A new book by a Bloomfield resident and a photo exhibit at the University of Hartford uncover the untold story of Norway’s Jews – their contribution to the country’s arts and culture… and their struggle during World War II.
For nearly 45 years, Irene Levin Berman had gotten used to the questions Americans would ask about her native Norway. What happened during World War II? 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, and brought Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen’s works to American audiences.
In 2005, after years of silence on the subject, Berman submitted an article to an organization that planned to publish a book on Holocaust survivors who had moved to the U.S. Hers was the only account 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 says. “I became an activist.”
Three years later, Berman published a book in Norwegian on the Jewish community of Norway, sponsored by Norway’s Resistance Museum.
On April 1, the Maurice Greenberg Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Hartford will host a book launch of the English translation of her memoir, “‘We Are Going to Pick Potatoes’: Norway and the Holocaust, the Untold Story,” followed by the opening of the photography exhibition “Freedom Is Never Free: Norway and the Jews.” The exhibition, which initially opened in September 2008 at the Oslo Jewish Museum, presents the history of Jewish contributions to Norwegian arts and culture, and the Jewish struggle against German occupation during World War II. It has been specially translated into English for the Greenberg Center by the Oslo Jewish Museum.
Dr. Avinoam Patt of the Greenberg Center is director of the Sherman Museum of Jewish Civilization, where the exhibition will be shown until Oct. 25. “This is one of these little-known histories where, if you didn’t have someone like Irene Berman to tell it, no one would pay attention,” he says. “While there were only around 2,000 Jews in Norway, they played an important role in that society. With World War II, there’s a tendency to think that we already know all we’re going to, and we tend to hear the same stories. But there are new stories about survival that are important to know about but get overlooked.”
This is the kind of story that Berman tells in her book. Jews began migrating from Eastern Europe to Norway in the 1850s, when the country’s constitution was repealed to allow Jews to settle there. By the time the Nazis invaded Norway on April 9, 1940, there were approximately 2,000 Jews living in the country. In 1942, 4-year-old Irene was one of 1,200 Norwegian Jews who escaped to neutral Sweden to avoid deportation to Auschwitz. Some 771 Norwegian Jews were deported to the death camp, where 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.
“We are going to pick potatoes” is what the Levin family housekeeper told 4-year-old Irene when she was whisked away from her playgroup in an Oslo park to flee the Nazis.
“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.”
The Oslo Jewish Museum began planning the photography exhibition, “Freedom Is Never Won Once and for All,” in 2005. Chief curator Bjarte Bruland asked Berman if she could help identify possible funding sources in the U.S. When Berman learned how difficult it would be to start a not-for-profit organization to try to raise funds, she had another idea. On the occasion of her husband’s 70th birthday, Berman sent a letter to all their friends and acquaintances inviting them to contribute to a donation that the family planned to send to the museum and the new Holocaust Center under construction in Oslo.
“That’s when I first started telling them the story of my family for the first time,” she says.
To make the gifts tax-deductible, Berman turned to the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at the University of Minnesota, who agreed to serve as an intermediary. The director, Steve Feinstein, z”l, was acquainted with the two institutions in Oslo, and proposed a seminar on Norway and the Holocaust. In 2007, Berman joined a panel of speakers, where she presented her family’s story. Fellow panelist, Arnfinn Moland, director of Norway’s Resistance Museum, approached Berman and suggested turning her story into a book. The Norwegian edition, “Vi skal plukke poteter”, Flukten fra Holocaust”, was published in September 2008 by the Orion Publishing Company and launched at the Jewish Resistance Museum, the same week the Oslo Jewish Museum opened the photography exhibition.
Among those present was Arnold Greenberg, founder of the Maurice Greenberg Center for Judaic Studies. “He was totally taken by the museum and the exhibits,” Berman says. “After he went on a Jewish tour of Norway, he called [Greenberg Center director] Richard Freund and said, ‘I’d like to see if we can bring the exhibition to the University of Hartford.'”
With the launch of her book in Norwegian, Berman signed a contract with Hamilton Books, a division of Rowman & Littlefield, and began working on an English translation.
“As I went through the process, I became a little more aggressive and came across some things that were not pleasant,” she says. “Not all Norwegians were as lily-white as they had been portrayed. I discovered that they might have done more to save the Jews. In the English translation, I express some of my newly found doubts.”
For example, the Norwegian Jews were arrested by the Norwegian state police on orders from the Gestapo, whereas, in Denmark, the Danish police were the ones who rescued arrested Jews.
“At the same time, I learned that you should not judge people in a time of war,” Berman says. “When people think that their lives and their family’s life are at stake, others can’t judge their actions.”
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 eighties.
Berman credits those same friends and acquaintances who answered her 2005 fundraising appeal with rallying to help fund the Greenberg Center photography exhibition.
“The enthusiasm and support from the University of Hartford, and all my friends who have supported me over the last couple of years in writing the book, were also excited about the photo exhibition,” she says. “But the book is almost secondary; it’s the story that’s important. I want to bring it to my generation and the next, as well as to Holocaust deniers. Many Holocaust survivors are dying. The more first-hand information we can bring to light, the better.”
The book launch will be held on Thursday, April 1 at 7 p.m. in the Wilde Auditorium of the University of Hartford’s Harry Jack Gray Center. The opening of “Freedom Is Never Free” will follow in the university’s Sherman Museum of Jewish Civilization. The University of Hartford is located at 200 Bloomfield Ave. in West Hartford.
For more information about “‘We Are Going to Pick Potatoes:’ Norway and the Holocaust, The Untold Story” visit www.hamilton-books.com. For details on the April 1 events visit www.hartford.edu/greenberg or call (860) 768-4964.
Note: This story was originally published in the March 24, 2010 edition of the CT Jewish Ledger