When he was nineteen-years-old, Harvy Berman, the author of Undying Will: A Family’s Story of Survival in War Torn Europe, found out that, unbeknownst to him, his family had lived through the Holocaust and World War II-era Poland. This began years of discovery in which Harvy put together his family’s incredible story through a combination of research, discussions, and unearthing first-person written accounts from some of his family members.
In this remarkable book, Harvy relays his family’s story of survival in a time and place in which 95% of the Jewish population was exterminated. Harvy shares his family’s harrowing story of willpower, survival, heroism and ultimately, of triumph. At this period in history, Harvy’s book is a powerful reminder of the human toll of prejudice and racism.
Harvy Berman: My parents did everything they could not to tell us the story of their background, and the issues that they went through related to the Holocaust. My whole youth, it was something that was never brought up. I really didn’t learn about it until I started working in the family business and I started interacting with my uncles and cousins. That’s when a lot of discussions and storytelling began.
Nikki Van Noy: Before you began learning those stories, what sort of basis of knowledge did you have about your family’s history? Did you know they had been through the Holocaust or were you completely in the dark?
Harvy Berman: Completely in the dark. They did everything they could to avoid talking about it. There was no indication in my life. I grew up in a normal suburban area, I was very involved in sports, so my time was spent every day playing baseball, football, and basketball, and going home for dinner. Eating dinner, and going to bed, and going to school.
There was never any discussion. I knew they came from Europe because my parents had an accent, but that was about it.
An Unknown History
Nikki Van Noy: So how did that impact you when you first found out? Do you remember that moment?
Harvy Berman: I remember the key moment. I started working at the factory at a fairly young age, about nineteen-years-old. One day, my father wasn’t there at the factory and in the conference room, my uncles and cousin were sitting. They spoke Yiddish. Working with them, I understood Yiddish and spoke it also.
So, I was in the next office, and they didn’t know I was in there. I overheard a conversation that they had where they said something about my father’s first wife. Obviously, it drew my interest and I walked into the room. When they saw me, they put their hands on their heads, knowing that they said something that they weren’t supposed to say.
That was the beginning of me finding out that there was a whole other story about my parent’s background that I was not aware of.
Nikki Van Noy: Tell me how this story started to unfold for you. What was your family’s experience?
Harvy Berman: After I started researching it, while I was going to college, it became an interest of mine. I started looking a little deeper into it and I started studying a little bit about my family’s history. I became aware that they were very entrepreneurial type individuals in Poland.
My grandfather had a factory where they manufactured sheepskin coats for the Polish army and the Polish railroad workers. My grandfather died when my father was seventeen-years-old and before he passed away, he decided to have my father take over the business. So, my father took over the factory at seventeen years of age. This was obviously before the war. The factory started growing, and they were able to build a large three-story brick building and started manufacturing and hiring lots of employees.
Interestingly enough, they were paid by the Polish government twice a year. They had to come up with their own currency that they could pay their employees. They basically called it a Berman dollar. They’d pay all their employees with the Berman dollars. The employees would be able to go around town and buy their bread, and their meats, and whatever they needed.
Then, when the Polish government paid in zlotys, they were able to transfer the dollars into zlotys and pay everybody off. So, with that system, they were able to hire a lot of employees and business just grew tremendously.
Nikki Van Noy: Then, how did their lives begin to shift in the Holocaust? Were they actually in Poland at the time when the extermination began?
Harvy Berman: Yes, they were operating the factory. At that point, my father fell in love with a woman and he got married in about 1936 or 1937. They had a young son and life was good. They were living a great life.
A big part of the story that I get into is that my father, and cousin, and an uncle decided they wanted to start a soccer team to play in the Polish district league. They would leave the shtetl areas and go to Warsaw, and they saw that there were soccer leagues. They said, “Why can’t we have a soccer team from our city?” They established their own soccer team to play in the Polish district league. Interestingly enough, the games were held on Saturday, and as you could imagine, being the high, holy day for religious Jews, it created quite a controversy in the town when they left to play their first game on a Saturday.
