Irene Levin Berman’s earliest memory is of being carried in a backpack, slung over the shoulders of a Norwegian resistance fighter.
It was November 1942 and Berman, then just 4 years old, was sandwiched between food, flashlights and a gun as she and her family fled to neutral Sweden to escape the Holocaust.
“It was the day before all the [Jewish] women and children were arrested,” said the 72-year-old Berman by phone from her home in Bloomfield, Conn. “We crossed the border into Sweden at the very same hour that cab drivers were sent [to Norway] to make the arrests.”
Berman was in the Bay Area recently to speak about her book, “We Are Going to Pick Potatoes: Norway and the Holocaust, the Untold Story,” which chronicles the lives of Norwegian Jews from their arrival in the mid-19th century until the present. Berman also incorporates intimate details about her family’s life in Norway before and after World War II.
Berman said she recently received an endorsement of her book from Nobel laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, who noted that her story is one that “deserves to be told. And now it is.”
“We are getting close to the end of the Holocaust generation,” said Berman, a professional translator of Scandinavian languages. “There are not many people left who can bear witness. I want my generation to know what happened in Norway — an equally important story even though the country is small.”
More than 100 people attended Berman’s talk last month at the Bureau of Jewish Education in San Francisco, where Sten Arne Rosnes, Norway’s consul general in San Francisco, introduced her. Barbro Osher, Sweden’s honorary consul general in San Francisco and a well-known philanthropist, also spoke emotionally about her country’s role in the Holocaust.
Berman also addressed some smaller gatherings, including one with the sisterhood at Congregation Beth Israel in Berkeley.
The venues might have been different, but the reaction from listeners was almost always the same. “Everybody says, ‘I’ve never heard anything about Norway and the Holocaust,’” Berman said, adding that approximately 40 percent of Norway’s Jews were killed (mostly in Auschwitz) during the Holocaust.
She always begins her presentations by asking her audience to close their eyes and think back as far as possible into their conscious memory. The first image that comes into Berman’s mind is the day of her escape.
“I was in the park with my playgroup and our housekeeper picked me up,” Berman recalled. “As we walked home, she took my hand and told me we were going on a vacation to pick potatoes.”
The Jewish community in Norway grew slowly until World War II. Bolstered by refugees in the late 1930s, the Jewish population increased to around 2,000. After the war, around 1,200 remained.
A few years ago, Berman was asked to write the story of her escape for a collection of Holocaust survivor stories; her tale would be the only one about a Scandinavian country. However, her account was excluded from the final compilation because “Norway was a small country with not many Jews,” she was told.
That answer incensed her.
But Berman would get the chance to read her unpublished chapter at a 2007 seminar on Norway. One of the panelists, the president of Norway’s Resistance Museum, suggested turning the story into a book.
Berman ran with the idea and “We Are Going To Pick Potatoes” was published in Norway in 2008. The U.S. version was published this year.
“Norwegians were wonderful,” Berman said. “The resistance people helped the Jews survive by bringing them from Norway to the forest to the borders of Sweden. If they didn’t help the Jews, we would have all been killed.
“At the same time, the Gestapo forced Norway’s police to participate in the arrest of Jews. It was a source of a lot of shame.”
Berman and her family returned to Norway in 1946, but she eventually left in 1960 for the United States. Today, Berman defines herself as Norwegian, Jewish and American — which she said allowed her to be open in her writing.
“Here’s a little story that I started on my own,” she said. “I never dreamed it would go this far and generate as much interest.”
“We Are Going to Pick Potatoes: Norway and the Holocaust, the Untold Story” by Irene Levin Berman (236 pages, Hamilton Books, $28)