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What Happened to Mary Berg?

A young girl’s account of the Warsaw Ghetto was a big success. Then the diary—and its author—disappeared.

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Mary Berg, NY, 1945
Mary Berg in New York, 1945

Mary Berg, born and raised in Poland, was nineteen in March 1944, when she stepped off a prisoner-of-war exchange ship from Lisbon and onto a dock in New York. She stood with her American-born mother, her Polish father, and her younger sister, clutching a suitcase that contained her U.S. passport (thanks to her mother’s citizenship) and a set of twelve diaries describing her experiences in the Warsaw Ghetto. Before she cleared immigration, she met Samuel L. Shneiderman, a journalist who had come from Poland a few years earlier. Thirty-seven at the time, Shneiderman had worked as a reporter in Warsaw, become the Paris correspondent for a few Polish dailies, and covered the Spanish Civil War until he left Europe in 1940. In New York, he made it his mission to spread the news of Poland’s pain, and in particular the pain of its Jews. It’s not known quite how he and Berg met on the dock after her ship anchored; it seems he was milling about, seeking stories, and she captured his attention. (Judging from pictures, she cut a striking figure, tall and sturdy, with dramatic dark looks and gigantic eyes.) However it happened, he learned about her journals and convinced her to let him edit them.

The two worked together closely, Berg growing close to the journalist’s family as she spent weeks turning her Polish shorthand into actual narrative at Shneiderman’s kitchen table, his wife and two children looking on. After advising her about clarifications and additions he thought she should make, Shneiderman translated the narrative into Yiddish, and two months later, not long before D-Day, an excerpt appeared as the first in a series of ten monthly installments in one of New York’s leading Yiddish newspapers, the politically and religiously conservative Der morgen Zshurnal.

The grim facts Berg described are familiar to us now—all too familiar; we can easily fail to register their horror—but American readers in 1944 did not know them. A few other articles and pamphlets offering eyewitness testimonies emerged around the same time, but none did what Berg’s did: chronicled day-to-day life in the ghetto from its initial days through to the eve of residents’ first armed resistance, more than two years later.

Searching for food in the courtyard, drawn by Mary Berg
Searching for food in the courtyard, drawn by Mary Berg

Here, in brief outline, is the story the excerpts told: Berg was fifteen in the autumn of 1939, when the German army invaded her native city of Lodz. She and her family fled, walking and bicycling the seventy miles to Warsaw. The ghetto was officially established about a year after the family settled in. As part of the moneyed class—her father was a respected art dealer and they’d managed to escape with some funds—they had it easier than many around them. (Berg felt guiltily aware of her advantages. “Only those who have large sums of money are able to save themselves from this terrible life,” she wrote, describing the hunger and sickness she’d seen in others.) In some ways, her accounts of daily life are astonishing for the normality they portray: relatives getting married, people going to work, friends chatting in cafés, students—herself included—working toward graphic arts degrees, theatre aficionados attending cabarets. But all that was short lived, and her accounts of the outrages she saw on the street are equally astonishing: “Sometimes a child huddles against his mother, thinking that she is asleep and trying to awaken her, while, in fact, she is dead.” In July 1942, Berg and others with foreign passports were put into the Pawiak prison, near the center of the ghetto, while most of the rest of the inhabitants were deported to their deaths. She watched them leave from the prison windows. “The whole ghetto is drowning in blood,” she wrote that August. “How long are we going to be kept here to witness all this?”

After its initial appearance in Der morgen Zshurnal, translations of Berg’s tale landed on the pages of several other papers—the leftist (and nonreligious) English-language P.M., Aufbau, a German-language paper aimed at a Jewish readership, and Contemporary Jewish Record, a precursor to Commentary. Soon after, in February 1945, L.B. Fischer—a German press that fled Europe and established temporary wartime headquarters in New York in 1942—published the diary in book form with a dust jacket Berg herself had drawn, an image of the brick wall that marked the ghetto boundary. Laudatory reviews appeared in the Saturday Review and The New Yorker. In The New York Times Book Review, Marguerite Young wrote, “Without qualification, this reviewer recommends Mary Berg’s Warsaw Ghetto to everybody.” Fellow Poles realized the significance of the books as well.

The original cover of 'Warsaw Ghetto,' drawn by Mary Berg
The original cover of Warsaw Ghetto, drawn by Mary Berg

Renowned poet Julian Tuwim, also a native of Lodz and an occasional customer of Berg’s father, called the book “a Baedeker of our misery.” Over the next two years, translated versions appeared in five countries, and Berg became widely enough known that she was considered a New York celebrity. She marched on City Hall with signs demanding action to save Jews still alive in Poland. She gave talks before audiences and interviews on the radio. And then she, along with her book, disappeared.

