Rafel Perez, a Bulgarian Jew of modest circumstances, was born on May 10, 1890 in Plowdiv. As a small child, he was visually impaired, and around eight years of age, he became completely blind. He was a bright and intelligent youth, and members of the Jewish community wanted to help to further his education. They sent him to the Jewish Institute for the Blind in Jerusalem, which still exists to this day. He was sent away when he was 14 years old in approximately 1904, which was still the era of the Ottoman Empire in Palestine, in what is today Israel .
He quickly gave up his training as a broom- and brush-maker in favor of studying music. Rafael‘s music instructor in Jerusalem insisted that his highly talented student should study at the Stern Conservatory in Berlin. Rafael, who was 20 years old, succeeded in moving to Berlin to study music, and lived in the Jewish Home for the Blind in the Steglitz district. Despite his disability, he was very self-reliant, visited his mother multiple times in Bulgaria, and earned an income by giving violin recitals. He was comfortable with his life in Berlin, and even able to take public transportation by himself through the city. He played several musical instruments and had a superb tenor voice.
He learned the piano tuning trade in order to earn a living. He also earned money by singing in a choir in a synagogue located on Pestalozzistraße. His beautiful tenor voice got him invited to concerts, where he sang works by Schumann, Schubert, and Hugo Wolf. At one such concert, he met Johanna Bender, and the story goes something like this: at the concert, plans were made for a group outing for the next day. However, it rained the next day and Rafael and Johanna were the only ones who showed up for the outing. They fell in love with each other, and were married in 1919 despite the strong opposition of both of their families.
Johanna was from a Christian family, and she wanted to marry a Jewish man, who was also blind and a foreigner! She was a Berliner and a Protestant, and her parents and her sister feared that he would ruin her financially. Johanna’s parents did not speak with her until Johanna and Rafael’s son Heinz was born, an event which reconciled them to some degree. Their fears had had no basis; Rafael provided for his family. They were happy together and had a good life, until the year 1933 came along, and with it the Nazis.
Living conditions became more and more intolerable for Jews. Johanna was summoned by the Gestapo, where she was advised to divorce Rafael because of his religion. She refused without hesitation, and thereby sealed her fate with that of the Jewish people. Her son Heinz, who was a student at Paulsen Gymnasium, left his school and was required to attend the Addas Israel School instead, which was located quite a distance away. In 1938, Rafael and Johanna decided to seek out a safer living situation for their only son. After training as a carpenter in Berlin-Niederschönhausen, the then 18-year-old travelled by ship in October 1938 to Palestine. Thanks to the British government, Johanna and Rafael were able to emigrate in 1939 to London, at the last minute. The British allowed 150 Jewish, work-ready blind people to enter England. Just one day after their arrival, Rafael took his cane and tools and went off to tune pianos.
In this way, Rafael and Johanna made a new start in a foreign country. They lived in London until Rafael’s death in 1967; his widow Johanna then moved near her son Heinz in Israel.