"we are going to pick potatoes"

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Norwegian Jews awaiting transport to Auschwitz, November 25, 1942

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Leif Aril, Rosa, Irene, and Marcus Levin

1941, at Rosa's brother Arnold Selikowitz's wedding in Oslo

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May 17, 1943, Norwegians in exile, Stockholm, Sweden (Irene and her brother Leif Aril in foreground)

About the Book

“WE ARE GOING TO PICK POTATOES,” NORWAY AND THE HOLOCAUST, THE UNTOLD STORY by Irene Levin Berman

Paperback: 200 pages

Publisher: Hamilton Books (March 16, 2010)

Language: English

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In 1942, four-year-old Irene Levin was one of 1,200 Norwegian Jews who escaped to Sweden to avoid deportation to a Nazi death camp. Her family was among the 2,000 Jews who were living in Norway during the German invasion on April 9, 1940. Some 771 Norwegian Jews were sent to Auschwitz. Only 28 men survived. 


More than 60 years later, Irene Levin Berman decided to share her story to help answer the many questions she has received from her American contemporaries and to bear witness to a largely untold and nearly forgotten chapter in the tragic history of the Holocaust. 


The book was first published in Norwegian in September 2008 to very favorable reviews. One reviewer called it “an important piece of Norway’s history and a family chronicle (…) depicting three generations of a Jewish family.”  Norway's Resistance Museum sponsored its publication in Norway.

   

The book describes the integration and assimilation of the Jews into Norwegian society through the outbreak of the war in 1940. It also includes descriptions of how Irene’s family functioned during the first two years of the war and how they planned and carried out their escape to neutral Sweden. She includes vivid recollections of their three years as refugees in Sweden.

 

After the war, Irene focuses on the psychological silence that prevailed among those returning Jews who were intent on rebuilding their lives in Norway. She hauntingly recalls the gaps in the Jewish community created by the missing relatives, who were referred to with the euphemism as “having disappeared.” The pain associated with terms like murder or annihilation was just too enormous to bear.  Irene reflects on her own feelings as a child trying to understand this silence and subsequent lack of communication with the adults.


In particular, her book chronicles the story of her aunt, uncle and two cousins, the Steinfeld family, who lived in Aalesund, a small town in northwestern Norway. The only Jewish family in town, they were successful and highly respected. Despite repeated warnings, the family was reluctant to leave and chose to stay in Norway, feeling safe. Ultimately, the entire family was annihilated in Auschwitz. As a child, the only time Irene heard their names mentioned was when a grand piano arrived at her home. She was told it came from their estate. 


When the book was initiated Irene needed to learn more about these relatives and undertook extensive research to uncover the reality of their story. The book pays homage to the family by describing the last two years of their lives prior to deportation. Irene was able to locate a number of persons in their hometown, still alive, who had been close to the family.

 

Irene’s father, Marcus Levin, was involved in refugee work before, during after the war, as well as after his return to Norway.  As a voluntary representative for the American Joint Distribution Committee, which was instrumental in providing funds, he was deeply involved in helping refugees who had survived the Holocaust resettled in Norway.  Marcus Levin was honored with King Olav’s Norwegian Gold Medal of Honor for his work in 1959, three years before his death.


With her move to the United States in 1961 and marriage to an American, Irene recounts some of the challenges in accepting yet another culture, that of an American. Irene Levin Berman has come to embrace and treasure the three identities that have informed and defined her life: Norwegian, Jewish and American. 


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about the book

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Book Chronology


1854 . The Norwegian government repeals the law that forbids Jews from settling in Norway.  The Selikowitz and Levin patriarchs are among the early settlers.  By 1940, there are approximately 2,000 Jews in Norway. 

1940 . Germany invades Norway and Denmark on April 9

1942 . Gestapo orders the Norwegian State Police to carry out the systematic arrest of the country’s Jews.  Close to 800 men, women and children are deported to Auschwitz, including seven members of the Levin family.  Only 28 Norwegian men survive.1942 . Four-year-old Irene Levin and her family are among the nearly 1,200 Jews who manage to escape to neutral Sweden.  All assets owned by Norwegian Jews are confiscated.

1943 . The arrest of the Danish Jews begins.  More than 5,000 people – about 90 percent of Denmark’s Jewish population – are saved, thanks in large part to the efforts of the Danish police.  Still, 500 Danish Jews are sent to the Theresienstadt concentration camp in the Czech Republic.  Nearly all of them survive.

1945 . Norway is liberated.  The Norwegian Jews who had been in exile in Sweden return to their devastated homeland, and begin to rebuild their community and their lives.

1945 - 1970 . The post-war years are marked by the gradual resettlement and reconstruction of Norway’s Jewish community.

1947 . 700 people from various displaced persons camps in Europe arrive in Norway to start new lives.  Irene’s father, Marcus Levin, continues his work with The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (called The Joint).

1951 . Norway becomes the first country to allow the so-called “minus” refugees – families with at least one member who is ill, primarily with tuberculosis – to settle in their nation.  Marcus Levin spends most of his free time on this work.

1961 . Irene marries Martin Berman, an American medical student, and moves to the United States.  Irene pursues a career as a translator, specializing in Scandinavian languages.  One of the highlights of her work is translating the plays of Norway’s most famous playwright, Henrik Ibsen, which are produced in theaters around the U.S.

1960 . Marcus Levin is awarded The Medal of Honor by King Olav of Norway for his continuous work helping Jewish refugees.

1965 . Marcus Levin dies at the age of 66.

1967 . Rosa Levin, Irene’s mother, dies at the age of 63.1967Irene becomes an American citizen in Atlanta, Georgia where Martin Berman is fulfilling his military obligations at Fort McPherson during the Vietnam War.

1969 . Irene and Martin move to Connecticut where they raise three daughters.

1995 . After an unprecedented public debate, the Norwegian government decides to return some of the funds that were confiscated by the Germans during the War to the Norwegian Jews who were disenfranchised during the Holocaust.  Some of the remaining funds are allocated to support the establishment of a Holocaust Center in Oslo.

2005 . Irene’s journey back in time begins.

2007 . Irene teams up with the late Dr. Stephen Feinstein of the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at the University of Minnesota to develop and participate in a seminar on Norway and the Holocaust.  Arnfinn Moland, Director of Norway’s Resistance Museum and a participant at the seminar, urges Irene to turn her presentation into a book.

2008 . The book, “Vi skal plukke poteter”, Flukten fra Holocaust, written in Norwegian, is launched in September at Norway’s Resistance Museum.  It receives excellent reviews from Norway’s press.

2010 . The English language version of Irene’s book, “We are going to pick potatoes”, Norway and the Holocaust, the Untold Story, is published in the U.S.  Irene’s experiences researching and writing the book inspire her to share this remarkable story with audiences in her adopted country.