“I’m calling about photos of Mary Berg,” said the man on my voicemail at work earlier this week. He wanted to know where he might send them for safekeeping.
The name Mary Berg was vaguely familiar to me. Several years ago Nextbook.org, Tablet’s predecessor site, published an essay by Amy Rosenberg about Warsaw Ghetto, a war memoir Berg had published in 1944, the year she had arrived as a young woman in the United States. Though Berg had spent two years in the Warsaw Ghetto, having fled there from Lodz, her mother was an American, a critical fact that entitled Berg, her sister and her parents to be included in a prisoner of war exchange program that saved their lives.
By the time they had arrived in New York, Berg had filled 12 volumes of a diary with vivid, brutal detail of what she witnessed during the years of German occupied Poland. These volumes became Warsaw Ghetto, which was well received in the New Yorker, the New York Times and other publications, and which briefly made Berg a minor celebrity.
In spite of the book’s critical success, it went out of print by the 1950s and, according to Rosenberg, Mary Berg tried hard to disappear along with it. She wanted nothing to do with a 2006 reissue of the memoir, and wrote Susan Pentlin, the retired University of Central Missouri professor who oversaw the diary’s republication (and who died this past December), that “instead of continuing to milk the Jewish Holocaust to its limits…do go and make a difference in all those Holocausts taking place right now in Bosnia or Chechin.”
Pentlin told Rosenberg in 2008 that Berg denied being Mary Berg more than once, and would not say if she knew what had become of Berg.
Then, last weekend, Glen Coghill, a 39-year-old Subway manager in York, Pennsylvania, west of Lancaster, went to an estate sale in the small nearby borough of Red Lion. Coghill started frequenting estate sales and auctions about 10 years ago, when he realized that the toys he played with as a child could earn him a lot of money on eBay. Now, he goes to five or six sales and auctions each week, buying goods well beyond Star Wars action figures.
A fan of military collectibles, Coghill was intrigued by a handful of photos of World War II fighter planes at last weekend’s sale. He bid on the trove of photo albums that included the plane pictures and a scrapbook that accompanied them, paying a mere $10 for the lot. At home later that day, he was examining the fighter pictures when he saw a telegram inviting a woman named Mary Berg to New York to talk. Based on photos of a woman in the album, he thought this Berg character was a model, and took to Google to find out more.
That’s when Coghill found Rosenberg’s essay, and realized whom that woman was he had seen from time to time around town.
“When I realized what it was—it was a little breathtaking, a little shocking,” Coghill said. He estimates there are about 300 pictures in the collection, chronicling Berg’s early life in Poland in the 1920s and through the 1950s, when she stepped away from the limelight.
“From what I can tell, there’s not much out there of her in pictures and to have this collection of her life… To see her in a photo holding a newspaper saying ‘Germany Surrenders,’ that’s kind of iconic,” he said.
The estate sale was not listed under the name Mary Berg. Coghill thinks the estate might have used a married name, but Rosenberg’s piece does not indicate if Berg ever married, and various online biographies say nothing of a spouse. Though Coghill could find no obituary, he thinks Berg may have died within the past six months.
Meantime, as Rosenberg makes clear, Berg did not want to be memorialized for what she experienced. She wanted to recede into history. Unlike the stories of Anne Frank or Elie Wiesel, “Mary Berg’s diary offers neither catharsis nor satisfaction,” Rosenberg wrote eloquently. “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.”
Given that, what should become of Berg’s photos and news clippings about her life and book? Should they too recede? It seems somehow shameful to discard the remnants of anyone’s life. Yet in Berg’s case, perhaps she wanted them discarded. Otherwise, she would have made arrangements to ensure their safekeeping.
For his part, Coghill wants to ferry them someplace safe. “I’d like to find a good home where they’ll be appreciated, where it’ll be a museum or a private collector,” he said. “I just want it to be like ‘Here’s Mary Berg’s history.’”
Related: What Happened to Mary Berg?