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Privilege and Persecution: Review of The Diary of Mary Berg, Growing Up in the Warsaw Ghetto

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Review by Claudia Moscovici, author of Holocaust Memories: A Survey of Holocaust Memoirs, Histories, Novels and Films (Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, 2019)

https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/076187092X/ref=ox_sc_saved_title_3?smid=ATVPDKIKX0DER&psc=1

The Diary of Mary Berg, a Polish survivor of American origins of the Warsaw Ghetto, has recently been in the news, a feature story in The New York Times. The journal contains entries from October 1939 to March 1944, offering first-hand details about the Nazi occupation of Poland, the establishment and destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto, where nearly 400,000 Polish Jews lost their lives. Published in 1945 by L. B. Fisher, the diary initially received a lot of media coverage but went out of print in 1950. Thereafter the author declined opportunities to discuss her experiences of the Holocaust and even sometimes denied the diary’s existence. Nonetheless, the book resurfaced in 2006, published by Oneworld Publications under the title The Diary of Mary Berg: Growing Up in the Warsaw Ghetto and edited by S. L. Shneiderman, with an introduction by Susan Pentlin. Shneiderman had also translated the original diary from Polish into Yiddish and hired Norbert Guterman and Sylvia Glass to translate the Polish edition into English.

The diary took the spotlight again in a New York Times Books article by Jennifer Schuessler entitled “Survivor Who Hated the Spotlight” (published on November 10, 2014), which covered the recent auction of Mary Berg’s private photographs due to be sold at Doyle New York, a Manhattan auction house. How did these photographs resurface? Ms. Berg herself passed away in 2013. A Pennsylvania antique dealer bought her photographs, which had an estimated value of thousands of dollars, at an estate sale for only ten dollars. After relatives heard the news of the planned auction, they contacted Doyle and the auction house cancelled the auction, which had been scheduled for November 24, 2014. Schuessler cites Rachel B. Goldman, Assistant Professor of History at the College of New Jersey and a Judaic Studies expert, who maintains that the auction provoked a sense of outrage. She explains why: “This could set a tragic precedent of less Holocaust material being put in archives and instead ending up in private hands—including the wrong private hands, I might add.”

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/11/arts/survivor-who-hated-the-spotlight.html?module=Search&mabReward=relbias%3Aw%2C%7B%221%22%3A%22RI%3A5%22%7D&_r=0

These photographs, like the diary itself, offer an invaluable glimpse into the horrific lives even of the privileged inhabitants of the Warsaw Ghetto. Coming from an affluent family (her father was a successful art dealer and collector of the European masters such as Poussin and Delacroix), Mary Berg was especially fortunate to have a mother who was an American citizen. The Nazis generally treated American citizens differently from Polish captives, in the effort to launch a propaganda campaign that hid from the American press details about the persecution and massacre of European Jews. Mary Berg’s diary was one of the first eyewitness accounts of the Holocaust in Poland. It describes the tremendous duress of the hundreds of thousands of Jews trapped by the Nazis in the Warsaw Ghetto and provides anecdotal accounts of the heroic and tragic Warsaw Ghetto uprising, which Mary received news about from survivor friends.

Originally from Lodz, where the Nazis had already set up a Jewish Ghetto, Mary moved to Warsaw with her family, hoping that life would be better there. In November 1940, however, the Nazis established the Warsaw Ghetto, where Mary was trapped with her family until a few days before the mass deportations to concentration camps, in the summer of 1942. She saw with her own eyes the brutality, the beatings, the random shootings of innocent civilians. She witnessed from her window countless people being forcibly deported to the Treblinka death camp and to Auschwitz. She saw, helplessly, thousands of children reduced to skin and bones. She barely escaped death herself. Due to her mother’s American citizenship, Mary, her parents, and her sister were sent to a camp in Vittel, France, which, as she states in her journal, seemed like “paradise” compared to the hardship and horror of life in the Warsaw Ghetto.

Mary Berg’s diary offers a unique testimony about privilege and persecution in the Warsaw Ghetto. Originally the wealthier, well-connected members of the community could buy privileges, including jobs, exemptions from forced labor or deportation and, perhaps most importantly, the contraband food needed to ward off starvation. As members of the wealthier class, Mary and her friends helped organize charity talent shows, which not only gathered donations to feed the orphaned children and the starving poor in the ghetto, but also raised the public morale. Eventually, however, as the Nazis began implementing the Final Solution, even the wealthy faced the dangers of starvation, deportation and death.

