UW-Whitewater professor recounts survival stories
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WHITEWATER “Arbeit Macht Frei.”
Michael Berger learned those three German words all too well. They are prominently displayed at the top of a gate at the main concentration camp at Auschwitz.
Translated, the words mean “work makes one free.”
Berger survived nearly three years in various camps and a winter death march before U.S. troops liberated them in April 1945.
(Read more stories from Walworth County Sunday HERE. )
Berger, a Jew from the southeastern Polish city of Krosno, returned to Auschwitz and other horrifying places from his past three times before dying in 1994, a year before his son, Ronald, published his first work about the Holocaust.
Ronald Berger released an updated version of that book, “Surviving the Holocaust: A Life Course Perspective,” in 2011, about his father’s and uncle’s harrowing experiences, learning like they did, that remembering has its costs.
The brothers were the only two members of the family who had not emigrated before World War II who survived.
And it’s their story that Ronald Berger, 61, has continued to learn and talk about. Although not nearly as dangerous, Berger’s search for the truth also has been a circuitous journey.
Earlier this month, Berger shared their story with the German Interest Group in Janesville.
He did his undergraduate and doctoral work at the University of California, Los Angeles between 1969 and 1980, moving to Wisconsin in 1981. He lived in Milton and Fort Atkinson before moving to McFarland in 1989.
During that time and ever since, he has been a professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, where he teaches courses about the Holocaust, white-collar crime and the sociology of disability.
But digging up his family’s past wasn’t something that came easy or right away for Berger.
“I believe the TV miniseries ‘Holocaust’ was a turning point, when many people first started talking about it,” said Berger, who grew up in a large Jewish community in Los Angeles. “It was the first exposure for many people with this subject matter. When I came to Wisconsin, where there is such a small Jewish population, people weren’t necessarily anti-Semitic, but they’d say things like ‘Jew you down,’ things that are just taken for granted.
“Then in 1987, I went to a lecture here at Hyer Hall by actor Robert Clary (Cpl. Louis LeBeau in “Hogan’s Heroes”), who spent time in the concentration camps and used his celebrity status as a way to raise awareness,” Berger said. “During the question-and-answer segment, a woman about 25 years old expressed anger because she had never heard about most of this in school, and everybody was shocked, including me.”
It also proved to be the turning point for Berger, who figured it was time he learned, really learned, about his family and the Holocaust.
His grandfather, Jacob, was one of an estimated 500 people who were shot and buried in a mass grave outside Krosno, while his grandmother, Rosa, and other relatives died in the gas chambers in nearby Belzec, all within 48 hours in August 1942.
“You’ve seen the parts in movies where members of the SS just go down the lines and pick out people, one line going to the gas chambers and the other line going to work camps. My father saw what they were doing and jumped into the other line and got away with it, or he would have been dead. But conditions in the work camps weren’t good … the lack of food and working outside, many were lucky to last three months.
“But my family were tailors, and that even saved them early in the war because they were valuable to the Germans at that time,” Berger added. “One of the kapos, or inmates, a convicted murderer, had higher status and was in charge of the work crews. My father noticed he had buttons missing on his shirt and asked if he could fix it for him, and this man asked my father if he could make pants for him and my father became his personal tailor. This kapo had access to those who smuggled things in and out of camp, and so my father got double the amount of food rations.”
The Russians actually arrived at Auschwitz first, which forced the Germans to evacuate to Austria.
“So my father survived the death march in January 1945, and in April they were told they’d be getting on a train to their final destination,” Berger said. “They knew what that meant, but then they were liberated by U.S. troops.”
Meanwhile, his uncle Sol got a fake ID and passed as a Catholic, albeit among anti-Semitic Polish workers and Partisans, and eventually became an officer in the Soviet army near the bloody eastern front.
“He joined a crew that originally built bridges for the Germans,” Berger said. “But he found out that the Partisans, even though they hated Hitler, were anti-Semitic. When they met up with the Russian army, my uncle was afraid they’d put him on the front lines. But because he spoke some German, he approached a commander about being a translator for the prisoners and that’s what saved him. They said he would have to go to Communist school, and he became an officer.”
Berger’s father made it to the United States in 1946, while his uncle didn’t arrive until 1950. Sol is still alive and went back to Poland for the first time in 2008.
“My initial reaction upon hearing most of this was, ‘It was amazing that my father lived at all. My father did all of this,’” Berger said. “It’s an incredible story. What struck me most about both of them wasn’t just that they had survived, but they did because of the decisions they made, the risks they took.
“Some people might say they were lucky, but they took advantage of the skills they had learned before the war and took advantage of their opportunities, took advantage of their luck.”
The stories are both horrific and fascinating, and Berger wishes he had heard them long before he did.
“While growing up I knew that my dad had been in the concentration camps, but I didn’t know any of the details,” said Berger, including what the blue number tattooed on his father’s left arm meant. “I always had one set of grandparents, but nobody ever talked about any of it. When I called my dad to finally talk about things, he already had written down a chronology and had put some things on a tape recorder, so I transcribed those items and we went back and forth.
“Here I had grown up around all of these Holocaust survivors and didn’t really know it,” Berger said of a time when most people, even his relatives, weren’t ready to hear or tell such stories.
It may be a cliché, but Berger said his book projects have been a labor of love.
“They were part of my personal history, and although I didn’t do them to advance my career, they have been a benefit,” he said. “It involved a lot of work and attention to detail.”
Part of that research involved Berger accompanying his father to Poland in 1989, the first time Michael had visited his homeland since the war. Berger’s book contains a photograph from that trip, one of his father walking through the gate, the one with the words “Arbeit Macht Frei” inscribed.
“Seeing the camps and everything, my father was proud because he had beaten Hitler and walked through those gates,” Berger said.
-- Ronald Berger is professor of sociology at the University of
Wisconsin-Whitewater, where he teaches courses on the Holocaust, white-collar crime and the sociology of disability.
-- He has published 14 books, with several about the Holocaust, including “Surviving the Holocaust: A Life Course Perspective”; “The Holocaust, Religion and the Politics of Collective Memory: Beyond Sociology”; and “Fathoming the Holocaust: A Social Problems Approach.”
-- Berger has received UW-Whitewater’s highest awards for teaching and research, as well as the Chancellor’s Award for service to students with disabilities and the Wisconsin Sociological Association’s William H. Sewell Outstanding
-- Berger gave the keynote address at the Legacies of the Holocaust conference in Krakow, Poland (2009); and the Holocaust Memorial Yom Hashoah lecture sponsored by the Center for Holocaust Studies at the University of Vermont (2011).
-- He also has co-written a dramatic screenplay, “The Promise” (with Walter Ulbricht), based on his father and uncle’s Holocaust survival, which won a first-place award in the Venice Arts Screenwriting competition and second-place awards in the American Screenwriters Association competition and the Wisconsin Screenwriters forum contest.