Children, Save Yourselves! One Family’s Story of Holocaust Survival
Ron Berger —
Read the Prologue from Wise Guys co-editor Ron Berger’s book, Children, Save Yourselves! One Family’s Story of Holocaust Survival.
This book tells the story of my father’s and uncle’s survival of the Holocaust in Nazi-occupied Poland during World War II. They were among the 10 percent of Polish Jewry who survived the war. My father, Michael Berger (1921-1994), endured several concentration camps, including the infamous camp at Auschwitz, as well as a horrific winter death march. My uncle, Sol Berger (1919-2016), survived outside of the camps by passing as a Catholic among anti-Semitic Poles, including a group of anti-Nazi Polish partisans, eventually becoming an officer in the Soviet Army.
My family’s story, some may be surprised to learn, is one that I did not hear in any detail until 1988, when I was 37 years old. But ever since then, it has been a story I keep coming back to, because for me it is the greatest story ever told.
That my exposure to this story came rather late in my life is in many ways unsurprising, because in the immediate postwar years, the Holocaust as we have come to know it was not understood as such. Although the discovery of the concentration camps by U.S. infantrymen at the end of the war was well reported in the press, the atrocity of the camps was generally portrayed as part of the general horror of war; and the sight of dead bodies and emaciated camp survivors was viewed more with revulsion than compassion. Additionally, the term “Holocaust” did not become part of popular discourse about what had transpired until the late 1950s, and even then the particularity of Jewish victimization that befell my Polish relatives and others like them was rather opaque.
Jewish victimization was certainly acknowledged at the Nuremberg trials of Nazi criminals that the Allies conducted after the war, but it was subsumed under the broader categories of “war crimes” and “crimes against humanity” and soon half forgotten. The word “Jew” was not even mentioned in Alain Resnais’s otherwise brilliant 1955 documentary film Night and Fog. William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, a 1960 bestseller, devoted just two to three percent of its some 1,200 pages to the Jewish genocide. And even works that have now become classics, such as Elie Wiesel’s Night (published in 1960) and Ann Frank’s diary (published in Dutch in 1947 and English in 1952), had inauspicious beginnings.
In 1946, when my father first arrived in the United States, no one, not even our Jewish relatives, was particularly interested in hearing about his ordeal. People would say things like, “We suffered too. Did you know we couldn’t get sugar [during the war] and that gasoline was rationed?” So my father and other survivors like him stopped talking about their experiences. At that time the idea of the Holocaust “survivor” who was highly respected as a witness to history had yet to become a cultural phenomenon. The world was not ready to listen to their stories, to say nothing of embracing them as wise and revered figures. They were viewed as “displaced persons,” “refugees,” “greenhorns.”
A key turning point in this unfortunate view of survivors was the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann. Eichmann, a key architect of the genocide of European Jews that the Nazis called the Final Solution, had been apprehended by Israeli agents in Argentina and taken to Israel for criminal prosecution. The trial, which was publicized around the world, was the first time large numbers of survivors began telling their stories in public. Gradually, more and more survivors found sympathetic listeners to their stories, but this changing culture had not yet filtered down to me.
At that time, too, I was completely unaware of another cultural phenomenon that was emerging: the notion of the second generation of children of survivors, a group that first gained national recognition in the late 1970s, especially through the publication of Helen Epstein’s book, Children of the Holocaust: Conversations with Sons and Daughters of Survivors, in 1979.
This second-generation movement was part of a general cultural interest in family roots and genealogy that emerged in the United States in the 1970s, an interest that gained momentum after the 1977 broadcast of the television miniseries Roots, based on Alex Haley’s epic novel about a fictional African-American family. Roots was followed the next year by the broadcast of Holocaust, a television miniseries about two fictional families, one Jewish and one German, which was viewed by some 120 million people in the United States alone. Historically comprehensive in scope, Holocaust was in many ways a mini-survey course on the Holocaust, and it was my first detailed exposure to what had transpired. Still, I had little knowledge of my own family’s story and did not yet think of myself as part of the second generation.
