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Betty Berman, Holocaust survivor and Mia docent, dies at 90

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Betty Berman, a Holocaust survivor who overcame the killings of her family and the sudden loss of a daughter to pursue a life of learning and the joyful practices of gardening, yoga and healthy living, died Nov. 28. She was 90.

Her childhood in Lodz, Poland, was upended in 1939 with the Nazi invasion, and for several years she endured the horrors of forced labor, concentration camps and the loss of her parents.

Berman, born Bronka Zylbering, survived thanks in part to her age. In an infamous episode in the Lodz ghetto, Chaim Rumkowski, the Jewish official in charge, followed Nazi orders to deport thousands, including the elderly and children under the age of 10, to the Chelmno extermination camp. Berman was just old enough to not be selected.

Her father, a grocer, died of starvation and typhoid. In 1944, she and her mother were deported to Auschwitz. Her mother was immediately sent to the gas chamber. Berman survived, first at the Stutthof concentration camp and then in Dresden, staying close to her beloved aunt, Gainya, a relationship that became a lifeline. Near the war’s end, Jewish workers were marched out of Dresden for an unknown location as the Allies advanced. Berman and her aunt slipped away as the group passed a farm in Czechoslovakia, hiding in a family’s barn to escape.

After the war, Berman emigrated to New York, where she resumed her education while living in a home for girls. In 1950, while attending a New York Philharmonic concert, she met her future husband, Hy Berman, who would go on to become a highly regarded University of Minnesota historian.

Their life was marked by frequent walks in their Minneapolis neighborhood and visits to the Guthrie Theater, Minneapolis Institute of Art, opera and classical music performances. Betty Berman spent 38 years as a docent at the art institute.

Berman also worked as a Minneapolis librarian at the Pierre Bottineau branch, and helped move the library, the city’s smallest with a capacity of just 40 visitors, to a new location with six times the space in 2003.

“She really enjoyed making sure every child had a book,” said Julia Slapp, Berman’s friend and caregiver in her final years.

Berman was also committed to a healthful lifestyle. She did yoga before it was trendy, said her daughter, Ruth Strother, and bragged about being able to stand on her head into her 80s. She won recognition for her gardens and made healthy meals a priority — including making what Strother called “the original veggie burger.”

Berman didn’t share stories of her childhood with her three children, wanting to spare them the awfulness of those memories. It wasn’t until Strother was a young adult that Berman first said something, suddenly sharing the sorrow that her mother “must have been so scared” when she was taken to be killed. “That’s how these things came out to me,” Strother said.

Berman knew tragedy as an adult, too, losing her 7-year-old daughter, Shelly, to an aneurysm in 1971.

“Betty didn’t always like to talk about the traumas life presented her,” said Temple Israel Rabbi Marcia Zimmerman at Berman’s funeral. “I know that her insights and her love of beauty was enhanced and made possible by the difficulties.”

Along with her daughter Ruth, Berman is survived by son Steven Berman, son-in-law Andrew Strother and one granddaughter. Services have been held.

Matt McKinney • 612-673-7329

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