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