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April 9, 2010

Renia Perel is a “survivor who is blessed”


Renia Perel and her older sister, Henia, arrived in Canada in October 1948. They came from an orphanage in Germany, having survived the Holocaust using false Ukrainian birth certificates. Born in Malnow, in southeast Poland, they began their flight on Dec. 4, 1941, at the ages of 12 and 14, respectively. That would be the last day they saw their mother. Both their parents and their young brother were killed, as was the rest of their family.

Songs of the Wasteland is both a memoir and a musical tribute to the victims of the Holocaust. “My music is my way of sharing my painful memories with the world,” writes Renia Perel. “I hope that by sharing these memories with you, together we will find a way to heal the wounds of yesterday and bring hope for a better tomorrow.”

She also writes about being “the survivor who is blessed.” In an interview with the Independent, Perel explained, “In that seven-year span, as an orphan, I survived the Holocaust, the DP [displaced persons] camps and the children’s camp. But after my arrival to Vancouver, Canada, I was grateful that I had a bed to sleep in, I had a meal each day, I had a new outfit and shoes, I was in a school environment again for the first time in seven years, so what could be more than a blessing?”

That is not to say that Perel never felt despair. For three years during the war, she was a forced laborer on a farm in the Bremen region of Germany. In her memoir, she recounts a moment when, near the end of the war, the Allies were carrying out attacks nearby. She writes, “When the population would seek out the bomb shelters, I would stay in the open, hoping that a bomb would find me, releasing me from my misery and sadness.” When her wish almost came true, her perspective changed.

“I was crying for my mother all the time,” Perel told the Independent. “My friends were the cows and the trees, the chickens and all the animals on the farm. I was always appreciative, even being alive, and I learned that through an incident when the planes were coming down – it must be the British planes, we didn’t know – and we were working by the train station, and they were shooting down and everyone fell to the ground, and so did I, and I felt that I was probably dead, because I heard this whistling of the bullets passing by my ears, and I was scared to get up. Finally, I did stand up and I saw all the other people already working.... I realized then that I really wanted to live.”

The pain of everything that happened to Perel has not left her. “I have it to this day,” she said, “and I call myself blessed only because I’ve always been a very curious child and I was enjoying everything that I was doing and I wanted to study.... The ladies from the [Canadian Jewish] Congress, who looked after those orphans that arrived from the camp in Europe, the DP camp, they asked me what I wanted to do and I said I wanted to go to school, so they put me into Grade 11 and I managed to graduate in a year and a half.”

After high school, Perel got a job as a clerk typist. She had taken a commercial course at school, which included bookkeeping, typing and shorthand.

“Everyone was helpful,” said Perel, later adding, “They accepted me. In fact, two years later, when they found out I was engaged to be married, which was about September 1950, they made a shower for me, the whole high school graduates, all the girls came.” Perel (née Sperber) married Morris Perel, who she had met in the DP camp in Backnang, Germany. He was the brother of her sister’s boyfriend, Izak, who Henia ended up marrying.

Said Perel, “I haven’t forgotten all the evil or bad or horrendous things, the inhumane behavior of humanity, especially ‘cultured’ Europe. It is a shock to discover that this sort of thing still goes on. After the Holocaust, there was a slogan, ‘Never again,’ but it looks like it died, because another holocaust happened in Rwanda; if you were a Tutsi, you were dead. And so, in the same way, it’s still going on, in Darfur. I wonder if it will ever end.”

After she got married, Perel continued to work, even helping to improve the efficiency of her office with a suggestion to change the credit bill to include a carbon copy. She also worked several summers as a court interpreter.

The desire for knowledge figures prominently in Perel’s life. When Sputnik was launched (in 1957), for example, “and I didn’t know anything about the atmosphere, about astronomy.... I would go to the library and cry because I didn’t know anything what’s in these books, so I decided that I’m going to university.” She said she didn’t have the money to pay the fees, but “the loans came out, can you believe it, that same year, how lucky I was always in that way?” For Perel to get a loan, she had to take a full course load at the University of British Columbia – her daughter, Freda Sharon, was six years old at the time. While her husband was not keen on the idea, Perel got the loan and went to university. After her four-year degree, she took teacher training and, with certificate in hand, became a teacher.

