When you were on the train, did you think the Nazis were going to take you? We were scared they would stop the train and take us and kill us.

Did you ever meet Hitler? I saw him in his car giving the salute when he came into Vienna after the invasion.

How did the Nazis know you were Jewish? In those days, everyone had to have an identity card. It indicated your religion and name.

How long were you in hiding? 1939-1945.

Did you have a number tattooed? My sister had a number but I was never in a camp.

How many times were you caught? Three times but I escaped every time.

Did you ever fly a plane when you were learning about them? I tried once to be a pilot but only a little bit.

When did you find out the lady in the bed was killed? I found out much later that she was killed.

Did most of your friends die or were some still alive? Most of my friends in the Netherlands died.

Why did you move to California? I sold my business to another company in Los Angeles. I’m very happy I moved here because this is the best area in the whole country.

Are you Jewish? Yes. I went from one end of the Netherlands to the other to survive, to proceed, to proceed.

Would you change what happened to you if you could? Ideally, I would have been born in the U.S. so I wouldn’t have had to go through all that stuff.

Afterwards, some of the fifth graders who had read the book shared their reaction to Dr. Perlmutter’s visit.

”I think it’s amazing how someone can survive that horrible time. — Mia Mahoney

“I think he’s been through so much and I’m very thankful.” —Phoenix Rodan

“I admire the book and am glad he came up here and told us about his life. He’s a hero. I admire him.” —Josephine Hein

“It’s amazing to meet a holocaust survivor.” —Krista Colmenares

“I felt connected to him about how he thought and felt. It’s my dream come true.” —Fiona Engstad

THE BOOK

"Determined" reads like an adventure story, which it is, with short, action-packed chapters. More than that, Perlmutter gives what is one of the most concise accounts of the history of Palestine starting with the 12th Century B.C.E., covering 3,000 years of peoples, empires and religions battling for Israel's ancient capital of Jerusalem through Israel's War of Independence in 1948.

Most important is the fact that he survived, continued his education in Israel, then in the United States and made impressive contributions in the area of aeronautic engineering.

In Part 3, "Determined to Succeed," he writes: "The acquisition of knowledge has always been an important characteristic of our family history. By age four, I could read German, Yiddish and Hebrew, and during my four years of school in Vienna and two years of school in the Netherlands, I eagerly absorbed the lectures in the various subjects offered. During my years in hiding I advanced my knowledge of English, French and Spanish and enjoyed reading whatever books I managed to obtain."

He immigrated to the United States, enrolled at the Georgia Institute of Technology, Department of Aeronautics in 1951, went on to Princeton to study helicopter engineering, where he received his Master of Science in Engineering. True to character, when he learned that Albert Einstein lived in Princeton, he found a way to meet him the year before he died. Taking a break after graduation to obtain "some practical experience in the industry," he worked for Kellet Aircraft Corporation until enrolling at the Univeristy of Pennsylvania in 1958, where he received his Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering.

Perlmutter and his wife, Ruth, have four children, two sons, Michael and David, and twin daughters, Sharon and Keren, who all graduated from UCLA. Michael is a CPA, David received his law degree in addition to a gemologist certificate (possibly following in his Uncle Avram's footsteps). Keren and her sister Sharon were the only two engineering seniors out of 800 who had a perfect 4.0 grade average, both graduating with a B.S. in Electrical Engineering. They both went on to earn Masters and Ph.D.s in electrical Engineering at Stanford University and illustrious careers with numerous patents in their names.

Had Avraham Perlmutter not survived, see what we would have lost.

Never again.