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"We Are Going to Pick Potatoes"
Norway and the Holocaust, The Untold Story
By Irene Levin Berman
The Rowman & Littlefield Publishing GroupCopyright © 2010 Irene Levin Berman
All rights reserved.
My first conscious recollection of life goes back to November 25, 1942. The events of that day sit in my mind as a separate and self-contained memory, with no beginning, but very definitely a continuity that has followed me throughout my life. In dramatic terms one could say that day represents the birth of my consciousness, of my being as an individual. It is an innocent and benign memory, with no trauma or pain. It was just another day in the life of a four-year-old, but the ramifications of the events that took place thereafter made a natural beginning to an odyssey that only now has a clear ending.
I spent considerable time during my first years in an outdoor daycare center in a park located at St. Hanshaugen in Oslo, a few minutes from where we lived. There was a fenced-in area, a little shed and at least two nannies to watch the children, who went there in all kinds of weather, with rainwear, boots, hats and scarves. We brought our lunches and spent perhaps two to three hours there each day. Consequently my very first memories—with the exception of the things I remember about my parents, Marcus and Rosa Levin, my brother Leif Arild, our housekeeper/nanny Ruth Simensen, and my very closest relatives—are related to this play area and my "park nannies," as they were called. All other memories from that time are vague.
As long as I can remember November has always seemed the darkest and most dreary month of the year in Norway. It is cold and windy, and the hours of daylight gradually decrease each day. December always seemed to be a little more palatable. By then it was officially winter and we would wait for snow, for Christmas, and for the surroundings to be decorated for the holidays. But this day, Wednesday, November 25, 1942, is one I can never forget.
In the middle of that afternoon, Ruth came to pick up Leif Arild and me at the park. Leif Arild had started school, but there was a shortage of fuel and the building had to close, so he had been sent to the park that day. My brother has two first names, and this name is still used by the remaining members of the family, and all the people who have known him since childhood. Everyone else calls him Leif.
Going home, we walked down Ullevaalsveien (Ullevålsveien), a main street that runs across the center of Oslo. "We're going to go on a fall vacation," explained Ruth. "We're going to Hadeland to pick potatoes." Nothing more; nothing less. No other explanation was necessary for a four-year-old. Leif Arild, who was seven, said nothing.
My mother was waiting for us at our home in a relatively large apartment building on a major cross street called Waldemar Thranesgate. Our apartment on the fourth floor was large by Norwegian standards at that time, and included a maid's quarter, where Ruth slept. Mor (Mother in Norwegian) realized that the time had come for us to leave the city and attempt the escape to Sweden. All the Jewish men who had not gone into hiding or escaped had been arrested one month earlier, and were held in prisons around Norway. Far (Father in Norwegian), like most of the men in the family, had already gone under cover just before the arrest of the men in October, and had been in hiding for several weeks. Their whereabouts were for the most part unknown, but Mor had been informed a couple of weeks earlier that Far had reached Sweden. She had also recently been informed that women and children would be arrested next. Thus, Mor had to handle matters on her own. Even if she did not know what fate awaited those who would be arrested, she realized that it was time for us to leave as well. Although she kept her anxiety from my brother and me, this must have been an extremely difficult time for her. Years later I started to understand the near sense of panic that she must have felt when she realized that the threat was genuine—not like some of the rumors that had circulated during the previous two to three months. Mor was known to be calm and collected under pressure, and perhaps it was this characteristic that kept her going. She had much to keep track of and prepare for prior to the actual escape. She knew that our lives were in danger and that the risk of remaining in Norway was more serious than attempting to escape to Sweden. Arrangements had been made with the resistance people, and it was a matter of waiting to be told when it would be time to be picked up by the group that would help us leave.
The night before, Mor had received a telephone message confirming that it was finally our turn and that she and the children would be picked up the next day. Ruth, who was not Jewish, was also advised to escape, since the resistance people felt that her life would be in danger as well because she knew too much about the activities involved. She had seen many of the resistance members coming and going in our home while the complicated transport of seventeen members of our immediate family was being planned. They felt that she would be arrested if she remained and perhaps tortured by the Germans in an attempt to get names and connections. Mor and Ruth had anticipated the call and were prepared. They followed the daily routine. In the morning Ruth took us to the park before she went back to prepare the details related to the escape together with my mother.
