(Joanna Neborsky)
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Disappearing Act

Lost Books

Stephanie Butnick
July 22, 2011
(Joanna Neborsky)

“Lost Books” is a weekly series highlighting forgotten books through the prism of Tablet Magazine’s and Nextbook.org’s archives. So blow the dust off the cover, and begin!

Today, on the birthday of the inimitable poet Emma Lazarus, we celebrate another young, female writer whose breakout success was quite unexpected—as was her subject matter. Mary Berg, a fifteen-year-old living in Lodz, Poland, when the Germans invaded in fall 1939, began chronicling life as her family fled to Warsaw and the ghetto sprung up around them.

Her diary, first published in 1945 shortly after Berg arrived in New York with her parents and younger sister, might now seem like a fairly common account of Jewish life in Poland during the Holocaust (itself a relatively uncommon experience, but still). However, to American readers in the 1940s, Berg’s reports were otherworldly and completely unfamiliar. Frustrated by her sudden hero status and later deeply conflicted about her success (“We, who have been rescued from the ghetto, are ashamed to look at each other,” she wrote from an internment camp in France, adding, “Had we the right to save ourselves?”), she shunned the spotlight and, in an oddly antithetical ending to her witness-bearing journey, simply disappeared.

In 2008, upon the publication of a new edition of The Diary of Mary Berg: Growing Up in the Warsaw Ghetto, Amy Rosenberg offered further explanation of the diary’s absence from high school curricula. You can probably guess: “Berg’s book fell out of print in the early 1950s,” Rosenberg noted, “right around the time the English-language edition of [Anne] Frank’s diary was issued. (Frank’s has been in print continuously ever since.)”

Read What Happened to Mary Berg?, by Amy Rosenberg

Stephanie Butnick is chief strategy officer of Tablet Magazine, co-founder of Tablet Studios, and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.