They were actually stoned by many of the citizens in town on their way out to play the game.
Nikki Van Noy: Obviously the book covers this in detail but, first of all, were they able to escape ultimately?
Harvy Berman: In 1939, the Germans started bombing the town, and it was one of the first towns that the Germans bombed because they had already made a decision that they were going to attack the Soviet Union. This was an area where they would have to drive their tanks and artillery through to get to the Soviet Union. So, it was one of the earlier towns they destroyed, and they pretty much liquidated most of the town, but when they went into the town, they saw this large factory producing sheepskin coats.
They imprisoned everybody that was working at the factory, and they gave them a work visa and said, “You guys could stay in the factory, and you’re going to keep working, making me sheepskin coats, but we’re going to be taking them.” That gave them almost two years to continuously work in the factory, making these sheepskin coats.
During that time, there were already individuals who had left on the trains to the death camps and had escaped and come back. The word was already out that if you’re headed in one of those trains, that was it. So, when they ran out of materials, they were marched to the trains. Knowing what they knew, they had a snuck some screwdrivers and some little tools in their pants, because they knew that in the cattle cars, there was a metal breathing grate up on the top. They decided they would try to open that when the train left, and one-by-one, push each other out of the hole in the train.
The majority of the family was on the train with a lot of other individuals, and one-by-one, they jumped out.
Nikki Van Noy: Can you talk to me about what it was like for you to start to put all of this together about people who you love deeply?
Harvy Berman: Fortunately, two of my uncles that survived the Holocaust wrote their accounts. One was only written in Yiddish and it was translated later in English by a cousin of mine. The other uncle wrote one in English. These stories weren’t brought out into the public, so as I started writing my accounts about that early life, I said, “Why would I want to rewrite what these guys already wrote?”
I basically took their firsthand accounts and stuck them into the story, so that people could hear the actual story from people that were going through it at the time. What I did with my narrative was to try to give individuals an idea of what life was like in this area before the Nazis’ arrived.
A lot of people think about this Jewish shtetl before the Holocaust and Fiddler on The Roof comes to mind. They think all the Jews were wearing black coats and black hats and have long beards, or they think they were a communist organization.
My father and his family were capitalist, they were as western as could be. You know, my father wore a three-piece suit. He had a haircut like the people in downtown Warsaw and they loved that life. They weren’t Orthodox, they were respectful of the Jewish religion, but by no means were they Orthodox. They ate food that all the Polish people were eating, they were eating Kielbasa, Pierogis, they were drinking, smoking cigarettes, and just living life like everybody else was in Poland.
They had no intention of going anywhere else or being anything different than Polish citizens. That was the life that they led prior to the war. Obviously, it all changed when a lot of the Polish people turned against them.
An Unfortunate Reality
Nikki Van Noy: You have a quote on the cover of your book from Stalin that says, “One death is a tragedy, millions of deaths are a statistic.” The way that you just explained your family–these are very relatable people, obviously living life in an earlier era than we are today, but just hearing you say that really drives home the point that this could happen to anyone, given the wrong circumstances.
Harvy Berman: It’s an unfortunate reality and that’s why stories like this are, in my opinion, important to be put out there. Obviously, everybody’s not going to read it, everybody’s not going to believe it, and there’s going to still be people out there that say it never happened.
It happened to my whole family. Ninety percent of my family was killed. Their town had ten-thousand individuals–eight-thousand Jews. In 1945 when they got back together after they were liberated, there were between ten and twelve survivors out of the eight-thousand. It’s very fortunate, obviously for me, that my family was a big part of it.
But if it wasn’t for their factory, and the Germans imprisoning them there, they would have been killed out at the beginning, as my father’s first wife and first child was. The majority of my family passed away in those situations. It was mass graves–the town’s people were taken, and line up and shot, and thrown in the graves.