* * *
I was born in Los Angeles, California, in 1951. When I was 6 or 7 years old, my father later reminded me, I asked him why I only had grandparents (who had immigrated to the United States before World War II) on my mother’s side of the family, while all my friends had two sets of grandparents. At that time all he said was that they had died. When I was a little older, he did tell me about being in a concentration camp and about his agony over losing his parents. At a young age, however, I do not think I really understood what being in a concentration camp entailed. Back then, it seemed to me, the only observable trace of his ordeal was the blue number 160914 tattooed on his left arm. Moreover, I cannot recall any attention given to the subject during all my years in public school or later even in college at the University of California, Los Angeles. Nor can I recall it mentioned in Hebrew school during the period of my life when I was preparing for my bar mitzvah. Quite frankly, my most vivid images of World War II came not from the Holocaust but from movies about the experiences and heroics of American soldiers.
I was raised in a working- and middle-class Jewish enclave on the west side of Los Angeles. Until I was 8 years old, we lived next door to the family of one of my father’s friends, a man who also was a Holocaust survivor. Richard Stewart had been in one of the same concentration camps as my father, Auschwitz-Monowitz, the Auschwitz subsidiary that provided slave labor for I.G. Farben, a German petrochemical corporation. There were other survivors (as well as prewar European immigrants) in our social network and extended family. I did not, however, realize any of this at the time. I was surrounded by people with European accents, which seemed completely natural to me, and I had no idea of the implications of all this.
The public schools I attended in Los Angeles had large Jewish populations. It was not uncommon for classrooms to be virtually empty on the Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. At Christmastime I did not feel left out or envious of Christian children because we thought that the practice of receiving gifts over an eight-day period for Hanukkah was much better than a one-day holiday. Only later did I discover that many Christian children in the United States enjoy a veritable orgy of gifts on that one day—a sign of American affluence—that far surpasses anything we received during our week-long celebration.
My parents’ religious beliefs could best be described as agnostic, although they always self-identified as Jews and held strong nationalist sentiments toward Israel. For us, being Jewish was more of an ethnic-cultural identity than a theological faith. During my childhood, we did observe all of the major Jewish holidays, and it was assumed that at 13 years of age I would have my bar mitzvah, which I did. But further Jewish education was not obligatory, although I did study Hebrew for another six months. Because I was raised in a liberal Jewish milieu, I felt as though I were an assimilated American. And this was fine with me. I did not believe that being Jewish made me an outsider until I moved to southeastern Wisconsin in 1981 upon accepting a teaching position at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.
UW-Whitewater is located in a small college town between Madison and Milwaukee, about two hours by car from Chicago. In Whitewater and the neighboring small towns in which I lived for several years, there are few, if any, Jews. Most of the people in these communities are either Catholics or Lutherans who have little contact with people from non-Christian backgrounds. Within a month or two after I first arrived, I was invited to dinner at a faculty member’s house. After dinner the conversation somehow turned to religion, and our hostess said, in what seemed like a non sequitur, “Those Jews have a lot of nerve thinking they are the chosen people!” Then there was the little 7-year-old, a neighbor of mine, who expressed confusion to her parents when she found out I was Jewish because she thought that all “Jews had horns.” Several years later, a 12-year-old friend of my stepson casually remarked, “Jews are bad people.”
At other times I heard comments pertaining to people who would “Jew you down.” The first time I heard this was from our elderly departmental secretary. She spoke with no vehemence, as though the idiom were not steeped in prejudice. A few years later, after I married into an extended family of Wisconsin Synod Lutherans, my father-in-law made the “Jew you down” remark. I thought of saying something to him but decided to let the matter rest.
