Educate so people may never forget
Reflections from the “Norway and the Holocaust: The Untold Story” book tour in California
By Karin Arentzen Stahl
Norwegian American Weekly
My Norwegian-American father, Rolf, made new friends easily. All I had to do was listen for Norwegian to find Dad happily introducing himself. He had always told us, “We’re American and speak English,” but regularly enjoyed breaking that guideline. His parents, Einar and Ragna, had emigrated in 1919, married in the U.S. and raised five Norwegian-American children who all spent many vacations with family in Norway growing up. Each went to college and passed on Norwegian traditions to all of us, more than 22 grandchildren.
Most of the Arentzen family came from Narvik, some from Bergen and Oslo. During my first visit to Norway in 1964 I was told stories of our family history, including the war and deprivations, such as the death of my namesake, Karin Beate. My father was proud of the American branch of the family and told them about founding Lee-Norse mining machinery company, and how my grandfather, Einar Arentzen, donated Narvik Hall dormitory to Allegheny College when my brother and I were students there.
So, my friend Irene Levin Berman was one of Dad’s “finds” first, a talented writer I’ve grown to treasure for many years who has encouraged my learning more about my roots, cooking family recipes, reading Norwegian authors, even subscribing to Norwegian American Weekly, and joining Sons of Norway. But I didn’t learn about Norwegian Jews, not until Irene’s untold story was published.
Irene starts her book talks with a reaction from people who first meet her and are unaware of her Jewish background, “You’re Norwegian? But you have dark hair!”
When I listen to her speak I feel I’m back in Norway as a teenager asking questions. “What did you do in the war, Uncle Ingman? Did you have to house Germans, Tante Kristine?” In my family there was an uncomfortable silence about one uncle’s background in particular, something that wasn’t explained until I was an adult; he had joined the Nazi party during the occupation. The family felt shame over that, a painful admission. Thanks to writers today like Irene, I am learning others have discovered similar stories about World War II, occupation, resistance, and things people did to survive under extraordinary conditions.
Irene Levin Berman knows the exact moment – her earliest childhood memory – when life changed forever and she became a Holocaust survivor by escaping over the border to Sweden, Nov. 25, 1942. On Nov. 15, more than 68 years later, Irene spoke at the Scandinavian American Cultural and Historical Foundation located at the California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks, Calif. An aged Norwegian rose from his seat, “Your father’s brother, Leonard Levin? He was my doctor!” Dr. Leonard Levin was the youngest of Irene’s uncles, arrested and killed. Here was someone who knew a family member she had lost, had never even known.
The next day on Nov. 16, Dr. Jodi Myers’ class at the California State University, Northridge, was filled with people who’d come to hear Irene. Students sat on the floor, two videographers interviewed and filmed her, and older members of the audience shared family World War II experiences. They were deeply moved by the chapter in Irene’s book, “The Silence,” how individuals could not speak of what they’d been through. That chapter had resonated with me also, though for different reasons for our non-Jewish family. These were poignant moments for all of us to hear Irene’s family story.
In the evening we went to a very special fundraising dinner on behalf of Heritage Pointe Senior Center. I sat absorbing all the conversations around us, hearing more stories of family members, many about parents who had made the decision to leave for America or Israel before the start of World War II. Irene’s friends, Dr. Gerald and Ilene Spear, embraced us with their home and family during this part of the book tour. It had been an emotional evening.
The final evening, Nov. 17, we went with Harold Rockstad to visit the Scandinavian Cultural & Historical Foundation Center to see their tremendous preservation initiative and displays. They have many unique and valuable cultural artifacts. Irene’s presentation followed at the Sons of Norway 91 Lodge in Westlake Village where Cultural Director, Sonja Buckelew, and translation colleague, Erling Dugan, greeted us. We were joined by Norway’s Honorary Consul to Los Angeles, Michael Soroy.
Erling’s introduction was particularly moving as he admitted he’d been in tears reading the chapter “The Family That Disappeared.” It is about the only Jewish family in Ålesund, Norway, the Steinfelds. Irene gives voice to their silenced voices, a compelling part of her book.
As I watched Irene speak to the crowd, all of us connected by our Norwegian heritage, I glanced down and fully appreciated the quote by Elie Wiesel, Nobel Laureate, on her book, “This ‘untold story’ about what happened to Norwegian Jews during the Holocaust deserves to be told – and now it is.”
For more information, visit Irene Levin Berman’s website at www.norwayandtheholocaust.org.
This article originally appeared in the Dec. 23, 2011 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (800) 305-0271.