Although privileged and young, Mary Berg is not only an incredibly astute observer of historical events, but also a highly compassionate person. Even when she and her family has enough to eat, she feels guilty for those who are starving in the Ghetto and does what she can to help them. After her family manages to escape the Ghetto, she is haunted by frequent nightmares about the hundreds of thousands of innocent human beings who lost their lives in that living hell. In the one of the most moving scenes of her journal, Mary describes a scene that she will often relive: the day the orphans in the Warsaw Ghetto, led by their beloved teacher Dr. Janusz Korczak, went with dignity to their deaths:

“Dr. Janusz Korczak’s children home is empty now. A few days ago we all stood at the window and watched the Germans surround the houses. Rows of children, holding each other by their little hands, began to walk out of the doorway. There were tiny tots of two or three among them, while the oldest ones were perhaps thirteen. … They walked in ranks of two, calm, and even smiling. They had not the slightest foreboding of their fate. At the end of the procession marched Dr. Korczak, who saw to it that the children did not walk on the sidewalk. Now and then, with fatherly solicitude, he stroked a child on the head or arm, and straightened out the ranks” (169).

This sad procession walked to the trains that took them to Treblinka, where they were all killed. If there any episode in history can be said to capture the horror and brutality of the Holocaust, the massacre of the orphaned children of the Warsaw Ghetto would be it. Civilization—or rather the lack thereof—cannot sink any lower than this.

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

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The Lodz Ghetto: Review of The Cage by Ruth Minsky

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Review by Claudia Moscovici, author of Holocaust Memories: A Survey of Holocaust Memoirs, Histories, Novels and Films (Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, 2019)

https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/076187092X/ref=ox_sc_saved_title_3?smid=ATVPDKIKX0DER&psc=1

In her Holocaust memoir, The Cage (Simon & Schuster, 1997), Ruth Minsky Sender compares the Lodz Ghetto not to imprisonment of human beings, but to a cage that animals are trapped in. The metaphor is powerful and apt. A medium sized city in Poland, Lodz had a relatively large Jewish population. Out of the city’s nearly 700,000 occupants, about a quarter of million were Jews. The Germans established the Lodz Ghetto in February, 1940. They forced the Jews who lived in other areas to abandon their homes and squeeze into the tiny, 4 square kilometer area, of the Jewish Quarter. The cage grew smaller and smaller as outside contact became more and more difficult. German Police units patrolled the perimeter of the ghetto, to eliminate contact between Jews and Poles. The ghetto walls trapped inside 162,681 human beings, left with meager means of survival. Many of them, particularly those who had moved from other parts of town, were also left homeless, at the mercy of the ghetto’s dissipating community resources. To ensure that the ghetto didn’t receive outside help, the Germans passed punitive laws towards anyone that sold food or goods to its inhabitants. While in the Warsaw Ghetto the underground food smuggling and black market trade flourished for a while, in the Lodz Ghetto it was practically impossible. As contact with the Poles was strictly punished, the Jewish inhabitants were at the mercy of the Germans for all the resources they needed to survive.

The ghetto was governed by a Jewish Council whose “Elder”, Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski, ruled with an iron fist. One of the most colorful and controversial figures of the Holocaust, Rumkowski became so used to the power he exercised within the ghetto walls that he came to be known as “King Rumkowski”. The historian Raul Hilberg describes him as a megalomaniac autocrat hungry for power. He notes, however, that Rumkowski had some benevolent tendencies, which he exercised on behalf of the ghetto inhabitants and particularly on behalf of children:

 

“A Zionist, he involved himself in community affairs and managed several orphanages with devotion. Widowed and childless, he became a dedicated autocrat in the ghetto. He was able to act alone, because the fear-stricken men who had replaced the murdered councilmen were merely his advisory board… When bank notes were printed in the ghetto, they bore his likeness. Frequently he made speeches with phrases like ‘I do not like to waste words,’ ‘My plan is based on sound logic’, ‘I have decided,’ ‘I forbid,’ and ‘My Jews.’ Rumkowski presided over his community through periods of starvation and deportations for almost five years” (Perpetrators, Victims and Bystanders, New York: HarperPerennial, 109).

 

To appease Hans Biebow, the ruling Nazi official in the area, and to keep the inhabitants alive, Rumkowski established a ghetto manufacturing economy for the Germans. Even so, most of the ghetto inhabitants, particularly the poorer ones and those unable to work, barely had enough food to survive. Most subsisted on a meager diet of about 900 calories a day. Starvation and disease thinned out the ghetto population even before the Nazis began deporting people to the death camps.

