Sharing the untold story
Author Irene Levin Berman recounts her earliest memories of World War II during her book tour
Karin Arentzen Stahl
Irene Levin Berman, author of “We Are Going to Pick Potatoes, Norway and the Holocaust, The Untold Story,” was a featured presenter at this year’s Norway Day Festival in Fort Mason, San Francisco, Calif., May 5 – 6. She was introduced by Consul General Sten Arne Rosnes of the Royal Norwegian Consulate General in San Francisco.
In his hand he held an article published in the Feb. 21, 2012 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly in which Irene had written an editorial in response to Norway’s Prime Minister. He had recently issued an official apology to Norwegian Jews for the role his country played in standing by while the Norwegian police arrested its own Jews during the Holocaust. This led to their deportation and death at Auschwitz. Was she being too diplomatic, Rosnes wanted to know? “Isn’t it better we be too critical than too understanding?”
“When I speak, I present Norwegian history for readers to come to their own conclusions,” Berman replied.
“I am purposely trying to draw a picture of the two different sides of this grey area which has remained unresolved for 70 years. I am trying to make the audience delve into the conflict themselves,” she said. “Were the Norwegian police afraid of life-threatening repercussions themselves? Were they unfamiliar with the Jews in general? Were they basically indifferent? I am trying to express myself not as a bitter Norwegian Jew, but as a messenger of this terrible event.”
Being the messenger is an active role Berman takes to heart when it comes to speaking about the history of Norwegian Jews. “I’m not always that nice,” Irene said to me in an interview after the festival. When the movie Max Manus was newly released in Europe she made arrangements for the first showings to be held in Hartford, Conn., and New York. Seeing this exceptionally well-done movie about the sinking of the ship Donau devastated her.
“I was asked to introduce the producer who was present prior to seeing the movie for the first time. I got such a shock when I saw the movie! It didn’t occur to me that the transport of the Jews to their final destiny could have been ignored. Max Manus totally left out the fact the Donau transported Jews to their death after the roundup on Nov. 25, 1942.”
The Donau was identified as a German troop ship in the popular Norwegian movie. When Irene asked the producer how this could have happened, he had no explanation for how they’d “forgotten to mention” this was the ship that had brought 681 Norwegian Jews to their deaths. “The more I thought about it, the more incredible I felt. Wasn’t that important enough?” This sensation has yet to leave her, and she still finds it difficult to comprehend.
“The Donau is a powerful symbol of the Holocaust for Norwegian Jews, a sensitivity ignored in the movie.” Her website features one of the rare photos of this infamous ship on the day of the arrests. Visit www.norwayandtheholocaust.com.
This May was Berman’s third speaking tour in California since the English translation of her popular book reached American audiences two years ago. Prior to the festival, May 4 was spent with a large group of members and friends at the Scandinavian Cultural Center of Santa Cruz as a guest of the president, Jeanne Shada, and cultural director, Duane Adams. Irene recounted her earliest memories as a child in Norway whose family narrowly escaped the roundup of Norwegian Jews by fleeing over the border into neutral Sweden. A few Holocaust survivors from other countries joined Berman afterward for heartfelt conversation.
People embrace her work on so many levels, bringing them to recall their World War II experiences or stories they’ve heard in their own families. Memories begin to surface and archival photos and documents are now made available to the public. Decades after the events of her book, Irene Berman addresses Jewish groups and historians as well as Norwegian-Americans in the U.S.
Berman is making so many connections that it gives meaning to the expression, “There are no coincidences.” An older gentleman in one audience remembered being treated by Berman’s physician uncle from Oslo before his arrest and death. The uncle was a relative she had never known and barely heard about due to the “silence” which prevailed during her childhood and youth in reference to conversations about “those who disappeared” – a euphemism for having died in the camps.
A woman in Ålesund, the granddaughter of the housekeeper for the Steinfelds written about in the chapter, “The Family That Disappeared,” emailed Berman a photo taken in Stockholm, Sweden. The photo depicts a crowd of Norwegian refugees, participants in resistance work forced to leave Norway, couriers, Jews, and others in exile celebrating Norwegian Constitution Day on May 17, 1943. The focus is on children waving Norwegian flags and there is another coincidence. Unknowingly, this young woman had randomly found a photo which has a tiny Irene and her brother Leif Arild in the foreground!
This same Norwegian woman from Ålesund has connected closely with Berman and is currently continuing their mutual journey by writing her own book about this family. When they met in New York recently, she asked Berman her advice about a disclosure issue. She knows the identity of the family of Norwegians, members of the Nazi party, who moved into the Ålesund apartment after the Steinfelds had been arrested and deported. There were then reports – not a coincidence – that some of Leah’s clothing made an appearance again in the village being worn by those with access to the apartment.
The question faces all writers involved in history and war. When is it appropriate to disclose names and facts, knowing families in this generation will have to deal with that information? Just as Berman had a choice in her own book, this Norwegian woman faces the same decision when bearing witness to the many who died. As Berman counseled her and the audience in San Francisco, we live in an imperfect world; there is only a choice of conscience we each make.
“No one can hold the next generation responsible for actions carried out by past Norwegians that appear now as traitorous to their own country. Our option is to honor the real victims, such as my aunt, uncle and their children, by speaking the truth as is available,” Berman concludes.
Berman’s book and information about her experiences can be found on her website at www.norwayandtheholocaust.com.
This article originally appeared in the June 8, 2012 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (800) 305-0271.