About The Book

 
“WE ARE GOING TO PICK POTATOES,”
NORWAY AND THE HOLOCAUST, THE UNTOLD STORY

 
by Irene Levin Berman
 
Hamilton Books
A member of the Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, Inc.

 

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 and during 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 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. 

 


Irene's paternal grandparents, Leib and Henriette Levin

 


Left to right: Irene's cousin Reidun, her grandmother, and her Aunt Lea. Taken in Aalesund, 1937