What brought me to writing the story was that I was invited to attend a memorial in my father’s city because another individual who had descended from the city went to see where his family was from. When he arrived there, he wanted to see the cemetery, and he was greeted by a barren field. He asked what was going on and they said, “When the Germans took over the town, they had the Jews remove every headstone from the cemetery, and crush them into gravel, and they used that gravel to create the streets, so they could drive their artillery towards the Soviet Union.”
That empty field sat there since 1940. This individual contacted other individuals, other descendants from the city, and hired an Israeli artist. They were able to purchase the land back from the Polish government and put a memorial there with a dedication saying what was there–that there was a 200-year-old cemetery that was desecrated in that way.
Being there, seeing that, knowing that most of my family was buried there before the war, really gave me the inspiration that my kids need to know about this. My grandkids need to know about this, and I hope other people are interested in this story as well.
Stepping Back in Time
Nikki Van Noy: How did it feel to you being in that place and that town that was such a part of your family’s history and knowing what happened there?
Harvy Berman: It was really difficult. Before I went, I thought back to what my father said years before he died. I remember him on numerous occasions, once it was out in the open and we would talk about it a little, he said that he would never step foot in Poland again, understandably so. His wife and kid and his whole family were slaughtered there. So, I had mixed feelings about going there.
I thought, “I never met my grandparents, any of them. I never saw a picture of them.” I thought to stand over a cemetery where they are buried, and to be able to recite Kaddish in their honor, I thought that would honor my parents and honor my father. I decided to make the trip over and walk in the same areas that they walked. I actually found the house of my grandfather, which still exists. It was just an amazing feeling.
Nikki Van Noy: You mentioned at the beginning of this conversation that you put a lot of this information together through research. After you put this together, did your family begin talking about it more or is most of this from the narratives that were written by your family combined with your research? Did it become a more open dialogue over time?
Harvy Berman: Yeah, it became more of an open dialogue, but not so much with my father, but with my uncles and cousins. When I started working in the factory, we were supplying the automotive industry with leather interiors, and then we started going back to the roots and making sheepskin coats. I went to that division and starting to make sheepskin coats. I was put with a gentleman who was actually my cousin but was older than my father. He was an energetic guy that loved to talk and have a great time. There would basically be the two of us working on getting this new part of the business going.
He would relate a lot of the stories to me that my father never talked about. Those were the little things that I started making notes of. Since I was an athlete, the story about how these guys wanted to create a soccer team in their town just blew my mind.
The rest of it came from talking to my uncles over time. I talked to my aunts–I talked to everybody that had a story. I am fortunate to have very close cousin Sarah, who recalls lots of stories that her mother told her. When I was working on this, I would sit with her, and she would recall lots of stories that her mother told her over the years because they had a very interesting survival story too. They avoided going to the trains by going to the Soviet Union and running away there.
Unfortunately, they were quickly picked up as spies by the Soviets and sent to Siberia. They lived out the war in Siberia. So, for six years the two sides of the family never knew the other side was alive. When it was all over, surprisingly enough, they got a note that they were still alive. It was a matter of listening to people and listening to the stories.
Nikki Van Noy: I am so struck by the resiliency of your family, not only for surviving in the first place but also that after all of that, they were able to rebuild and have a factory once again.
Harvy Berman: Yeah, it is incredible how tight-knit they were to survive, together, always having concern for each other. They really stuck together. A lot of them hid out together in the woods. That is an interesting part of the story. When they came here, they stuck together too. They came to the United States and they rented a big house. They all moved in together, and they all got jobs together. Eventually, they were able to build their own factory again as they had in Poland.
Nikki Van Noy: Once you were able to put all of this together, did it put anything about your father or your larger family in context for you that maybe hadn’t clicked before?
Harvy Berman: Not really. My father was a very quiet guy and he never really talked about it. I did not get much information about him. One thing I put in the book is that my father would chuckle when things were rough, and he would say, “Hitler couldn’t kill me, what do I have to be afraid of?”
