Holocaust survivor speaks at Concordia
MOORHEAD—Irene Levin Berman was a 4-year-old Jew living in Nazi-occupied Norway 74 years ago when her housekeeper, Ruth, told her the family was going on a trip.
"Irene, I have something exciting to tell you," Ruth explained to the young girl. "We are going on vacation. We are going to the country. We are going to pick potatoes."
But Berman soon learned that her family was not going on vacation; they were trying to secretly leave the country to avoid a horrible fate.
Berman told the harrowing story of her family's escape to a rapt audience of area schoolteachers who attended a Holocaust education workshop Friday at Concordia College.
The workshop focused on the Holocaust in Scandinavia.
The workshop's organizers were Kristin Thompson of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, professor Kyle Ward of St. Cloud State University and Laura Zelle of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas.
The workshop was attended by a few dozen teachers including Nancy Wiebusch, an eighth-grade English teacher at Discovery Middle School. Though she doesn't teach history, her students read Anne Frank's diary and they ask questions about the Holocaust.
Wiebusch said after the workshop that it helped her gain a greater understanding of a part of history she was unfamiliar with.
Zelle said she hoped the takeaway for teachers was that they "understand that the Holocaust history is still relevant today, that they go deep enough into the moral dilemmas."
The workshop ended with the story of Holocaust survivor Berman, in her own words. She described how on Nov. 25, 1942, she was told the family was going on vacation, when in fact they were escaping to Sweden, which remained neutral in World War II.
Germany invaded Norway in 1940.
Berman's mother had a friend in the Norwegian police who despised having to work for the Gestapo, the German secret police. The friend offered a tip that "some really bad things" would be happening soon and "it was a good time to get out of Norway."
So the Berman family, with the help of members of the resistance, hopped in a car that would take them to a train station en route to Sweden.
Once inside the car, "the driver turned around and said, 'You have to understand that this is a matter of life and death. We can't guarantee anything,' " Berman recalled.
They arrived at the train station. Ruth walked onto the train with Berman and Berman's brother. Berman's mother was told to get on the train and lock herself in the restroom to avoid detection.
After the train ride, they got into another car, which took them to a safe house at the edge of the woods between Norway and Sweden. They walked for hours across the woods until the early morning hours, when they were greeted by Swedish soldiers at the border.
Soon afterward, a large ship arrived in Olso, the Norwegian capital. More than 700 Jews were loaded on the boat and taken to the concentration camp Auschwitz. There were about 2,000 Jews in Norway in 1940.
"Men who looked strong or young were brought into the camp," Berman said. "The others were killed even before they got to the camp."
"We were very, very, very fortunate," she said. "Without Sweden, none of us would have survived."
Berman said she will never forget when her great-aunt screamed at her in front of Berman's mother.
The great-aunt "went into a hysterical fit and pointed her finger at me," Berman recalled. The great-aunt screamed at Berman's mother, "Why do you have a daughter alive? My daughter's dead."
Berman's mother later explained to Berman, "Aunt Charlotte lost her daughter during the war, she was killed, and she doesn't like little girls."
Berman eventually made her way to the U.S. in 1959, got married and started a family.
Berman said she shares her story because people should know how Norway was devastated by the Holocaust.
"Norway deserves to have their story told as well, so that's why I'm here," she said. "We have an obligation to make this known to the world."
She added a word of advice: "Whether you have children or you have parents, encourage them to write down stories and the things that they have experienced. ... Have them write it down so you have a memory of what they have experienced and pass it on to your children if you have them."
During the Holocaust, German authorities killed people deemed racially inferior or otherwise undesirable. Six million Jews were killed, as well as disabled people, homosexuals, Slavic people, and Roma; 45 million civilians died in World War II and 15 million were killed in battle.