Sharing their story
California Lutheran University hosts lecture about the flight of Norwegian Jews during World War II
By Richard Londgren
Norwegian American Weekly
In 1940, four-year-old Jewish-Norwegian Irene Levin Berman was an endangered person. After the conquest of Norway by Germany that year, most Norwegian Jews realized they must flee.
As part of her Nov. 15 presentation about the spreading impact of the Nazi Holocaust, she told about the desperate effort by most Jews in Norway to seek safety in Sweden. The alternative, she reported with sorrow, called for boarding a ship en route to the feared Auschwitz.
To a full house at California Lutheran University’s Overton Hall, she shared her story in her presentation titled “We are Going to Pick Potatoes.” Those were among the reassuring words that a family helper used to calm her and other youngsters as the group of Jews from Oslo began their risky escape to Sweden.
When she told about the reaction by her extended family to the danger from the Nazis, she explained that some of her relatives couldn’t believe that their lives might be at risk. So a few of them stayed behind in Norway, only to be sent by the Nazis to a concentration camp a short time later.
As a reminder of another consequence to the Jewish citizens in Norway, Berman told with regret about her family’s loss of a successful business – immediately confiscated by the invaders.
She explained that she grew up safe and secure in Sweden, so not until much later did she fully comprehend the scope of the tragedy experienced not only by the Jews in Norway but also by the much of the total Norwegian population.
A few years after the war, life changed again for her, when her parents became concerned about her interest in a Scandinavian boyfriend. So they literally shipped her off to America, where she did meet and marry a Jewish-American medical student.
Eventually, at the urging of family and friends, she wrote a book based on her recollections and information from others about the reasons for and consequences of the flight from Norway.
For the title of her book, she chose that soothing assurance to the four-year-old: “We Are Going to Pick Potatoes: Norway and the Holocaust, The Untold Story.” But she mentioned her great chagrin when one publisher liked her story but turned it down because the 2,000 Jews in Norway seemed relatively unimportant in the scope of the total Holocaust.
However, her research and courageous writing have gained much praise, including thanks from the leading Jewish Holocaust expert, Elie Wiesel, for bringing forth this previously untold story.
After her presentation at CLU, she responded to several questions from the audience. In answer to a query about why the Norwegian police participated in rounding up Jews and members of the Norwegian resistance, she explained that some of the Norwegian police had already been Nazi sympathizers, and others cowered under severe threat from the Nazis.
The event was sponsored by the Scandinavian American Cultural & Historical Foundation of Thousand Oaks, and Berman’s PowerPoint presentation and her answers to questions kept the audience in rapt attention. Because of the overflow crowd, a large group of CLU students from a class about the Holocaust sat on the floor along the edges of the room.
For more information about the Scandinavian American Cultural & Historical Foundation, check out www.ScandinavianCenter.org.
This article originally appeared in the Dec. 9, 2011 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (800) 305-0271.