Actually, that was going to be the title of the book. That was my working title of the book, but the publisher thought it was too long, and they had a few other issues with it, so they did want to shorten it up. But that is the kind of guy he was. He just wasn’t a talking kind of guy. He was a doer. He did things in life. When there was a problem, he would take care of it. He didn’t talk about it. That’s how they made things work in Poland.
You have to take life into your own hands and that is part of my family. They weren’t a religious group, and so they didn’t pray to try to get through the bad times. They figured out what had to be done to get through the bad times and that’s how they made it all through life.
Nikki Van Noy: So, even understanding that your entire family didn’t survive, statistically an incredible portion of your family survived, it sounds like.
Harvy Berman: Right.
Nikki Van Noy: Have you thought about what you attribute that to?
Harvy Berman: It is everything that we talked about. Look, a lot of it has to be luck. Any story of the Holocaust, of survivors, you could say, “Oh, they had a great plan and ingenuity, they had connections.” But you know there were a hundred times in those years that they could have died. So, the ones that survived obviously had some ingenuity, but it is still luck because, at any time, a German could walk up to you and shoot you. It was a common, everyday occurrence.
When you read my uncle’s accounts, they talk about it on a regular basis. Just a German officer walking up to somebody and shooting him. It was commonplace. You had to have luck.
Nikki Van Noy: Finding all of this out, did it make you put your life in any kind of different context, or look at things differently?
Harvy Berman: I don’t know. That is hard to say. Obviously, it turned me into who I am today. I am a martial arts instructor, that is what I do professionally, and I try to ingrain in kids that if you work hard, if you believe in yourself, good things will happen, and that is the big part of it. You have got to keep working for what you want in life, you have got to fight through the bad times. You have got to understand that everybody is going to go through bad times in life.
So, how do you get through them? How do you persevere? You grab it by the horns, you face the situation, and you take it on and don’t put it on the back burner and think, “Oh, it will just go away.” That was one of the great lessons I learned from my family–the art of survival.
Nikki Van Noy: What does it feel like to you now that you have finished this book?
Harvy Berman: Well, it feels good. Obviously, it feels good. I mean, to be honest, spending the last two to three years going over my uncle’s writings, and researching and going through these old books was difficult. I had a lot of sleepless nights where I couldn’t get those stories out of my head. I would spend all day reading about it, making notes, and then I would try to go to bed and I couldn’t get those stories out of my head.
I found it very disturbing. I had a very hard time with it. So, now that it is done, how do I feel about it? I feel good. I need to step away from it a little bit to clear my head. That is about all I can say about it.
A Labor of Love
Nikki Van Noy: I think you have already referenced this, but especially considering how difficult some moments of this process were, why was it so important to you that this story be told in a book format?
Harvy Berman: I have children and my children have started having children. I have grandkids now, and I just looked at the fact that I never knew who my grandparents were. I never knew their story. I wanted my grandkids to know the story of their family. I had my notes and a notebook. I had my uncle’s writings that were scattered in some different areas, but I thought I needed one book that would put it all together and paint a picture of what their life was like before the war and what they went through during the war.
I tried to find any pertinent photos that related to the situation. Surprisingly enough, my parents held onto a couple of pictures. My father held onto one picture of his first wife, even though he never told us about it. There was a picture of my mother with her Jewish armband on. I wanted to put it out there in one cohesive book where it could be passed on to the future generations.
Nikki Van Noy: It sounds like a labor of love in the truest sense of the phrase.
Harvy Berman: You know, I just adore my family. I was very fortunate to be in a situation where I worked side-by-side with them for twenty years, hearing their stories in their original Yiddish language. It was so colorful, and there was a lot of tragedy. But hearing their earlier life, there was a lot of humor. I thought that was important to get out there too so that people would know the type of life that went on before the Holocaust.
Nikki Van Noy: I’ve got to tell you that this strikes me as a truly important book to write. So, thank you and thank you for taking the time to talk to us about it.
Harvy Berman: I appreciate your interest in the story and thank you for helping me.