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."
Many children remember their parents staying up all hours, waiting for them to come home from late-night escapades. But in Berger's family, there was an added undertone of fear and panic, a belief that he might not ever return--like so many others in the family. Even now, when he and his parents gather for family visits, nobody can relax until everyone has safely arrived. For them, life's fragility has been a painful constant.
But so is its wonderful sense of possibility: Although his mother had only a seventh-grade education, the Bergers applauded her decision to get a college degree--and cheered her graduation in 1987. None of them, the author says, will ever take for granted the freedoms they enjoy in this country.
"My parents lived through the anti-Semitism and brutality of Poland, they survived Russia, and displaced-persons camps after the war," Berger said. "So even though one may have questioned something like the Vietnam War in the '60s, there is no way we could have rooted for the Viet Cong, like Jane Fonda. That would have been unthinkable. Something totally absurd."
So would military service. Berger's parents had experienced the annihilation of war and fiercely opposed their children joining the Army. Joe went to graduate school in journalism and then taught junior high school to maintain his deferment through the end of the Vietnam War.
It was during those years that his views about the Holocaust matured. Berger never discussed his parents' saga with friends, "because we were busy trying to be cool, we were going to jazz clubs in Greenwich Village and trying to become American hipsters." But when he discussed "The Diary of Anne Frank" with his students and realized they knew nothing about World War II, his determination to learn more about his parents' world increased.
During the writing of the book, Berger discovered that his mother had written her own extensive history of family loss and survival, and he incorporated much of that in his text. Through the act of remembering, the hurly-burly of his family's journey has come to life.
"So much of our old West Side neighborhood has changed," he said, reciting the litany of vanished candy stores, delicatessens and movie theaters that gave him a colorful introduction to American life. "But the area still has a great pull on me--it brings me back again and again."
Back to hot summer nights on a New York stoop, when immigrants dueled with blaring radios. Back to the evening when his family left a party thrown by fellow survivors, only to find one man--his loved ones gone forever--heaving big, inconsolable sobs.
The lessons of their new life in America became clear as the years went on, he wrote: "Though it would be pretty to think we can escape that past, such flights are futile. Better to look the horror in its face and go on."