Updated links - Jerry Berman’s letters: A South African Engineer who witnessed the Ukrainian Holodomor 1932-33

Alison Marshall's picture

H-SAfrica subscribers may be interested in the letters of Jerry Berman (b. 1903). A South African immigrant from Lithuania, Berman arrived in South Africa in 1922 and studied at University of Cape Town. He qualified as a civil engineer but during the Great Depression there was little demand for his skills. So in 1931 he travelled to Ukraine, then part of the Soviet Union. He served as a foreign expert on Stalin’s first Five Year Plan, working for a company called Mostotrest on major bridge building projects.

The younger brother of Cape Town politician A. Z. Berman, Jerry Berman had socialist sympathies. He wrote regularly to his family and friends, including his close friend Meyer Fortes, later an eminent social anthropologist. Berman’s letters to Fortes eventually came into the possession of Fortes’ granddaughter, Alison Marshall. She donated the letters to the National Museum of the Holodomor-Genocide in Kyiv, Ukraine https://holodomormuseum.org.ua/en/.

Berman witnessed at first-hand the Holodomor, the artificial famine of 1932-33 created by Stalin’s collectivisation policies. As a manager on a major building project, he was responsible for teams of workers who had come from the rural villages and were starving. He described the conditions in his letters. He commented on the political situation, on occasion describing confrontations with the local Communist Party officials.

The Holodomor Museum has created a special display dedicated to Jerry Berman’s letters https://holodomormuseum.org.ua/en/jerry-berman-s-letters/. For each letter, there is an English transcription, a Ukrainian translation and a scanned image of the original. [This website still has a few bugs that won’t be fixed while the country is under invasion, so please be patient.] There is a brief introduction, explaining the role of Jerry’s brother Israel Berman. The family decided that Israel would receive the handwritten letters, retype them with several carbon copies, and circulate them. This meant that the letters received by Fortes were often accompanied by a long discussion of Israel’s concerns about Jerry’s position, as well as copies of his letters to Jerry. These give interesting insights into the prevailing attitudes to the Soviet Union amongst the South African left.

The Jerry Berman letters are particularly important to the Holodomor Museum, because there is so little documented evidence about the famine. The Museum has undertaken a huge project to collect oral testimonies from those who lived through it. These people, now in their eighties or nineties, remember the events from their childhood. This means that the museum’s permanent exhibition is poignantly dominated by children’s perspectives. Berman’s letters are valued because they are written evidence, because they are from the viewpoint of an outsider, and because they describe the impact on working lives.

In the context of Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, it is relevant that Berman worked in the Donbas region, on the first bridge across the Severski Donets River at Stanitsya Luhanska. The current bridge, opened in 2019, is not ‘Jerry’s bridge’, which was blown up in the Second World War. It was rebuilt and was destroyed again in 2015 https://www.reuters.com/article/uk-ukraine-crisis-bridge-idUKKBN1XU25Q.

Berman arrived in USSR in late 1931 and left in 1935, probably just in time to avoid imprisonment and possibly death during the Terror. He spent a year and a half in Ukraine, until Mostotrest relocated him to Nizhni Novgorod. The letters online and in the Holodomor archive, so far, only relate to the years 1931-33. In these letters, he writes more about his technical work and how exciting he found it professionally. Although not online, letters from 1933-1935 have been scanned, and Alison Marshall can make them available for scholarly purposes. 



See also https://www.itv.com/news/border/2021-09-22/letters-found-by-cumbria-academic-shed-new-light-on-ukraine-terror-famine