In fact, if you’re not a Holocaust memoir buff, you’ve probably never heard of Berg’s wartime account, whereas you surely learned of Anne Frank’s diary before you were old enough to be a buff of anything. That’s in part because Berg’s book fell out of print in the early 1950s, right around the time the English-language edition of Frank’s diary was issued. (Frank’s has been in print continuously ever since.) On the surface, the two teenage diarists had a lot in common. Both were from well-off families, both wrote about the hardships they suffered. Both began their diaries on their birthdays (or, in Berg’s case, on her adopted birthday, because her actual one coincided with Hitler’s, and Jews weren’t allowed to be born on the same day as the Führer). But Frank was hidden from the full horror of the war while she wrote her diary; her entries necessarily focus on her own emotional development and the quotidian aspects of life in a small space. Berg stepped out into the streets and saw atrocities every day. Her words bear witness to the suffering and violence all around her and make her tale harder to take. Lawrence Langer, author of the landmark study Holocaust Testimonies: The Ruins of Memory, puts it this way: “Anne Frank’s diary was and is more popular because it records no horrors; the horrors came after she stopped writing, so readers don’t have to confront anything painful.”

S. L. Shneiderman in 1992
S. L. Shneiderman in 1992

Last year, Susan Pentlin helped usher into publication a new edition of Berg’s diary—sixty-two years after its initial release. Pentlin, a professor emerita of modern languages at the University of Central Missouri, suggests that Berg’s withdrawal from the public eye played a big part in the forgetting of the book. Pentlin interviewed Shneiderman in the early 1990s, a few years before he died, and he told her that Berg walked away from the book at some point in the early 1950s. She wanted nothing more to do with it and hoped to forget the life she’d led in Europe, Berg had told him, as she broke off contact with him and his family. Sometime earlier, in 1950, L.B. Fischer disbanded its American outpost and returned to Germany. The company sold the rights to Berg’s diary to A.A. Wyn, publisher of Ace Books, an imprint famous for its paperback genre novels and, at the time, for its stinginess toward authors. Wyn sat on the rights. After he died in 1967, his widow sold them back to Shneiderman. Berg still refused involvement.

Until the diary was republished last year, interest in it had been scarce. Historians and researchers knew of it, certainly, as it appeared frequently in bibliographies of Holocaust studies, but it was only in the mid-1980s, when a Polish version was published for the first time and a Warsaw theater staged a dramatic reading, that public attention rekindled briefly. The play’s director contacted Berg to invite her to the show, but she responded through friends, refusing to return to Poland to watch it, according to a New York Times article at the time. And when Pentlin contacted her in 1995 about the possibility of reprinting the book, Berg responded bitterly.

Mary and her sister Anna in the Warsaw Ghetto
Mary and her sister Anna in the Warsaw Ghetto

“Instead of continuing to milk the Jewish Holocaust to its limits,” she wrote, “do go and make a difference in all those Holocausts taking place right now in Bosnia or Chechin….Don’t tell me this is different.” Berg wanted nothing to do with any revival. “She told me to ‘bug off,’” Pentlin says. “I also understand that she has denied being Mary Berg on several occasions.” At the time, she was seventy-one years old and still living in the United States; if she knows where, Pentlin isn’t saying. Pentlin also says she doesn’t know if Berg is alive today, and there is no obituary on record.

It goes without saying that Berg was one of the lucky ones. Unlike Anne Frank, she escaped Europe alive. Her family escaped with her, and she saw her story published. She heard critics, reviewers, and readers call her a hero, her story evidence of, as The New York Times put it, “the dignity of man.” But perhaps this reception was what eventually drove Berg away from her story. “Dignity,” says Langer, “is the last word I would use to describe the anguish of the ill and starving Jews in the ghetto. If you check some of the early reviews, you will see how eager most of them were to transform this into a heroic story.” Berg did not want to be a hero. As she wrote from the Vittel internment camp in France, where she was sent after her ghetto imprisonment, “We, who have been rescued from the ghetto, are ashamed to look at each other. Had we the right to save ourselves? Here everything smells of sun and flowers and there—there is only blood, the blood of my own people.” The account in Der morgen Zshurnal was published before the war ended, before the Jews of Hungary were decimated, while it was still possible to hope some people might be rescued. Berg published her diary as a call to action. “I shall do everything I can to save those who can still be saved,” she wrote. “I will tell, I will tell everything, about our sufferings and our struggles and the slaughter of our dearest, and I will demand punishment for the [Germans]….who enjoyed the fruits of murder….A little more patience, and all of us will win freedom!”

