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Living, under many names

Sol Berger, a Polish Jew, survived World War II by assuming other identities. At 89, he's returned to his authentic self.

February 16, 2009|Tami Abdollah

In his 89 years, Sol Berger has gone by many names.

He started life in Poland as Salomon Berger, then became Jan Jerzowski. Then he was Ivan Marianowicz Jerzowski, then Shlomo Harari, then Sol.

During World War II and its aftermath, the names kept him safe, protected him from the concentration camps and eventually allowed him to seek refuge in the United States.

But the names also forced Berger, a young Jew, to live in constant fear as he assumed identities that included a Polish partisan fighter and a Russian lieutenant. With each name, and each life story he had to remember, a little more of the real man was kept hidden.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, February 18, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 42 words Type of Material: Correction
Holocaust survivor: An article in Monday's Section A about a Polish Jew who used several identities to evade the Nazis during World War II misspelled the names of the towns of Debrecen in Hungary and Cluj in Romania as Debracin and Klush.

After the war he settled in Los Angeles and began to build a new life, this time as Sol Berger. For decades he never spoke about what he endured as Jan, Ivan and Shlomo.

But as Berger came to discover, those identities, though fake, were an integral part of his life story. And to honor the memory of parents and siblings who died in the war, he had to tell the world how and why he came by so many names.

Salomon Berger (1940-1942)

Salomon was beaten badly.

"He's had enough today," he heard a Nazi say after two hours of questioning. When his interrogators left the room, the 20-year-old Salomon sensed his chance. Rail-thin at about 100 pounds, he eased himself through a small window that had barbed wire attached to its frame and let himself down from the second story.

Salomon had been arrested because he had refused to report for a forced labor detail. After escaping, he hid in a nearby Jewish home but later made the mistake of returning home to southeastern Poland. It was 1940, the year after Germany invaded.

"I thought nobody was going to know who I am," he recalled decades later. "I came back to Krosno after three weeks, and the Gestapo was waiting for me."

Gestapo officers knew what Salomon looked like because they had been using his family's tailor shop to clean and mend their uniforms. He was thrown into a political prison with 10 Catholics, including a priest who said Mass and lectured on Christianity daily. Salomon listened carefully. After six months, his parents bribed officials for his release.

Life attained a kind of normalcy, but over the next two years rumors trickled in of deportations and gas chambers.

The story of what happened next is based upon Salomon's recollections and documents. Records maintained at Yad Vashem, an Israeli Holocaust museum, verify that Sol and other family members lived in Krosno during the war. Aaron Breitbart, a senior researcher at the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, says that key details of his accounts conform with the historical record.

As Salomon remembers, and as Breitbart confirms, Krosno's Jewish community received its "resettlement" orders on Aug. 9, 1942, and the town's 2,500 Jews reported to the marketplace at 9 the next morning. Salomon's father was grouped with 500 elderly men and women and told to get on a truck. Salomon started to cry.

"This is goodbye," his father said to Salomon and his three brothers. "I know nobody is going to come back from these trips. But I want you to make me a promise. You boys try to survive any way you can, to be able to tell this story."

The trucks returned empty.

Salomon and his brothers -- Moishe, Michael and Joshua -- were among 600 others pressed into forced-labor crews in the area.

Three of his five sisters had already immigrated to the United States and a fourth had died in anti-Jewish violence in Germany in 1938. But his mother and remaining sister were still in Poland. Both were taken in cattle cars to the death camp Belzec and gassed.

A portion of Krosno was blocked off as a ghetto. A month later, the Gestapo took away another 100 people, including Michael and Moishe.

That left just Salomon and Joshua. Soon after, the pair found someone who sold false identity papers. As Jan Jerzowski, a good Christian name, Salomon left Krosno. The day after the brothers escaped, the ghetto was liquidated.

Jan Jerzowski (1942-1944)

Jan was on a train headed to Eastern Poland when police asked for his papers.

They lingered and asked if he took Communion. He assured them he did. Still not satisfied, they asked him to say a prayer. Remembering what he learned from the priest, Jan recited the Lord's Prayer.

The police let him go.

Joshua was not so lucky. The brothers had split up for the night, and Joshua was never seen again.

Jan moved on to Niznow, where he found Tadeusz Duchowski, the husband of a family friend who had helped him escape Krosno. Duchowski supervised a construction crew on a bridge, and Jan joined the other workers, all of them Christians.

Duchowski could not put Jan on the books -- listing an extra worker might raise suspicions -- and he did not have money to pay for one more laborer. But the work served as a cover. For money, Jan did tailoring on the side; he had also squirreled away 30 American dollars, purchased on the black market, by sewing them into his clothing.

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