I have been looking forward to meeting and photographing Irene Perbal with great anticipation. Earlier this year, 2020, the year of Covid, we had a wonderful chat on the phone. Irene is from Amsterdam and her family hid many Jews in their home during WWII. While not Jewish, she lived in a neighborhood with many Jews, and her father in particular was appalled at how the Jews were being treated once the Nazi war machine invaded Holland. While all the Dutch were facing many changes in their lives due to the occupation, they could see the Jews had it much worse.
While Irene had a wonderful childhood living in the big city, ice skating on the canals, riding bikes and hanging out with friends, things changed overnight for her in 1940. She was seven years old at the time. Suddenly there were curfews, food rations, and the sudden disappearance of her Jewish friends. Being that Amsterdam was now considered enemy territory, the RAF initiated nightly bombing raids, which Irene described as incredibly frightening. For many nights, they would live in darkness and fear. She recalls her father being a brave man committed to standing up for others, and at the risk of death, the Perbal family started hiding Jews in a secret location in their home. Someone downstairs would ring a bell to warn the Jews upstairs to go hide whenever they saw a Nazi soldier approaching. They were successful until one day in 1944 when Irene’s father was out working, the Nazi’s came and found two Jews whom they immediately took away. They asked where her father was, and were told he was at work. Cleverly, the Nazi’s asked who the family Doctor was. Knowing this information, they proceeded to call Mr. Perbal at work and told him it was Dr. Dubois calling and that the oldest of the two babies (his first son) was dying. Consequently, Mr. Perbal returned home immediately only to find the Nazi’s waiting for him, at which time he was taken away. Tragically, this would be the last time the Perbal family saw him. The next day the Nazi’s returned, and emptied out the house of all belongings. The Perbals were forced to leave and find shelter in a small apartment that the Dutch resistance helped them to find.
Unfortunately, despite all this, the worst was yet to come. The Germans retreated to Amsterdam after suffering major losses such as in the Battle of the Bulge. They were meaner than ever and consequently food and water became even more scarce. People were dying in the streets of starvation. Food would consist of a mere daily scoop of a watery potato peel and sugar beet residue mixture.
For years, the family did not know what had happened to Mr. Perbal. Finally after the war they found out. While holding his photo they searched desperately on bus after bus of Jews returning to Amsterdam from the camps. These Jews, which Irene described as “living skeletons” had barely survived and were still wearing their tattered striped uniforms. Irene and her family held out hope that someone would have heard or known about her father, but no one did. Sadly, they would find out later that he had perished in the concentration camp Neungamme Sandbostel. He did manage to survive the war, but when the Nazi’s learned that they would soon be captured, they inoculated all surviving prisoners with Typhus, which would be the cause of Mr. Perbal’s death a week after the war ended.
Along with the knowledge of the loss of Mr. Perbal, the family eventually received his remains. Included separately, was Mr. Perbal’s fountain pen, a treasure Irene cherishes deeply. She shared with me that he had exquisite penmanship, and consequently in the portrait I made of Irene, I have included a representation of the last letter he sent to the family from the camp before he perished. He had used his fountain pen to write it.
Today, Irene speaks out vehemently about her experiences. She wants people to understand the dangers of Fascism and the importance of being informed. She does not hesitate to speak up about things that concern her, and encourages others to do so.
Although 87 years old, Irene told me she has a lot of work yet to do in life. I can see by her energy and passion, that she will indeed have plenty of time to continue bringing her light to the world. G-d Bless you Irene!