Before her birth, Dora Perel’s parents traveled the globe trying to find the perfect home for their growing family. They left their native Jacobstadt for Argentina, Danzig, and back to Jacobstadt, before finally settling in Frankfurt, where Dora was born.
Dora was one of eight siblings who grew up in a religious home devoted to family and filled with opera, music, and reading. Books were her passion, sparked by her father who owned a bookbinding business and was a devout Jew who worshipped daily at the Rothschild’s private synagogue. Dora could not imagine that the narrative of her own life would soon surpass her novels with its own tragedies and good fortune.
Dora married David Perel shortly after Armistice Day brought a conclusion to World War I in November 1918. As Dora sat down to her wedding dinner, revolutionaries vying for control of Germany plundered the streets. They passed right by the wedding hall but left the new Perel family in peace.
Dora gave birth to her first child, Fred, in April 1920. He, too, was a sign of good fortune. Fred arrived just after the curfew was lifted, so she was able to give birth at a hospital under medical care.
Never one for sitting at home, Dora attended business school in Frankfurt before turning her passion for books into a position as a secretary at the largest Jewish publishing firm in southern Germany. A second child, Ida, followed soon after she took the job.
Despite rampant inflation in Germany throughout the 1920s, David prospered as well. After quitting his job as a chemist, he joined his father and brother in the family cigarette factory, R. Perel & Sons. As money became worth less and less, cigarettes were used as an alternative currency.
But the national disturbance that was such a boon for R. Perel & Sons also inspired the rise of a new political party, the Nazis. Initially dismissed by the Jews of Frankfurt as a radical fringe, the force of the party would soon come to bear directly on Dora and her family. In April 1933, the sabbath after Passover, the Nazis boycotted Jewish stores and photographed anyone who entered, a scare tactic targeting Jews and their non-Jewish customers alike. The boycott took place on the same day as Fred’s Bar Mitzvah. Fearing Nazi attention, Dora disinvited most of the guests. Fortunately, as during her wedding, the danger passed over.
But the increase in antisemitic abuse and systemic discrimination – social, political, economic – against Jews over the ensuing years convinced Dora and David that they could no longer rely on their luck. In April 1936, David, Fred, and Ida fled for the US. Dora spent two more years in Germany, fear of the Nazis was now coupled with separation from her family. Dora would later recall the relief she felt when she joined them in the Birmingham in August 1938. It was not just an end to living in fear. She was able to look ahead, toward a future full of promise for Fred and Ida. Both went on to obtain a college education, Fred at what is now Samford University in Birmingham, and Ida at Hunter College in New York City.
Dora was grateful for the blessings of safety and opportunity, but personal peace would prove more elusive. Of her six siblings, two died in the Holocaust. She believed the same fate had met her brother-in-law, Jacob Neugebauer, until watching a movie at the Alabama Theatre shortly after the war; she saw English soldiers liberate him from a concentration camp.
At the end of her Birmingham Memory Bank interview in 1985, Dora acknowledged that, “Even after 42 years many nights I can’t fall asleep, memories of those long gone but not forgotten times of torturing.” She asked herself, “Why…did the world let this happen?” Her granddaughter, Dora continued, “asked me to write about everything…she even asked me to write a book…but I just can’t.” Asked why, Dora responded with a paradox: on the one hand, it was impossible because “all the fears, anxiety…there would be no end to it.” On the other, just recalling her life to the interviewer that June day was more than she could stand, “my tears really are running down, I can’t say any more.”