There also was the time I was in a liquor store buying a bottle of wine or some beer, when the salesclerk told an anti-Semitic joke to the customer he seemed to know who was standing next to me. I do not even remember the specifics of the joke; it was something about a Jewish businessman who committed arson insurance fraud and moved to Florida. The clerk, of course, did not know I would find the joke objectionable, but again I said nothing. This particular battle I did not need to fight. But I did feel as though I were invisible.
It is not that I am complaining about all this. These little affronts to my ethnic ancestry pale in comparison to the real thing. However, they are part of the life trajectory that was leading to my encounter with my family’s story of the Holocaust.
My own interest in exploring my father’s past, however, was piqued at a lecture I attended at the university in 1987. Robert Clary, the actor most known for his role as Louis LeBeau in the television comedy series Hogan’s Heroes, spoke to a standing-room-only audience of more than 800 people. The TV show was still rather popular, and I had never seen so many people turn out for a non-sporting event at the university. Clary’s topic was the Holocaust and his survival of it. He explained that for most of his postwar life he had kept still about his experience to avoid the painful remembering of his “31 months of hell.” But as he turned 60, he said, he began to realize that soon there would no longer exist living testimony to the Holocaust. Clary added that he was particularly concerned about the problem of Holocaust deniers who, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary, continue to dispute that the atrocities occurred.
During the audience question-and-answer period that followed Clary’s speech, a young woman stood up, said she was 25 years old, and said she was outraged that she had not been taught about or “heard of the Holocaust” before Clary’s lecture. The audience, including myself, was taken aback by her comment. However, what also soon struck me was how little I knew about the Holocaust, and in particular about what had happened to my father and his family. This led to an immediate phone call back home. “We have to record your story,” I told my father. And he seemed pleased. He was ready for someone to ask, and happy that he would be able to, in his words, “leave a legacy for my family.” Along the way, my uncle agreed to tell his story too.
* * *
What began as a family genealogy project also evolved into a scholarly interest about the Holocaust. I began to educate myself about the subject and teach a university course, and I eventually published a number of scholarly articles and four books. My first book about my family’s story, which evaluated their experiences from a sociological perspective, was published in 1995. Although my father was able to read the final manuscript, he died shortly before it appeared in print.
My father was diagnosed with an aggressive form of lung cancer in November 1994 and died before the end of the year. But from 1988 to 1994 he spoke often in public about his wartime experiences—to students in various educational settings (from middle school to college) and as a docent at the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles.
My uncle was initially reluctant to speak in public, in part because he felt he was not an authentic representative of the survivor experience because he had not been in a concentration camp. But when my father was dying of cancer, he asked my uncle to promise him two things: help my mother take care of her financial affairs, and take his place as our family’s representative of the Holocaust. Hence my uncle also became a public speaker—for nearly 20 years. He also videotaped his story for both Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation and the Jewish Federation of Los Angeles; and he was one of the survivors who was featured in the audio production Voices of the Shoah: Remembrances of the Holocaust, which was broadcast on national radio in 2000.
Over the years, my uncle made additional video recordings for our family—with the help of his daughter, Marlene, and son, Jack—about his experiences both during the war and after arriving in the United States. My uncle also introduced me to Dr. Alexander Bialywlos White, a survivor from his hometown who resided in Scottsdale, Arizona. I spoke with Alex and he sent me a copy of his self-published memoir that he wrote about his experience.5 I drew on this additional material for my second book about my family that was published in 2011. Lastly, Jesse Morris, the son of Marlene and her husband Lee, became interested in learning more about his grandfather, as well as his grandmother Gertrude (also a survivor), and he helped them self-publish a book in 2013 that contained further details about his grandparents.
All of my previous books were academic in nature, aimed at a scholarly audience, and published by academic presses. Children, Save Yourselves! is aimed at a lay audience and affords me an opportunity to tell my family’s story as I wish to tell it, drawing on all the information I now have at my disposal, one last time.
2. The Invasion
3. The Occupation
4. Children, Save Yourselves!
6. The Camps
8. The Death March
10. Living in Limbo
11. The Goldene Medina
Appendix. Letters to My Father and Uncle