Book Review: “We Are Going to Pick Potatoes”

book

“We Are Going to Pick Potatoes” Norway and the Holocaust, The Untold Story

Author: Irene Levin Berman

Publisher: Hamilton Books A member of The Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, 2010

185 pages, ISBN 978-0-7618-5011-3, Paperback

Reviewed by Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

The author, Irene Levin Berman was born in Norway to Jewish parents, and her grandparents on both sides of the family immigrated to Norway from Eastern Europe—mainly Poland and Lithuania.

   The book has its beginnings in the author’s quest for her identity and realization that she too was a Holocaust survivor.

   Each of the chapter titles orient readers to the themes addressed and the sense of the work’s flow and continuity. The titles are as follows: Acknowledgments—5 pages in length; Introduction: Why Norway Wasn’t Too Small (i.e. as a country with only about 1,500 to 2,000 Jews, and about 771 perished in the Nazi death camps. Some mistakenly thought the Nazis would not be interested in rounding up, arresting and deporting them to the concentration camps. The author also emphatically makes the case that even though 771 Norwegian Jews died in the Holocaust their lives were equally as valuable and important as the millions of others who also perished during World War II—one should not employ numbers to try and minimize what was done by the perpetrators, and the long-term repercussions for their surviving loved ones); 1 The Escape; 2 Refugees in Exile; 3 Those Who Came First – The Levin Family; 4 Those Who Came First – The Selikowitz Family; 5 The Family That ‘Disappeared’; 6 War and Holocaust; 7 The Silence; 8 Return from Exile; 9 Learning How To Be a Norwegian Jew; 10 Marrying a Jew; 11 Life in America; 12 The Myth about the Danish King (according to the author, he did not wear the Star of David armband in public); 13 Identity; 14 The Journey into the Past. In addition to the text, it includes several photographs—mainly of family members; as well as the Selikowitz and Levin family trees.

   For this reader, the chapter addressing the author family’s escape into Sweden, thanks to the assistance of the Norwegian underground resistance is very dramatic. The family escaped in the nick of time on November 25, 1942; the day before the Gestapo began to make mass arrests on November 26. Those Jews who were not able to leave prior to that day were all eventually deported to the concentration camps.

   In Norway, unlike Denmark who did not resist the Nazis; according to Levin Berman the nation’s police assisted the Nazis in arresting the Jews. Of course the Norwegian Jews felt betrayed by their own police for such horrendous action having tragic consequences. Levin Berman states that she was aware of only one police officer who refused to obey the Nazi order and he was subsequently shot for his defiance. The author also suggests that the situation was somewhat different in Denmark than in Norway—since in the former nation the Danes had information more in advance on the Nazi’s intentions concerning the Jews and therefore they had more time to assist them in fleeing to Sweden than did the Norwegians.

   Much of this volume is focussed on the author’s coming to terms with her family history and identity. She sees herself as having three identities inside one person. She is proud of being born in Norway and appreciates many of the cultural traditions and values of the Norwegian people—including the celebration of Constitution Day on the 17 of May, and the reading, study, translating and attending the plays of Henrik Ibsen. She is also very proud of her Jewish heritage and ancestors who were hard working and devout people; most of them ran well-respected businesses and also contributed to community organisations—including the synagogue in Oslo. Levin Berman chose to marry a Jew and to raise their children in the Jewish faith. However, she married an American Jew and by now has lived most of her adult life in America—therefore she has adjusted to the customs of American life, including the celebration of the 4 of July and Thanksgiving. Nonetheless, she made many trips back to Norway for lengthy periods of time to both vacation and provide care and support for her family there.

   In this volume, Levin Berman also provides bits and pieces of the history of the Jews in Norway. For example, Jews immigrated to Norway later than in Sweden and Denmark. It was only in 1851 that they were able to immigrate to Norway; after the “Jewish clause” in Article 2 of the Constitution was repealed. Norwegian poet, Henrik Wergeland was one of the most influential advocates campaigning to have the “Jewish clause” repealed.

   Most of the Jews in Norway settled in Oslo and Trondheim; with a few scattered in other Norwegian communities. The author’s paternal grandparents, Leib and Henriette Levin, settled in Rjukan, a small town in the middle of Norway, in Telemark county. Here grandfather was given the honour of delivering the keynote speech on the Norwegian Constitution Day of 17 May, 1914. One of his pivotal sentences in that speech reflects how Leib Levin understood his identity: “Om vi ere jøder i religion hindrer de oss ikke av vaere nordmaend i nation” (If we are Jews by religion, this does not prevent us from being Norwegian by nation). (p. 29)

   The process of this volume coming to birth in its English version is interesting. In 2008, the book was published in Norwegian, in Norway as “Vi skal plukke poteter,” Flukten fra Holocaust. (“We are going to pick potatoes,” the Escape from the Holocaust). However, the author, being gifted and trained in linguistics; and wanting to tell the story in America; undertook the task of translating her work into English.

   The phrase, “We are going to pick potatoes,” was a euphemism to tell others they were fleeing from the Nazis into neutral Sweden to live in exile until after the war. One of the conditions of being accepted in Sweden was that the Norwegian immigrants were required to find work in Sweden as soon as possible. Levin Berman’s Far (father) was able to do some very significant social work in settling the Norwegian Jewish refugees.

   Ultimately, I think it is Irene Levin Berman’s passion to tell this untold story of Norway’s Jews and the Holocaust that will surely prove beneficial to those living in the present age and for generations to come—for to honour those who perished in the Holocaust is to remember them.

   I encourage readers to visit the following website for more information concerning the book and the author here.

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About dimlamp
I am, among other things, a sojourner, a sinner-saint, a baptized, life-long learner and follower of Jesus, and Lutheran pastor. Dim Lamp: dimlamp.wordpress.com gwh photos: gwhphotos.wordpress.com

4 Responses to Book Review: “We Are Going to Pick Potatoes”

  1. Bill Chance says:

    What an interesting book. That is truly a story I had never heard of before.

    Thanks for sharing.

  2. dimlamp says:

    Thanks for your comment. Yes, I too think it is an important story that needs to be shared with the world.

  3. frizztext says:

    thank you, Garth, for this interesting book review!

  4. dimlamp says:

    You are welcome Dietmar! Hope you are well.

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