From the Austrian Army to US Army Intelligence: The Many Lives of Otto Perl
Otto Perl, born in Vienna, Austria, in 1915, had a peaceful childhood. He never experienced antisemitism, he said. He swam, ran, and skied as part of a Jewish sports club.
And yet, his parents were aware of rising anti-Jewish sentiment in neighboring Germany.
“They instilled in me and my brother that we had to learn a trade, just to be secure in case something happened,” said Otto in a 1996 oral testimony. He apprenticed with a tailor, who was very ambitious and imposed high standards on his students.
Otto’s training came to a halt when he was drafted into the Austrian army in 1937. He was serving when Nazi Germany annexed Austria in March 1938.
“The whole situation became just unbelievable. All of a sudden you saw Nazi flags all over Vienna,” Otto said. “The majority of the people were happy … that Hitler came in … with all his promises that he would bring jobs to the people. People believed him.”
A few weeks later, the Perls heard knocking on their door early in the morning. Policemen were there to arrest Otto, and he was not given any explanation. Soon, he and hundreds of other Viennese Jews, and some non-Jews, were brought to a railway station and packed onto a train. Thus began an ordeal of horrors for Otto, who was taken to the Dachau concentration camp in Germany and later transferred to the Buchenwald camp.
He saw fellow prisoners beaten and shot to death. He helped dig open-air latrines that were the only place for prisoners to relieve themselves and where some fell and suffocated. He lost friends to an epidemic of typhus. During freezing temperatures, he hid paper bags under his camp uniform for a little extra warmth, hoping the guards wouldn’t notice.
In March 1939, after nearly a year in the camps, Otto was sent back to Vienna with orders to report to the Gestapo twice a week. Just as he didn’t know why he was arrested in the first place, Otto didn’t know why he was released.
“It was a terrible shock when I arrived home. … My parents in one year must have aged 50,” Otto said. The Perls had been forced to share their apartment with another Jewish family. Otto’s brother, Kurt, warned he also would be arrested, had immigrated to Colombia. His father, Leopold, had lost his business. Money and food were scarce. “It was an unbelievable shock. While I was in the concentration camp I thought I was the only one who was punished.” Seeing what had happened to his parents was “much worse.”
Otto had the affidavit he would need to immigrate to the United States, but was waiting for his quota number to come up. He said goodbye to his parents and traveled to England, where he lived in a refugee camp while working on his immigration papers. He was there when World War II started with Germany’s invasion of Poland in September 1939. Otto helped fill sandbags to protect important buildings in England. Finally, in March 1940, a year after being released from Buchenwald, he sailed to America.
In New York City, Otto’s tailoring skills came in handy. He was able to make $18 a week, spend $3 on a bed and breakfast, and save a little money. He soon met Susanne Spritzer, who also had escaped Vienna. They married in 1943.
“We found a nice little apartment, and I was able to have a pretty good job to support my wife and me,” Otto said. “Not much later I got a draft notice from the American Army.”
At first, Otto went to basic training and became an American citizen. Soon he and another German speaker at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, received orders to report to a secret camp. They were to become “Ritchie Boys,” a name coined for approximately 20,000 men who were trained at Camp Ritchie, Maryland, in military intelligence. Otto received training in interrogation techniques and document translation. He later taught German-language teams how to interrogate prisoners.
Collectively, the Ritchie Boys are credited with saving the lives of thousands of other American soldiers during World War II. They are the 2022 recipients of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Elie Wiesel Award, its highest honor.
After the war, Otto returned to Susanne and New York City, where he resumed his trade. But he had received devastating news about his parents in Austria. His mother, Martha, had become depressed and hopeless and committed suicide in 1941. In 1942, his father had been arrested and died of a heart attack on the way to a deportation train.
Meanwhile, Leopold’s insistence that his son learn a trade continued to pay off. In 1949, Otto borrowed $3,000 to purchase a tailoring business that he grew into a great success, making bespoke suits for luminaries including Leonard Bernstein, Luciano Pavarotti, and Itzhak Perlman. He and Susanne had three children and five grandchildren.
In concluding his oral testimony, Otto passed along some of his father’s wisdom: “You have to be prepared to have an umbrella for the good times and the bad times because we know all through history what can happen.”
Read more profiles of people who served at Camp Ritchie:
- From Street Fights to Secret Intelligence: Jewish Brothers Who Fought Back against the Nazis
- From Nazi Germany to the US Military: One Woman’s Story
- From a Linguistic Talent to a Vocation: Aaron Finger’s US Army Journey
- From Nazi-Persecuted Child to American Soldier: How Hugo Zulawski Fought Back
- From Medical School to D-Day: How Charles Stein Escaped the Nazis and Became an American Soldier
Otto Perl’s testimony courtesy of USC Shoah Foundation
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the number of Otto Perl’s grandchildren.