Holocaust survivors’ children are telling their stories
NORFOLK, Va. (AP) — The very last time Jacob Berger’s family saw him, he was being taken away by the Gestapo.
It was August 1942 and Germany had invaded Poland.
Jacob realized what was happening and told his sons, “This is the end for me. Nobody comes back from these transports. But you must make me a promise: Survive any way you can. Don’t be a hero. Just survive to tell the story of what happened.”
As the Gestapo truck pulled away from his family, Jacob Berger turned and shouted “Children, save yourselves.” Then he was gone.
That story was told again when Ron Berger — Jacob’s grandson — was brought to speak at Old Dominion University by the Institute of Jewish Studies and Interfaith Understanding.
“We also wanted to expose a broader audience of students who may not be aware of this kind of story,” said Kent Sandstrom, the dean of the College of Arts & Letters. “These stories are increasingly going to be lost unless the second generation picks it up.”
Ron Berger — who in Wisconsin wrote a book — and hopes to fulfill that legacy.
His father and uncle were the only members in their family of nine children who didn’t leave Poland before the war and yet survived, he said.
Both eventually came to the United States, started families of their own and lived long lives. But during the war, their paths were very different.
Michael Berger — Ron’s father — was sent to concentration camps and was in a death march from January through May of 1945, when the camps were evacuated. Sol Berger — Ron’s uncle — passed as a Catholic Pole and eventually became a translator and Soviet officer.
Ron Berger said it was more than luck, but strategic thinking and calculated risk taking that ensured their survival.
For much of their lives, they didn’t talk about it. Not until he was nearly 40 did Ron — a sociology professor who retired from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater who studied the Holocaust for years — learn the full story of what happened to his family.
It’s not that the brothers didn’t want to share what they had been through. No one, not even their remaining family, was interested in hearing it, so they “moved on,” Ron said. Immediately following the war, there wasn’t really a social category for Holocaust survivors and no one called them that. They were more often just referred to as refugees or immigrants.
Then in 1979, journalist Helen Epstein published a book that made a big claim: that the harrowing trauma of the Holocaust and the symptoms of survivors had been passed on to their children. It identified a second generation of survivors.
That’s the category Ron Berger fits into. And it means something to him.
“Now that most of the survivors are gone and will soon be all gone, that category is becoming more significant,” he said.
“Where, before, organizations that were quoting Jewish education might have had survivors go out and talk to school children, now they are interested in people like me, who know the survivors or knew them more intimately than non-family members to represent them,” Berger said.
“And I feel a connection to that, wanting to represent my family as long as I can.”
In the last few years of Michael’s life, in the late 1980s, Ron learned a lot about his father and uncle. He said for years, his uncle didn’t consider himself an authentic survivor, because he had such a different experience than many.
But just before Michael died in 1994, the brothers had a heart-to-heart talk, Ron said. Michael asked Sol to make him two promises: to take care of his family and to take his place as the person to tell their story. And he did, for another 20 years. Sol died in October 2016.
Berger told ODU students his father and uncle never felt guilty about surviving. They were filling the wishes of their parents: just to live.
“That’s not what my parents would have wanted,” the brothers said. “What we did by living was exactly filling their wishes.”
Information from: The Virginian-Pilot, http://pilotonline.com