“Where are the dollars?” two plainclothes Gestapo officers demanded as they appeared without warning on both sides of Sol Berger. Sol denied any knowledge, even though the daughter of a local currency dealer was hovering nearby at the train station in Tarnow, Poland, holding the dollars he desperately needed to immigrate to Palestine. The officers led him to Gestapo headquarters where, in a small second-floor room, they interrogated him, repeatedly beating him with a rubber stick and boxing both ears simultaneously. Finally, after two hours, one said, “He’s had enough for today,” and they left the room. Bruised and barely able to move, Sol spied a small, iron-barred window in the corner. He managed to squeeze his thin body through an opening and slide down a gutter. He reached the ground and ran. It was spring 1940, and Sol was 20 years old.
Solomon Berger was born on Oct. 28, 1919, to Jacob and Rose Fabian Berger in Krosno, Poland. He was the eighth of nine children. His father’s tailor shop occupied one room in the house, the same room where the observant family celebrated Shabbat dinner on Friday nights.
On Sept. 1, 1939, Sol was awakened at 5 a.m. as the German air force dropped bombs on Krosno’s airport and factories, causing the entire city to erupt in flames. Sol and his younger brother, Michael, were drafted into the Polish army, returning home 10 days later.
In early 1940, the Gestapo required all Jews to wear white armbands with blue stars and all young men to perform slave labor. It was during this time that Sol, who had participated in Zionist activities, hoped to flee to Palestine.
After his escape in Tarnow, Sol hid with a Jewish family there for three weeks, disguising himself by wearing a wig and women’s clothes.
Back in Krosno, he was recaptured by the Gestapo and jailed with 10 political prisoners, including a Roman Catholic priest who said Mass daily and tutored Sol on Christianity, later enabling him to pass as a non-Jewish Pole. After six months, he was released.
During this time, Sol’s father worked as a tailor for the Germans, and the family was allowed to remain in their house. This ended on Aug. 9, 1942, when all Jews were ordered to report the next day to register for new permits.
That morning, before 9 a.m., Sol, his parents, three brothers, and one married sister and her family huddled together in the old marketplace. Trucks surrounded the area, along with Gestapo, SS and police. A selection began. Sol’s father was ordered to board one of the trucks, but first he put his arms around his four sons and said, “Boys, try to survive any way you can.” The trucks pulled away, accompanied by vehicles with machine guns mounted atop.
Two hours later, the trucks returned empty. (It wasn’t until 1978 that Sol discovered that the 500 elderly Jews had been executed in a nearby forest.) This time, the Nazis selected 600 young people, including Sol and his three brothers, for slave labor. They were taken to the ghetto and crammed 20 to a room. “We had to sleep sitting up,” Sol said.
Meanwhile, after standing all day in the hot sun with no food or water, the 1,400 Jews remaining in the marketplace — including Sol’s mother, sister, sister’s husband and their two children — were loaded into cattle cars and, Sol later learned, transported to Belzec, where they were all murdered.
The next morning, Sol and his brothers were assigned to work in the tailor shop. Two weeks later, his brothers Moses and Michael were sent to work as tailors at a Ukrainian SS training camp.
On Dec. 3, 1942, marching back to the ghetto after work, Sol and his brother Joshua saw Gestapo surrounding the area. They decided to split up, escape and meet in Czortkow, where Tadeusz Duchowski, the husband of a Polish family friend, supervised a construction crew.
That night, Sol slipped out through a secret passageway. He made his way to the house of Maria Duchowski, Tadeusz’s wife, who hid him for three days. Then, traveling as Jan Jerzowski, he took the train to Czortkow. Joshua never arrived.
In Czortkow, Tadeusz registered Sol as a Polish worker and put him to work building a bridge over the River Dniester. After three months, the project was completed.
Sol and about 100 Polish workers then escaped to the forest, joining the partisans and blowing up railroad tracks and highways. The group kept moving, sleeping in caves at night. “That was the hardest time of my life, surviving for 14 months,” Sol said. He had to bathe in private to avoid being recognized as a Jew, listen to partisans’ anti-Semitic insults and drink a lot of “stinking vodka.”
In March 1944, after the Russians moved into Poland, the partisans were inducted into the Soviet army. Sol, who became Ivan Marianowicz Jerzowski, secured a job as a translator in the interrogation department, avoiding fighting in the front lines.
In April 1945, Sol took a leave from the Soviet army. In Krakow, he met Gusta Friedman, who had survived disguised as a Christian, and together they decided to escape from Poland.
Sol and Gusta traveled to Cluj, Romania, where they were married on May 18, 1945. They then went to Santa Maria di Bagni (later referred to as Santa Maria al Bagno), a DP camp in Southern Italy, where Sol contacted his three surviving sisters, who were living in the United States. He also learned his brother Michael had survived Auschwitz.
But Sol and Gusta remained another three years in the DP camp, where Sol worked as an ORT instructor and where their son Jack was born on Aug. 24, 1946. They then lived in London for two years.
The family finally arrived in Los Angeles in early July 1950, and their daughter, Marlene, was born on July 21, 1951. Sol worked as a machine operator in a clothing factory, as a liquor store co-owner with his brother Michael and as a Realtor in Beverly Hills, retiring in 1992.
Sol has been married to Gusta — now Gertrude — for 67 years. They have four grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
Sol began telling his story publicly in 1992, after promising his brother to do so when Michael was dying of lung cancer. For the last 20 years, Sol has been speaking three times a week at The Museum of Tolerance and the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust as well as to student, military and police groups.
“I realized I must tell my story, as much as it hurts,” Sol said.