Our little group, which included my thirteen-year-old cousin Frank, was to be picked up at five o'clock in the evening by two "pilots" who would be our guides to Sweden. Mor had set aside some cash. The currency used then and now is called kroner. This money was to be used during the escape if necessary, even though the group that was to bring us across the border already had been paid. Ruth had prepared a large package with hearty sandwiches—then and now a staple of Norwegian food—to take with us and she made sure Leif Arild and I were dressed in warm clothing. When it was time to leave, they closed and locked the door to the apartment and left its entire inventory behind us. Mor took the elevator down to the main entrance with Frank and one of the pilots, while Ruth, Leif Arild and I walked down the back stairs into the courtyard of the building. The transport car was waiting on a street parallel to ours to avoid anyone noticing that we were leaving.
When I started writing this first chapter about our family's escape about six or seven years ago, Ruth was still alive and shared all her memories with me. Although she had been an invalid for the past ten years of her life and was confined to a wheelchair, her mind was alert and she recalled every little detail as if it had taken place the previous day. She told me that Haakon, the pilot who sat in the front seat of the car, turned around and said: "This is now a matter of life and death. We are going to do our very best, but you have to realize how serious the situation is." Neither Mor nor Ruth answered. Ruth told me that all the pilots that she met were called "Haakon" which was a cover name chosen to honor the King of Norway at the time, Haakon VII. He was extremely popular and had refused to capitulate to the Germans. When it was clear that his life was at risk, he escaped to the north of Norway, and eventually made it to England, where he led the Norwegian government in exile. Subsequently the queen with the crown prince and his family went on to the United States where they stayed until the liberation.
Cousin Frank was attempting his second escape in two days. He had left Oslo the day before with his mother, Charlotte Scheer, one of Mor's sisters. Tante Lotta's husband, Aksel Scheer, like many of the men in the Jewish community, had already escaped to Sweden after having been in hiding ever since a warning was circulated that the men were first on the list to be arrested. Aksel's fear was confirmed when, after a few "false alarms," a mass arrest of Jewish men took place in Oslo and Trondheim on October 26, 1942. These two cities were the only two places in Norway which had organized Jewish congregations. However, prior to that date a number of male Jews had already been arrested for a variety of fictitious reasons. There was no logic in the arrests that took place. It almost appeared as if these actions were subject to the impulse and whim of the Gestapo officer in charge in each individual region.
From what I have been able to conclude there were still women who weren't convinced that they were in danger. This perception continued despite the arrest of the Jewish men, and the horror stories that had trickled out of Germany describing inhuman treatment of Jews. The realization that this persecution had reached Norway, a small country next to Denmark and Sweden, sparsely populated and relatively remote, was now the source of much anxiety. For the past six months many Jewish men had been arrested and imprisoned. Some of these men had been sent to the north of Norway and no one really knew what was going on, or what else was to happen. To the best of my knowledge no definite word had yet reached Norway about accompanying concentration camps or the related atrocities. The future was so far unknown, and although the realization was beginning that it was not good, some still refused to acknowledge the severity of the situation. Surely this couldn't happen in Norway, a country in the far North, with a small population and fewer than two thousand Jews! They could hardly be on the Gestapo's radar, could they? Many people tried to second guess the rumors, to conjure up a less threatening explanation.
Apparently, a worst-case scenario discussed among some women whose male family members had been arrested and held at a prison camp outside of Oslo, was that the men might be sent to northern Norway to a labor camp, where they would be able to "wait things out." Some people remained in denial of deportation to Germany or Poland, as some rumors stated: "It can't happen here," they claimed.
On the other hand, there were women whose husbands, fathers and brothers had been arrested, who feared that if they left Norway, prisoners would suffer reprisals. Communications then were more difficult than today. Radios had been confiscated, and not every family had telephone service. Transportation consisted of walking, buses or street cars. A car was a luxury available only to a very few. Much of the verbal communication must have taken place when the women met on the streets, perhaps while buying food for their families. Uncertain what to do those women who postponed a decision to escape made a final and fatal error. Others including Mor chose to be realistic, and she and Far had already made the decision that she and Leif Arild and I had to leave as well.
For the women and children who had decided to try to escape, this was a difficult time. Wisely, priority was given to the men, who feared that they would be arrested first, which turned out to be the case as described above. Several hundred women and children as well as some men who were in hiding and who had not yet managed to get away were now waiting to be transported to Sweden during the next two to three weeks. Only a few people could be brought over the border at a time, and there were a number of individual and separate resistance groups involved. Time and urgency had precluded any sort of pre-planned or concerted exit strategy among the Jews and the resistance groups.
