Zina’s parents’ story is straight out of a Steven Spielberg movie. Harold and Sylvia Perlman were Holocaust survivors. Harold’s family-owned textile factory in Lithuania was taken over by Russians and then Germans. Sylvia was a seamstress in a glove factory in Vilnius, Poland (now Lithuania).
Just before WWII, a customer of the glove factory, ordering a money belt, spotted Sylvia. She was beautiful. They fell in love and married but were soon sent to the ghetto in Kovna, Lithuania. Sylvia’s first husband was diabetic. Unable to get insulin, he died.
Still in the ghetto, Sylvia met and married Harold. Though he’d attended medical school, his job in the ghetto was breaking up rocks for an aerodrome. Sylvia worked in the home of the ghetto commander. The same size as his wife, Sylvia modeled for clothing her “employer” had made for his wife. She snuck food from the commander’s house to feed her starving comrades.
At the end of the war, the Nazis planned to burn down the ghetto. A German guard who’d fallen for Sylvia offered to help her escape through the fence. She agreed to meet him, several days later, at a café in town. Though Sylvia’s family had all died in Vilnius, she told the guard, “I can’t leave without my family.” She escaped along with several other occupants, including her husband. Because Harold spoke with a different accent, Sylvia identified him as her deaf mute brother.
Instead of showing up at the café, Sylvia and her “family” hid in woods and barns for several weeks until Russians liberated the area. 37,000 Jews entered the Kovna ghetto; 2,000 survived.
With no home or family to return to, Sylvia and Harold went to a displaced persons camp in Munich. They lived there about 20 months until emigrating to Detroit (sponsored by 4 Perlman uncles). In Detroit, Zina’s sister Anita was born. Sylvia was a homemaker. Harold worked on the line for Chrysler, then sold furniture, then started a construction company.
Zina was born in 1945. With no crib in the DP camp, her first “bed” was a dresser drawer. She and her parents came to America on July 17, 1947. Zina says, “I celebrate July 17 as my other birthday, the day my life was reborn.”
Harold and Sylvia loved to dance. Zina remembers her father saying, “When your mother’s wearing a new dress and I’m dancing with her, I feel like I own the world.”
“They lost everything,” Zina says. “Instead of being bitter or angry, they were grateful for what they did have. They didn’t hate all Germans because a German had saved them. The ability to be Jewish in this country meant so much to them.”
In later years, Harold suffered from colon cancer. Still, he desperately wanted to see his grandchildren’s bar and bat mitzvahs. He died three months after attending granddaughter Lisa’s bat mitzvah.
Sylvia died in 2004 at age 87. She lived with Zina and Michael in her last years. Sylvia not only survived war, but breast and colon cancer and macular degeneration. “Through it all,” Zina says, “she stayed positive and considered herself lucky.”
Sylvia embodied the Yiddish wisdom: Dem biterstem mazel ken men farshtellen mit a shmaichel. The most bitter misfortune can be covered up with a smile.
What inspired me to share this story was an observation of Zina’s. Her grandson Sam was bar mitzvahed recently. Zina said, “My parents cherished the rituals and tradition that tied them to their Jewish roots. The bar or bat mitzvah of any great grandchild of Holocaust survivors is a victory. The continuity of future generations’ ‘Jewishness’ is a victory over all the forces that tried to eliminate Jewish culture and people.”
Zina and Michael Kramer live in Bloomfield Hills, MI. Zina runs a PR and events planning company. She spends much time with grandsons Sam and Max, in Bloomfield Hills, and with granddaughters Sydney and Madison in Burlingame, CA, (daughters of Lisa and Josh Friedman). Michael Kramer’s an attorney with Detroit’s Dickinson Wright.
Michael and then girlfriend Vicki Lasser (now Winter), my U of M roommate, introduced Burton and me. Burton and Michael have been besties since age 5. Zina’s a dear friend of mine.
Zina’s on a first name basis with Bill and Hillary, having worked on their campaigns. She was a delegate to 3 democratic conventions. Zina’s also a 2 time ovarian cancer survivor. She’s fought her health challenges with her mother’s same determination.
A proud American, Zina wants to be remembered as such. “My kids don’t like me to mention it, but the one thing I care about for my funeral is that someone sing ‘God bless America.’”
Thanks for this powerful story, girlfriend. Mazel tov to the whole family. May we sing “God bless America” on happier occasions for many years to come.