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Ruth (Riva) Minsky was only 16 years old when her mother was taken away by the Nazis, never to be seen again. Her father had already passed away earlier from an illness. So Riva, only a child herself, was left to take care of herself and her three younger brothers, including the youngest, Laibele, who suffered from tuberculosis. They barely have enough food to survive; in the harsh Polish winter they shiver from cold. Eventually Riva manages to find a job as a seamstress making German army uniforms. Despite being orphans, Riva and her brothers resist with all their might moving to the ghetto orphanage or being adopted by different families. In fact, the way their nuclear family clings together—with such tenacity that even the director of the orphanage decides to give Riva custody of her brothers—is one of the most moving aspects of the memoir.

Even so, during the winter, the living conditions become so harsh that the Jewish Council decides to burn all the old homes in order to have firewood for the ghetto inhabitants. Riva and her brothers, who live in an old house, are obliged to move into a room of an old grocery store with an underground cellar. This new place, though much smaller and bereft of their family memories, serves them well. Later they hide in the cellar, during the repeated raids by the Jewish Police looking for Jews to meet the Nazi quota for deportation to death camps. Riva and her brothers are particularly at risk since “Operation Reinhard”, or the Final Solution, initially targets children, the ill and the elderly. All those in the Lodz Ghetto deemed by the Nazis “unfit” for work are sent to the Chelmno death camp. Riva escapes several of the selections by hiding and depending on a network of teenage friends. But she cannot escape for long.

In the summer of 1944, the Nazis begin to liquidate the entire ghetto as the Soviet forces approach. They transport the remaining population, including the Elder himself, to Auschwitz. Although he had been promised safety and protection for his cooperation with the local Nazis, Rumkowski himself perished in the concentration camp. Out of the nearly 200,000 inhabitants of the Lodz ghetto, less than 1000 survived to be liberated by Soviet troops on January 19, 1945. Only 12 of them were children. Riva is one of the relatively lucky ones. She survived the unspeakably harsh conditions in Auschwitz due to her youth and resilience; her network of friends that helped each other; luck, and a kind prisoner doctor that took her to a local hospital. Her moving memoir, written in a simple and didactic prose intended for the young adult audience, offers a unique and informative look into the horrendous human cage that was once the Lodz Ghetto.

Claudia Moscovici

Literature Salon

 

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Sophie’s Choice: Holocaust Literature as Psychological Fiction

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Review by Claudia Moscovici, author of Holocaust Memories: A Survey of Holocaust Memoirs, Histories, Novels and Films (Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, 2019)

https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/076187092X/ref=ox_sc_saved_title_3?smid=ATVPDKIKX0DER&psc=1

Sophie’s Choice (New York: Vintage International, 1976) was a best seller in both of its incarnations: as the 1976 novel, written by William Styron, and as the 1982 film, directed by Alan J. Pakula. The movie starred Meryl Streep in her breakthrough role as Sophie. Streep’s performance won her the Academy Award for Best Actress. To Styron’s credit, Streep, as well as Pakula, had a great novel to work with. Written in a literary style filled with irony and highly sensual, lyrical passages reminiscent of Nabokov’s Lolita, Sophie’s Choice broaches somber themes: the Holocaust; the Nazi occupation of Poland (1949-1945); imprisonment in Auschwitz; tangled, pathological love affairs; post-traumatic stress disorder and schizophrenia and, last but not least, the excruciating choice alluded to in the title.

During the war, Sophie Zawistowska is a well-educated young woman from an upper-middle class Polish family. She’s not Jewish. In fact, her father is a professor with Nazi sympathies famous in Poland for his anti-Semitic treatises; her mother is a mild-mannered musician. When her country is occupied by Nazi Germany, Sophie becomes involved, but only peripherally, with the Polish resistance. She rebels against her father’s patronizing and paternalistic attitude towards her and becomes critical of his anti-Semitic beliefs. Despite his Nazi loyalties, however, Sophie’s father is shot by the occupying German regime for being a Polish intellectual. Soon she loses her husband as well. All she has left is two children: a boy and a girl. Eventually the SS arrests her and sends her, along with her children, to Auschwitz once they discover that she is hiding meat—food rations illegal for Poles and reserved for the German occupiers—under her coat.

