The untold story
Norwegian Holocaust survivor Irene Berman speaks at Kristallnacht commemoration service
By Carla Danziger
Norwegian American Weekly
Irene Levin Berman, author of “We are Going to Pick Potatoes: Norway and the Holocaust, The Untold Story,” riveted congregants gathered at the annual interfaith service at the Washington, D.C. Hebrew Congregation on Nov. 9, commemorating Kristallnacht 1938, when Nazis smashed windows of 7,000 Jewish shops, looted them, burned 267 synagogues, killed about 100 Jewish people and deported 30,000 to concentration camps.
Sharing highlights of her family’s harrowing escape from Oslo to Sweden in 1942 when she was four, and her compelling journey 65 years later to research what had become of her close relatives in Norway who “disappeared” under the Nazi regime, Berman brought to her audience a new awareness of just how far-reaching the Final Solution was.
Berman, a long-time resident of Hartford, Conn., married to American Martin Berman, and the mother of their three children, never thought of herself as a Holocaust survivor, she said. But then, she was asked, as a “survivor from a Scandinavian country,” to contribute a chapter to a book project about the Holocaust. This exercise awakened within her the realization of how deeply the Holocaust and her family’s experience – including her parents’ and others’ silence about it afterwards – had impacted her life. She submitted her chapter. A short time later, the representative of the project stunned Berman when she said her chapter would not be included in the book because of space considerations, and added, “After all…Norway was a very small country with a very small Jewish population.” Those words, she said, turned her into an “activist.”
“Whether the number of victims was six million or 771, as in Norway, weren’t the individual losses – and the stories of survival – equally important?” Berman reflected. “It was at that moment I knew I needed to have my story heard. I felt very strongly that I had an obligation to share in the efforts of educating my generation and younger generations about the atrocities that happened in our lifetime, regardless of the size of my native country and the population.”
At the beginning of the war, Berman said, there were about 2,000 Jews in Norway, 500 of whom were refugees who had come seeking safe haven from the atrocities happening in other parts of Europe.
During the first year of the Nazi occupation, Jews were left more or less alone, but then things changed. In fall of 1942, word spread that the Nazis would soon arrest all Jewish men and boys. Many escaped on their own or with the help of the Norwegian Resistance. Berman’s father, actively involved with the Resistance, and one of his brothers escaped to neutral Sweden in an armoire transported on top of a milk truck, managing to escape before the mass arrests on Oct. 25, 1942. A month later, Berman with her mother, nanny, brother and a 13-year-old cousin, led by Resistance “pilots,” crossed the Swedish border at dawn on Nov. 26, 1942 – about the same time that the Norwegian State Police, on orders of the Gestapo, arrested all Jewish women and children. Berman surmises that those who didn’t escape simply couldn’t believe that “the worst” could happen to them, or that when they realized they needed to leave, it was too late. Such fate she believes befell her father’s sister, her husband, and their two teenagers – the only Jews in Ålesund, on Norway’s west coast. In Berman’s research, she found articles in the local press about her relatives and interviewed elderly residents who remembered them. In learning and telling the tragic story of what happened to them, she feels she has immortalized this family who “disappeared.”
Touching upon the well-known rescue of Danish Jews in September 1943 by their fellow Danes, Berman said that it’s important to remember the differences between Nazi-occupied Norway and Denmark, which she discusses in her book. The fate of the Norwegian Jews in 1942, she said, no doubt made the Danes more aware of the dangers awaiting their own Jewish citizens a year later.
Berman first wrote and published her memoir in Norwegian in 2008. The English edition has been adapted and expanded for an American audience.
The Kristallnacht service, sponsored by the Interreligious Council of Northwest Washington, included readings by clergy and musical reflections by choirs from the three sponsoring congregations: Washington Hebrew Congregation (WHC), Church of the Annunciation, and St. Alban’s Episcopal Church. The annual event coincides with WHC’s 10th grade confirmation class, members of whom also
participated in the service.
Irene Levin Berman’s book “We Are Going to Pick Potatoes: Norway and the Holocaust, The Untold Story” can be purchased through Amazon.com, BarnesandNoble.com, and Hamiltonbooks.com. It can also be ordered through your favorite bookstore. ISBN: 978-07618-50-113. You can also contact Irene directly.
This article was originally published in the Nov. 29, 2010 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. For more information about the Norwegian American Weekly or to subscribe, call us toll free (800) 305-0217 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.