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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 Pianist: The Extraordinary True Story of One Man’s Survival in Warsaw 1939-194

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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

“Until The Pianist, I have never read a piece so moving that I had to bring it to the screen,” declared the award-winning movie director Roman Polanski, himself a survivor of the Krakow Jewish Ghetto, from which he escaped as a child after his mother’s death.

The story Polanski would make into an unforgettable film in 2002 is the war journal of the world-class pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman and his incredible tale of survival (The Pianist, Wladyslaw Szpilman, New York: Picador Press, 1999). Szpilman lived through the Nazi occupation of Poland between 1939-1945. His life was constantly in peril, and doubly so: both as a Jew and as a Pole. His family was rounded up in the Warsaw Ghetto and was liquidated along with its nearly half a million Jewish inhabitants, who were shot, died of disease or starvation, or were sent to concentration camps. (For more on this subject, see my earlier article on the Warsaw Ghetto, “Heroism in Hell”): http://literaturadeazi.ro/content/heroism-hell-resistance-warsaw-ghetto-uprising-israel-gutman)

Time after time Wladyslaw’s intuition, luck, connections and resilience save him from a near-certain death. Although his brother, sisters and parents perished in the Treblinka death camp, the young man manages to survive thanks to the last-minute intervention from a friend who works for the Jewish Ghetto Police, who helps him right as he’s about to board the cattle train to the concentration camp. To evade death yet again, Wladyslaw gets a work permit and becomes a slave laborer, along with the 50,000 working Jews (and their families) left in the Warsaw Ghetto, who, for a few more weeks or months, were still deemed “useful” by the Nazis.

Later the young man becomes involved in the Jewish resistance movement in the ghetto, made up mostly of very courageous young men, who would rather die fighting than let the Nazis “slaughter them like sheep”. Right before the Nazis stomp out the rebellion, killing almost every last Jew and burning the ghetto to the ground, Wladyslaw yet again manages to miraculously escape by hiding with two Polish friends, the married couple Andrez and Janina Bogucki. Once their neighbor discovers him there, however, he is obliged to flee into an empty room with a piano, where he tries to recover from jaundice and malnutrition. When in the midst of the Polish resistance his apartment hit by bombs, he escapes from place to place in the stark and empty shell left of what was once the beautiful and prosperous city of Warsaw.

Just as he believes he has cheated death and found a safer building that hadn’t yet been destroyed, Wladyslaw runs into an elegant German officer. Had this man been a typical SS officer this would have meant certain death for the Jewish Pole. But in a twist of fate that seems to be the stuff fiction is made of, it so happens that this particular German officer, Wilm Hosenfeld, is a rare breed: a refined, humane man who hates the Nazi totalitarian regime and what it has done to Germany, to the Jewish people, and to the rest of the world. Wilm also adores classical music. Once he finds out that Wladyslaw is a musician, he asks him to play something on the grand piano. Szpilman chooses Chopin’s Ballade in G Minor. When he hears this beautiful music, the German officer is not only convinced of Wladyslaw’s talent, he’s also deeply moved by it. He returns several times to give the starving young man much-needed food provisions, without which he no doubt would have died. Germans have almost lost the war by the time of this fortuitous meeting between the German officer and the Polish Jew. In gratitude, Wladyslaw tells him his name, in case he’s ever taken prisoner by the Poles or Russians and will need his help someday. In a twist of fate–and strange role reversal—when captured by the Red Army Wilm Hosenfeld mentions Szpilman’s name to save his own life. Unfortunately, by the time the Wladyslaw learns of this fact, it’s too late. The Soviet prisoner of war camp had already been abandoned.

The most memorable aspects of The Pianist, for me, are its beautiful writing—this journal reads like a great novel—and its nuanced descriptions of life in the Warsaw Ghetto: the overcrowded and increasingly desperate, deplorable conditions, where “Half a million people had to find somewhere to lay their heads in an already over-populated part of the city, which scarcely had room for more than a hundred thousand” (59). Class hierarchies may have saved the richer inmates from the worst conditions for a while, but eventually almost everyone meets their death. Even the children of the orphanage are doomed. They go to their deaths with dignity, sheltered by their beloved leader, Janusz Korczak, from knowledge of their tragic fate:

 

“The evacuation of the Jewish orphanage run by Janusz Korczak had been ordered that morning. The children were to have been taken away alone. He had the chance to save himself, and it was only with difficulty that he persuaded the Germans to take him too. He had spent long years of his life with children, and now, on this last journey, he would not leave them alone. He wanted to ease things for them. He told the orphans they were going out into the country, so they ought to be cheerful. At last they would be able to exchange the horrible, suffocating city walls for meadows of flowers, streams where they could bathe, woods full of berries and mushrooms. He told them to wear their best clothes, and so they came out into the yard, two by two nicely dressed and in a happy mood. The little column was led by an SS man who loved children, as Germans do, even those he was about to see on their way into the next world” (95-96).

 

Claudia Moscovici, Holocaust Memory

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Filed under Claudia Moscovici, Holocaust Memory, Roman Polanski The Pianist, the Holocaust, the Nazi occupation of Poland, The Pianist, Warsaw Ghetto, Wladyslaw Szpilman