“I taught Grade 4 and 7,” she said, for which “you have to know how to teach music. That was just what I wanted to do!”

Perel’s father was a violinist, who would play after every Shabbat. Her grandmother, of whom Perel has fond memories, was very religious. “Everything I know about Judaism is from her,” said Perel, adding, “I keep kosher because of it, to honor her name, to honor her vigor and her stamina, and she was a little woman! She was very intelligent, she spoke several languages and so did my father and my mother. They were cultured people in the Viennese style, because our part of Poland was the Austro-Hungarian Empire.”

Perel has known how to write music and sing from age seven, and she has wanted to be a poet and a composer from childhood. Noting that Jews in Poland were not liked even before the Nazis, she said, “I lived through anger, pain and enraged thoughts came to my mind, but I never did anything, I couldn’t hurt a fly. Nothing happened. As time went on, I realized I am hurting myself and I realized it much sooner than others. When I wanted to go to university ... I knew, I’m leaving that world. I wanted to know everything there is. I didn’t study the Holocaust there, but it gave me the foundation for using the language, and creativity came so easy to me that I didn’t have to struggle. When I started composing this piece of musical drama for the Holocaust, it was in the middle of my composing an opera about a love story, before, during and after the Holocaust. And then I thought to myself, this is not my priority. It can wait.”

Perel has not only written the music and lyrics for Songs of the Wasteland, but includes detailed instructions on how the drama should be performed. It begins with Psalm 23, verse 4, “Yea tho I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me. Thy rod and Thy staff, they do comfort me.”

“I wanted for other nations to be aware of what has happened and I thought if I introduced the first piece with the psalm, everyone, all the Christians are familiar with [it] ... but I extended it to set up a mood for it that would indicate that this is not just entertainment.”

The first part of the CD is “From Tragedy to Triumph.” In this section are songs of remembrance to the children who died in the ghettos, to those who died at Auschwitz, to her family who were killed and to the future generations that never had a chance to be born. The section concludes with a benediction for survivors and a prayer for those who died.

“Song of Life,” which Perel dedicates to her husband, who passed away in 1999, begins the “Survival” part of the CD. Here, she has a song for Japanese Consul Chiune Suguhara, who saved thousands of Jews by giving them visas, and for Bulgaria, whose King Boris “did not heed to Nazi proclamations.” The musical drama concludes with “Jerusalem,” in which Perel shares her hope that the world will one day be united, with “no more war and no more flight.”

Songs of the Wasteland is performed by two singers only, accompanied by harp, cello, violin and clarinet. In her memoir, when Perel writes about her years as a farm laborer, she states, “Frau Nusted’s farmyard was situated immediately between the church and the priest’s house. In pain and cold, I chopped wood, while local people ignored the slavery in their midst and I heard them singing and praising G-d. To this day, my love of music does not extend to include choral singing.”

Other than the 2007 recording, Songs of the Wasteland has never been performed. The CD and memoir – which includes all the sheet music, as well as photos and maps of Perel’s experiences – will soon be available for purchase from And there is more to come.

Perel said she has written enough music for three other CDs: klezmer, Chassidic and love songs. “I think that I wrote about 36 pieces during May 2005, and all of this was just pouring out of me. It woke me up at night and I did it, and finally I was exhausted and I said, stop it.”

During her life, Perel has also taught English as a second language and gotten her master’s degree, specializing in children’s literature. In addition, she has been involved in various aspects of community life, highlighting one major accomplishment in both her memoir and her interview with the Independent: helping with the Holocaust memorial at Schara Tzedeck Cemetery. When the memorial was unveiled in 1987, writes Perel, “Survivors living in British Columbia, Canada, inscribed the names of 924 of their loved ones who perished during the Holocaust when the Nazi invasion spread throughout Europe.... Today, further names have been added, bringing the number to more than 1,000 names.” Among those names are 56 members of Perel and her husband’s families. Morris Perel is buried nearby.

“I feel fulfilled in all that I have done and learned about the Holocaust,” concluded Perel. “It is very sad, however, that two words in the dictionary – Holocaust and genocide – stand for the murder of 11 million human beings within a period of four years in the killing factories of ‘cultural’ Europe during World War II, and that ‘Never again’ is an ideal we haven’t achieved yet.”

For more information about Songs of the Wasteland, visit Resha Music Productions.