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By Cindy Mindell
Irene’s story of life during the settlement of Jews in Norway, the outbreak of WW2 resulting in persecution by Gestapo, deportation and annihilation of almost 40% of the Norwegian Jews. Her immediate family escaped to neutral Sweden. Many members of her father’s family were less fortunate.
For nearly 45 years, Irene Levin Berman had gotten used to the questions Americans would ask about her native Norway. Did Norwegian Jews suffer? Was there even a Jewish community in Norway?
A Bloomfield resident, Berman emigrated to the U.S. from Oslo in 1960 after marrying an American medical student. She became a translator, specializing in Scandinavian languages.
In 2005, after years of silence on the subject, Berman was asked to submit an article to an organization planning a book on Holocaust survivors who had moved to the U.S. Hers was the only story about surviving the war in a Scandinavian country.
“The publisher called and said that, as much as they loved my chapters, they were going to cut them because Norway was such a small country,” Berman recalls. “I became an activist.”
Two years later, Berman published We Are Going to Pick Potatoes: Norway and the Holocaust, the Untold Story, a portrait of the Jewish community of Norway, in Norwegian, sponsored by Norway’s Resistance Museum. The book was written in both Norwegian and English. Elie Wiesel, Noble Laureate, was kind enough to endorse the English version.
Later this month, Berman will introduce her second book at the Avon Free Public Library, co-sponsored by the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Hartford. A partially fictional account together with fact-based reality that draws on her family’s wartime experiences, the book is titled in response to the publisher who rejected Berman’s first attempt at memoirs: Norway Wasn’t Too Small: A Fact-Based Novel about Darkness and Survival.
Jews began migrating from Eastern Europe to Norway in the 1850s, when the country’s constitution was repealed allowing Jews to settle. When the Nazis invaded Norway on April 9, 1940, there were approximately 2,000 Jews living in the country. In 1942, four-year-old Irene was one of 1,200 Norwegian Jews who escaped to neutral Sweden to avoid deportation to Auschwitz. “We are going to pick potatoes” is what the Levin family housekeeper told four-year-old Irene when she was whisked away from her playgroup in an Oslo park to flee the Nazis. Some 771 Norwegian Jews were deported to the death camp. Only 28 Norwegian men survived. Among those murdered were seven members of the Levin family. Most of the Jews who had escaped to Sweden returned after the war to rebuild their community.
“The Norwegians use potatoes in every meal and it was very common during the war to grow your own potatoes or to go to the country to pick them,” Berman says. “It became a euphemism as we talked about my family’s escape.”
In 2010, the English translation of Berman’s book was launched at the Maurice Greenberg Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Hartford. It was translated into English for the Greenberg Center by the Oslo Jewish Museum. The book chronicles Berman’s family history before, during, and after the war, as well as a historic look at the Jewish community of Norway from 1854 on. The author also reconstructs the lives of her murdered relatives, with the help of interviews from surviving friends and neighbors who are now in their 80s.
The book sold 4,000 copies and launched Berman on a three-year international speaking tour.
“It really felt good having written and educated America about Norway and the Holocaust, so I decided that I would try to do something in fiction,” says Berman. “Then it dawned on me that I didn’t know how to write fiction.”
At the Wesleyan Writers Conference in 2013, Berman met teaching fellow Rebecca Makkai, who agreed to serve as writing coach. Berman constructed a novel that alternates between a Jewish-Norwegian extended family enduring the Holocaust, one branch in Oslo and the other in the small northern town of Aalesund – reflecting the real-life experiences of Berman and her parents and brother, juxtaposed with those of her father’s sister and brother-in-law and their two children. While the Oslo family survived by escaping to Sweden, the Aalesund family perished.
“I never knew them; my parents never talked about them,” Berman says. “When I was a little girl, there was a silence and the adults never told the children about the horrors of the war. They couldn’t speak about it, they didn’t want to speak about it, so they just moved it to the side.”
Berman reconstructed those lost lives by placing an ad in the local Aalesund newspaper and interviewing people who remembered the family and were eager to speak with the author.
“My mission now is to educate more people about the Holocaust in Norway,” Berman says. “The second book is to help people understand and remember what happened in Norway during the Holocaust by making it easy for them to digest the story.”
Berman hopes to get the book into as many hands as possible, by offering it at a discount to high schools, colleges, and synagogues.
For more information about Berman and the Jews of Norway: norwayandtheholocaust.com.