My aunt Lotta and Frank, together with a small group of women, were alerted and brought by car on November 24 to a small railroad station outside of Oslo, which was expected to be relatively empty that night. They had been instructed to enter the train together with their pilots. To their surprise they noticed several German soldiers, which caused immediate anxiety for the little group. One of the pilots suggested that they separate and enter the train individually. Aunt Lotta had fairly dark hair and dark eyes and Frank was also dark. For that reason they were concerned that some of the soldiers would suspect they were Jewish.
For some reason Frank entered the wrong train which, ironically, brought him back to Oslo. When he realized that he was back at the railroad station in the center of town, he quickly walked to our house. Mor was speechless when she saw him, as she had figured that he had already crossed the border to Sweden. She put her arms around him and told him to go into the nursery and to remain there. Of course, he was to come with us the next day.
There was more than one escape route used by the resistance, but ours went in an easterly direction, past a town called Ski, and on to Oerje (Ørje), near the Swedish border.
The escape car was to take us toward the border to Sweden, approximately ninety kilometers from Oslo, but this plan was changed, and we were brought to a railroad station approximately two hours outside the city. This was an unexpected development and contributed to Ruth and Mor's anxiety. We were also asked to separate when we got on the train. Mor locked herself in the restroom. Frank went with the pilot who I am sure never let him out of his sight even for one second, and Leif Arild and I went with Ruth who was blonde with blue eyes, in the hope no one would realize we were a Jewish family intending to escape. The train journey lasted approximately two hours and was more or less uneventful. Ruth said that the only moment she really was scared is when I said aloud in the compartment: "When will we be at Hadeland?" The fact that Hadeland, an agricultural region located a couple of hours north of Oslo, was in the opposite direction hung as an unanswered question in the entire compartment. Ruth felt that absolutely everyone had heard me and wondered what was actually going on.
Around ten o'clock at night we finally arrived at our destination, left the train and waited for a car to meet us there. No car showed up. We waited and waited. Fortunately the car finally appeared around eleven thirty. It turned out that due to an acute shortage of gasoline, another alternative was to use cars that had special carbide-driven generators. This is what had caused the delay. I was never able to understand exactly what type of generator Ruth was referring to. Transport car number two took us to a farm nearby where we rested and ate the sandwiches that we had brought along.
After this respite, the car brought us to the outskirts of a very dense forest. We were told to get out because now we had to continue on foot. We started the long walk through the forest in the direction of the Swedish border around midnight. Two pilots walked with us and we made our way along a variety of existing paths in the forest adjacent to several small lakes near Magnor or Oerje (Ørje). Finally one of the pilots suggested that we should cross one of the larger lakes that was covered with snow and ice. He felt that this would save valuable time, but Mor refused. "Ruth's boots aren't thick or sturdy enough, and she may end up getting sick," she said. This was an excuse, of course, as she was worried that the ice would not be able to hold us. Strangely enough I remember their dialogue quite clearly and I still feel I can hear Mor's voice. In my mind I can see bodies without faces, but I hear conversation. I assume that the tension and the anxiety of that moment must have been strong enough for the situation to become embedded in my subconscious. The walk around the lake would delay us approximately one and a half hours, but Mor's decision was final.
One of the pilots carried me in his large backpack. It contained a number of other things as well, such as a pistol, ammunition, food and flashlights. Evidently, I slept most of the time. Leif Arild walked the entire way. He did not utter one single word and did not ask any questions, but held on to Mor, Ruth or Frank.
The last lake that we came to was not frozen, and we crossed it in a large rowboat. The full moon illuminated the water. Halfway across the lake a pilot pointed to a house located on the shore and said: "Be very quiet right now, there are Nazis over there." Ruth repeated the pilot's words verbatim to me, and I felt she was reliving the moment more than sixty years later.
Around four-thirty in the morning we finally reached the area in the forest that the pilots felt was the Swedish border. Even if we technically were in Sweden we were asked to be very quiet while we continued walking because there were no marked delineations of the border. There might still be Germans in the area.
Having walked along an approximately ten-meter-wide clearing, which appeared like a street in the middle of the forest (about which my brother still speaks with amazement), we finally reached a safe area and a small house. The sheriff and the customs people were called and came to greet us. These officials were from the border station at a place called Toecksfors, and they were now accustomed to receiving Norwegian refugees.
Excerpted from "We Are Going to Pick Potatoes" by Irene Levin Berman. Copyright © 2010 Irene Levin Berman. Excerpted by permission of The Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group.
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