Sophie’s choice pertains, first of all, to the selection process—determining prolonged life or instant death–performed by Nazi doctors and SS officers that prisoners commonly underwent once they exited the cattle trains at Auschwitz. Which is to say, the title is ironic because Sophie is deprived of any real power of choice or desirable options. But a sadistic SS officer puts a cruel spin on the usual concentration camp selection process, in which a prisoner has no say. He spares Sophie’s life, despite being a mother of young children, only to make her make confront a fate worse than death: he forces her to choose which one of her kids will live and which one will die. Under the threat that both would be sent to the gas chambers if she doesn’t make up her mind on the spot, Sophie makes a choice that no parent should ever have to make: she chooses to save her son and dooms her daughter.

This choice forms the main theme of the movie, but, despite the book’s title, it’s not the crux of the novel. The novel focuses instead on the recurrent traumas that Sophie experiences, related not only to her difficult life in the concentration camp and the painful choice she had to make but also to her problematic relationship with her father: something that haunts her all her life. Time and time again, Sophie chooses the wrong kind of man.

In Auschwitz, through a combination of skill and luck, she manages to get work in the Kommandant’s mansion. She even has several furtive, one-on-one, meetings with the infamous Rudolf Höss. Depicting Sophie’s ambiguous relationship with Höss, and the manner in which the pretty blonde manages to gain his trust and persuade him to see her son, constitutes one of the most subtle and intriguing aspects of this psychological thriller. In real life, Höss was rumored to have had an affair with a Jewish inmate, which turns out to have been false. In this case, the novel comes closer to the actual truth. The historian Robert Jay Lifton documents that Höss had an affair with a Polish prisoner, Eleonore Hodys, whom he tried to murder when she became pregnant in order to avoid scandal (see The Nazi Doctors, 1986, Harper Collins Publishers, 201) In the novel, however, Sophie’s relationship with Höss could be described, at most, as an emotional affair. It’s really nothing more than a brief exchange of confidences that carried enormous risks under the circumstances. The Auschwitz Commander never fulfills his promise to Sophie to facilitate a meeting with her son. Like in real life, in Sophie’s Choice, Höss is dispatched to Berlin before he has the chance to intervene in Sophie’s life. In Auschwitz, there were rumors circulating that Höss was temporarily replaced with Arthur Liebehenschel because of his affair with a prisoner. This too probably has no foundation in reality. It’s more likely that Höss was transferred because of his implication in a scandal involving the arrest of the Auschwitz political leader Maximilian Grabner. As Robert Jay Lifton elaborates: “Grabner was implicated through an SS anticorruption investigation, originally aimed at profiteering, although it also charged him with murders beyond those authorized, notably of Polish prisoners. Grabner’s exit was supported by Dr. Wirths, with whom he had confrontations over killings. Although implicated in Grabner’s misdeeds, Höss was, in fact, promoted into the central concentration-camp administration” (The Nazi Doctors, 310). Whatever the reason for Rudolf Höss’s hasty transfer, in the novel, Sophie never even finds out if her son lives or died. But the trauma of being drawn to the wrong men repeats itself.

Years later, in Brooklyn, Sophie falls in love with her neighbor, Nathan Landau, a Jewish American man who makes up tall tales about his extraordinary life. She’s drawn to his energy, to his sexual hunger, to his romantic gifts and overtures, to his intensity and even to his lies. When the narrator, Stingo, a novelist and their neighbor, becomes both of their friend, the three of them embark on an exciting but ambiguous friendship fraught with jealousy and triangulation. Nathan’s torrid passion for Sophie gradually turns to abuse, as he insults and even beats her in recurring fits of jealous rage. As Nathan’s brother later reveals, the young man suffers from schizophrenia. Although it’s not certain that he’s a genius, as he claims, he’s clearly delusional, confusing his paranoid fantasies with reality and mistaking lust for love. Their pathological bond is doomed from the start, much like Sophie’s family life was during the Nazi occupation.

Sophie’s Choice is a marvelously narrated historical novel that succeeds, above all, as psychological fiction. Which is only fitting. For how can any novel about the Holocaust—a historical trauma of a depth beyond measure—capture the devastation of that period without delving into the personal trauma of its individual victims?

 

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

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Filed under Claudia Moscovici, historical fiction, Holocaust Memory, Nazi occupation of Poland, Sophie's Choice, Sophie's Choice Alan J. Pakula, Sophie's Choice Meryl Streep, the Holocaust, William Styron