Mary Berg as a young girl
Mary Berg as a young girl

But not all of them did, of course, and Berg’s disappearance suggests that even those who escaped were never free. Is it grim to wonder what would have become of Anne Frank had she survived Bergen-Belsen, what would have become of her book? Philip Roth does so in his first Zuckerman novel, The Ghost Writer. Alive and in hiding (according, at least, to Zuckerman’s imagination), Frank, under her assumed identity, explains why she could not reveal herself after learning about the publication of her diary: “I was the incarnation of the millions of unlived years robbed from the murdered Jews. It was too late to be alive now. I was a saint.”

With memoir, it is the fact of a life outside the pages that gives the book its aura. If that life has a tragic end, like Frank’s, it’s possible, as Roth suggests, to feel a kind of catharsis—often a desperately needed one. If the life that comes after is one of triumph over adversity (like, say, Elie Wiesel) we derive something different—a sense of hope, perhaps, or at least satisfaction. Mary Berg’s diary offers neither catharsis nor satisfaction. The story that comes after it is not tragic or triumphant; there is, in fact, no story. A terrible, true event took place, and someone lived to tell about it, and the world responded either indifferently or with misguided sympathy, and many hundreds of thousands more died despite the truths that had been told. After that there was nothing left to say.

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LaShonda Smith says:

-YOU ARE SOOOOOO AWESOME && such an inspiration :))

Anthony Buckingham says:

I have only just started to read your account of the atrocities that were cast onto your people, I have read Hetty Verolme’s account and it goes beyond evil what the Jewish Nation had to endure at the hands of the Nazi Regime and their Final Solution. To myself, you and the all the people who suffered in the war are a complete inspiration, all of you did what you could to survive and what you did to try and defeat the people who were out to destroy you, in the face of adversity you have shown that good shall always defeat evil and the humane spirit may be bent but it shall never break. Regardless of your background you endured a horror that most of us can only imagine and to come through that as a young girl and be able to tell your story to the rest of the world takes extraordinary courage, I am in total awe of you and if your story affects me as a person and changes my perception on different cultures for the better then without doubt it shall have that same effect on millions of others who read or hear about what happened, that in turn makes for societies to be stronger and ultimately within civilised society there shall be little chance of these atrocities ever happening again, that can only be a good thing!. You should be very proud of yourself Ms Berg!.

Jody Doherty says:

Mary Berg, God Bless You, for all that you have shared, and how brave you were to endure all that you couldn’t change. I am finishing your diary now. I have read several books on Holocaust. I also watched many movies about Jews and the Holocaust. I’m very interested in history. I always read a book and place myself in the author’s shoes. I am devastated at all that has happened to our human race.What scares me today is,it can happen again. And the way the world is now so full of hate,plus a loss of respect for one another. Our troops are still in another country,which creates more hate. We all need to promote each other to read more books like yours and feel remorse for all lost and forgotten souls. Thank you for all the hard work and remembering that allowed your readers like me to see and share.

Peter Maranian says:

I have just finished reading the diary by Mary Berg following the recommendations of James Fox, who was acknowledged by Susan Pentlin for his significant assistance regarding the Vittel internment camp story. Mary Berg’s tremendous strength and fortitude to have written the tragic events that occurred in Poland and Warsaw, recording man’s horrendous inhumanity to man in such vivid detail,is just incredible. It is in Vittel that her story brushes with that of my parents who were also interned there. My mother, who previously was a survivor of the Armenian genocide during the First World War, was one of the seamtresses who helped with the shows mentioned in Mary Berg’s diary. Mary Berg and her family left Vittel on March 1, 1944 shortly before my brother and sister(twins)were born in captivity in April,1944 which also coincided with the tragic events leading to most of the remaining Jewish community being sent to Drancy then onto Auschwitz to their deaths. Mary Berg’s decision to be disaccociated is very understandable given the trauma’s she went through and man’s inhumanity to man that that continues to persist. My mother, who told her stories many times, particularly the later stages of her life ( she died in 2007),did it a manner that described the human suffering without reflecting hatred. She also became very upset when she heard of events like Bosnia and Rwanda but chose to stay away from involvement in political aspects. Everyone has there own way of trying to deal with the trauma they experienced.
I so very much appreciate Mary Berg, the efforts of Susan Pentlin and all those that helped Susan in the new expanded edition of Mary Berg’s diary. It is such a very important historic contribution.

fatima says:

can I have a complete diary of this girl please? I need it for my dissertation? or any related memoir of Holocaust witnesed child

Lois Baron says:

More proof of the indifference shown by the rest of the world!!! Interesting and ironic that her original accounts were ignored while more recent accounts have become best sellers and films. Not too late! Let her diaries be part of Holocaust curriculum everywhere. Not only as an account of horrific acts, but also as proof of the world standing by while large companies like IBM benefitted!

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What Happened to Mary Berg?

A young girl’s account of the Warsaw Ghetto was a big success. Then the diary—and its author—disappeared.

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