Mary Berg’s Secret Is Discovered (Part V)

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When Mary Berg, survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto, died in April 2013 (exact date unknown), it appeared that her desire for lasting anonymity had succeeded.  Her former editor, S.L. Shneiderman, had died years before (1996).  Susan Pentlin, who—against Mary’s wishes—prepared a reissue of Berg’s diary in 2006 (under the new title Mary Berg’s Diary), never revealed what she knew, and followed Mary into the grave eight months after Mary’s demise, passing away on Christmas Day 2013.

But the story didn’t end there.

Fast forward to early June 2014, over a year after Mary’s death.  Apparently, her husband, Bill Pentin, consigned some of Mary’s belongings to an estate sale.  Was it a case of decluttering?  Was Pentin downsizing? Since he, like Mary, graduated from college in 1947, he was also pushing 90 years old by this time.  Did he carefully examine everything that was consigned, or was much of the material consigned precisely because it hadn’t been used/handled/viewed in decades, and therefore couldn’t be very valuable to the family in the first place?

Part of the sale consisted of four of Mary’s photo albums, covering the period from the 1920s to the 1950s, and a 50+ year-old scrapbook. [Perhaps it’s not surprising, given Mary’s later views, that her 12 original notebooks, and the first, Polish, version of the diary are considered “no longer extant.”]

Glen Coghill, a part-time antique/memorabilia dealer, with a specialty in World War II related items, attended the sale and saw, in one of the albums, photos of vintage World War II airplanes.  Interested, and confident he could resell such items for a profit, he submitted the highest—and only—bid for it: a whopping $2.00.  As the winning bidder, Coghill was then given “bidder’s choice.”  That is, the ability to purchase the related albums/scrapbook for the same price.  He agreed to purchase everything, upping his total investment for the day to $10.00.

Only when Coghill returned home was he able to examine his new purchases in detail, including all the press coverage of one “Mary Berg.”  Doing a Google search, he came across Amy Rosenberg’s 2008 article in Tablet magazine entitled “What Happened to Mary Berg?”  It was only then that he realized that Mary Berg was the same person as Mary Pentin, a fellow antiques dealer with whom he was acquainted.

Looking for some guidance regarding his now much more significant purchase, Coghill contacted the staff at Tablet.  He expressed a desire to find a good home for this seemingly valuable material—whether it be a museum or a private collector.

This latest twist in the Mary Berg saga was reported in a new article in Tablet, in June 2014, written by Sara Ivry.  It is not clear what advice, if any, Sara or anyone at Tablet gave to Coghill at this point.  According to a further, November 2014 article in Tablet, Coghill had met with a curator for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in DC, but in the end decided to place Mary’s items with Doyle, a Manhattan auction house, where the materials were estimated to be worth up to $6,000.  Not a bad return on a $10 investment!

News of the pending Doyle auction set off alarms among Holocaust scholars, fearing that Doyle’s sale might fuel a commercial market in Holocaust-related memorabilia, rather than keeping such items in publicly accessible collections.  The clincher apparently came when the New York Times reached out to Mary’s relatives, who learned about the auction (and the earlier estate sale) for the first time.  They thereupon contacted Doyle.  Given Mary’s decades-long quest for invisibility, the call to Doyle could not have been a friendly one.

Doyle then elected to cancel the proposed auction and released a statement that it was “working with all involved parties toward the goal of finding an appropriate permanent home for the archive.”  Ultimately Doyle brokered a sale to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum for an undisclosed sum (although presumably more than $10.00).  The photo albums and scrapbook can now be viewed on the Museum’s website: Mary Berg collection – Collections Search – United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (ushmm.org)

A local AP reporter who also covered all the twists and turns in the story noted that the handler of the estate sale had been informed by Bill Pentin to throw out whatever items didn’t sell.  He concludes:

“Had Coghill not bought that scrapbook—he was the sole bidder—it would have been sent to the York County Solid Waste Authority’s incinerator.

And we would never have known that Mary Berg had lived among us all these years.

Worse, we would have never known who she was.”

In J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic fantasy, The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien imbues the ring of power, on which the fate of Middle-Earth depends, with agency.  As the wizard Gandalf explains to young Frodo Baggins, the long-missing ring ended up being “found” by Bilbo Baggins precisely because it was trying to get back to its master—it wanted to be found.

Maybe Mary’s photos and scrapbook—despite all her efforts—just wanted to be found. Whatever the reason—dumb luck, serendipity, or a careless oversight by Mary’s husband, we are nevertheless richer for having this material.  As one scholar noted, the material sheds light on the period when public memory of the Holocaust was still being formed.

Even Mary’s relatives ultimately reconciled themselves to this final chapter in Mary’s life.  As a nephew, Steven Powell, concluded: “All the players in this drama are deceased, so it is a part of history now.”

End of a Series.

Note: On this date in 1943 the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was considered officially ended.  The Ghetto’s final 50,000+ inhabitants had either been killed or captured; those captured were in almost all cases later sent to extermination camps. The largest single revolt by Jews during World War II was over.

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