Hyman Pertman, a retired Baltimore tailor whose World War II exploits included escaping from a German prisoner of war camp and later surviving imprisonment in a Russian labor camp, died of heart failure Monday at Union Memorial Hospital. The Northwest Baltimore resident was 89.
Born and raised Chaim Pertman in Wohyn, Poland, Mr. Pertman was 11 when he began training to become a tailor. He was working at the profession when he was drafted into the Polish army.
He told family members that he vividly recalled the September day in 1939 when he and his comrades were digging trenches along a river separating Poland and Germany, and German troops suddenly crossed the river in the invasion of his homeland.
Nearly a week later, Mr. Pertman and nearly 1,000 other soldiers in his regiment became prisoners of the Germans.
"When they captured us, they said, `All Jewish soldiers here should step out, and the officers should step out.' I'm in a line together with the Gentile soldiers and I said to myself, `Out or not, out or not, out or not,' and I decided not to go out," he told a son, Adam Pertman, then a reporter for the Boston Globe, for an account published there in 1983.
"I decided not to go out because I don't know if they're going to kill us. I want to mix myself up with the Gentiles so they don't kill me."
He recalled that about 25 Jews stepped out of the line while three, including Mr. Pertman, remained in formation. "Before my eyes, they made them step away maybe five or six foot and shot all of them. Before my eyes. This is what I saw," he said.
After a nighttime escape from the POW camp, Mr. Pertman returned to Wohyn, where he found his childhood sweetheart, the former Frieda Szarfsztajn, whom he had married in 1939.
His father-in-law, who was president of the Jewish town council in the village, had been ordered by the Nazis at a council meeting to provide 50 Jews for work. When he refused, he went outside and was gunned down.
Mr. Pertman and his wife furtively traveled to Russia by wagon and on foot, hiding in barns at night. Once there, he was drafted into the Russian army and, when it was discovered that he wasn't a Russian national, he was exiled to a labor camp near the Ural mountains.
"It was long, hard work, but it saved his life. The relatives who stayed behind were almost all killed by Nazis in their homes, on the streets or in the concentration camps," said the son, who is executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute and author of the book Adoption Nation.
When the war ended, Mr. Pertman and his wife settled in Wroclaw, Poland, then moved to Israel in 1957. Polish family friends, then living in Baltimore, sent a letter offering to sponsor the Pertmans and their four children, and in December 1958, they arrived at their new home.
"We arrived in the U.S. by ship with $140 and the clothes on our backs. It was their dream to come here and make their fortune," the son said.
They lived on Park Heights Avenue, then on Springhill Avenue and, finally, on Fallstaff Road in Northwest Baltimore.
The couple owned and operated a mom-and-pop grocery store in West Baltimore for more than a decade before they established Pertman's Professional Tailoring and Cleaning on York Road in Towson in 1975.
Family members said Mr. Pertman was something of a workaholic, busy 14 hours a day, seven days a week.
"Customers flocked and showered him with compliments on his work. He was an unusually good craftsman until his hands began to shake and his eyesight began to fail him. He never felt better than when he was behind a sewing machine," said Adam Pertman of Newton, Mass.
Even though he retired in 1985, he continued tailoring part time for Macy's and accepted work altering clothes in a small basement shop in his home.
It wasn't until 1983, when Mr. and Mrs. Pertman were attending a Washington gathering of Holocaust survivors, that they began to speak of the dark years of the war.
"Dad really didn't talk about the war or the past very often until the reunion. It was too horrific. They spent years living within themselves because they couldn't face up to it and couldn't bear to put anyone else through it," the son said.
Despite his ordeal, Mr. Pertman was not bitter. He had made a new and successful life in his adopted country.
"He didn't wallow in it. He never let his past stop him from progressing," the son said. "He spoke in a halting, heavily accented English, but he always made himself understood, and he was passionate about the things he cared about most: his family, politics and his favorite way to spend his leisure time, watching professional wrestling on television."
Mr. Pertman was an avid reader of the weekly Yiddish-language newspaper Forward, and books and articles about the Holocaust.
A week before he was hospitalized in mid-September, Mr. Pertman, who suffered from chronic leg pains, played soccer at the 9th birthday party for his oldest great-grandchild, family members said.
Services were yesterday.
Survivors, in addition to his wife and son, include two other sons, Allan Pertman of Columbia and Henry Pertman of Owings Mills; a daughter, Rita Abel of Owings Mills; 11 grandchildren; and nine great-grandchildren.