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Revealing the Struggles of Holocaust Survivors in U.S.

Literature: N.Y. author's 'Displaced Persons' recalls families enduring painful pasts while facing challenges of a new land.

July 10, 2001|JOSH GETLIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — In the spring of 1950, young Joseph Berger experienced a jumble of emotions whenever he walked down Broadway with his parents: There were eye-opening discoveries about a new life on Manhattan's Upper West Side, but also painful conversations with other immigrants about family and friends who had perished in the Holocaust.

A son of survivors, Berger ached to blend in to the American mainstream as he grew older, and there were times he resented the psychological burden of his parents' past. But try as he might to escape it, the shadow of their loss--and of so many other Jewish refugees--stuck to him like a birthmark.

"My whole sense of life in America is connected to this street," Berger said as he walked along Broadway last week, pointing out the rooming houses, bus benches and other sites where newly arrived survivors would congregate. "And when I look back, it's impossible for me to separate the anxiety we felt here from our determination to move on and make a new life in this country."

In the years after World War II, about 140,000 Holocaust survivors came to America, many settling in the New York metropolitan area. It was a time when few Americans knew the details of Hitler's concentration camps, decades before films like "Schindler's List" and "Sophie's Choice" made the story horrifyingly real. For Berger's family, the tragedy was a deeply private wound--something they would talk about only with other victims.

The story of the survivors' daily life in this country still is not widely known. But that may change with Berger's "Displaced Persons: Growing Up American After the Holocaust." It is one of the few books to focus on the inner lives and workaday struggles of Holocaust refugees--and the author, a New York Times reporter, wrote his first-person account hoping to set the record straight:

"So much of the survivors' world in this country is portrayed like a Hollywood movie, about people filled with gloom and doom," he said. "There was that, but there was also a life of energy and laughter, of great emotional love. There was an extraordinary sense of close family ties."

Berger, 56, was born in Russia, where his Polish parents had fled to escape Hitler's armies. Most of their relatives back home were not so lucky. The loss of their families, and a recognition of life's unpredictable cruelties ultimately drove the Bergers to seek a new life in America. It might have been an alien land, but opportunities and freedoms beckoned.

For every painful moment in his new world, Berger remembers the ordinary joys of growing up in New York: His parents taught him how to ride a bike in the park like other kids. He developed a taste for hot dogs, in addition to the pastrami and brisket at home. While his Yiddish-speaking father had no patience with professional baseball, Berger became a die-hard Yankee fan.

It's a familiar story in New York's melting pot, and especially on the Upper Westside, where waves of immigrants repeatedly have transformed the old neighborhood wedged between Central Park and the Hudson River. When Berger arrived, large numbers of Italian, Irish and Puerto Rican families filled the area's brownstones and apartment buildings. Years later, African American and Dominican families moved in, further enriching the ethnic stew. But there was a distinction to Berger's world that still fills him with sadness.

"Some immigrants can pick up and go back home if things don't work out here," he said. "But for us, there was nowhere to go back to. The villages our parents had come from were destroyed. Our families were destroyed."

His parents were forever caught between the shock of what happened and the anxiety of a new, unfamiliar life. But their children--Joe, along with his brother, Josh, and sister, Evelyn--took a radically different path. The generational friction that ensued had both tragic and comic moments.

Berger's father, who lost six sisters and his parents in Poland, worked in a New Jersey factory for 90 cents an hour. He barely spoke English but intuitively understood Joe's yearning to be like other kids and watch television. The family was too poor to own a TV, but in a memorable story, the father took his 8-year-old boy to an Irish bar, sat him down on a stool while Bob Hope flickered on the tube and bought him a beer.

Years later, when it was time for college, Berger flirted with the idea of going to a school far away. But his mother, who had lost six brothers and sisters along with her parents in the war, wouldn't hear of it. "Joey," she said with sadness, "We don't have nobody. You and Josh and Evelyn are all we have. We need to stay together. I don't want you going far away."

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