Posts tagged Mary Berg

April 12, 1944: “They’re bombing and bombing”

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“They’re bombing and bombing, more and more and oftener and oftener.”

Odd Nansen’s Diary
April 12, 1944
Sachsenhausen

B-17 Flying Fortresses over Dresden

Odd Nansen wasn’t exaggerating when he wrote the above diary entry.  The Allied bombing effort over Germany had gone from a trickle in the early years of the war to a deluge by 1944.  The combined RAF and US Army 8th Air Force tonnage dropped in 1944 represented a whopping 311% increase over the tonnage dropped over Germany during the preceding five years combined.

And it would get even worse.  Fully 60% of all the bombs rained on Germany fell after July 1944 (i.e., in the final nine months of the war).

Only four weeks before Nansen wrote the above diary entry, on March 16, 1944, the USAAF launched its first daylight bombing raid over Berlin. (Berlin is only about 25 miles due south of Sachsenhausen.) Losses were severe on both sides; the Americans lost 69 B-17 Flying Fortresses (out of 672 launched) together with 11 P-51 Mustang fighter planes.  Luftwaffe losses were even worse—160 planes in all.  But whereas the Allies could replace their losses, the Luftwaffe could not.

One of the more contentious, and never-ending, debates on World War II concerns the efficacy of strategic bombing.  Did the enormous costs involved: constructing planes, building airfields, training crews, maintaining facilities, and most importantly, the human cost, justify the results?  As to the human costs, the US Army 8th Air Force alone suffered 47,000 casualties during the war, including 27,000 fatalities—over 6,000 more than all the Marines lost during the entire war.

After all, critics maintain, strategic bombing never broke the morale of the German people, never led to capitulation.  Moreover, German war production actually continued to increase until the final months of the war, despite the relentless bombing.

RAF Lancaster over Hamburg (Credit: Imperial War Museum)

A subset of the great strategic bombing debate concerns the role that strategic bombing played vis-à-vis the Holocaust.  Usually couched in queries such as “Should we have bombed the railroad lines leading to Auschwitz?” these disputes maintain that the Allies could have—and should have—done more to ameliorate the worst effects of the Holocaust—by, for example, destroying the rail lines that led to Auschwitz.  The standard government response at the time was that winning the war as quickly as possible—by focusing strictly on military targets—was the best way to rescue the Jews.

My own belief has historically tracked the initial conclusions of historian Nikolas Wachsmann in his magisterial KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps, where he observes: “While a direct attack on Birkenau would have carried great symbolic weight, it might not have saved many lives.”

Wachsmann points out that rail lines are not easy to hit, and even if hit, are easy to repair.  Moreover, even if all railroad access to Auschwitz could somehow have been permanently damaged:

“it is hard to see how it would have stopped the mass murders.  The determination of Nazi leaders to exterminate Jews would not have been deflected by bombs on Birkenau (in fact, SS men habitually blamed Jews for Allied air raids and sometimes attacked Jewish prisoners ‘in retaliation’ after KL [the concentration camp] had been hit.  No doubt the SS killers would have found other ways to continue their murderous mission.”

The mass murders at Babi Yar (33,771 killed September 29-30, 1941) and in Operation Harvest Festival (approximately 42,000 murdered, November 3-4, 1943) all using nothing more than bullets, reinforces Wachsmann’s observations that Auschwitz and its gas chambers were not essential to implementing the horror of the Holocaust.

But there is another perspective to keep in mind—the perspective of those who were the victims of the Holocaust itself.  And it seems as if the prisoners uniformly welcomed Allied bombing, even when those very bombs occasionally strayed and killed their own compatriots.

Mary Berg, a prisoner in the Warsaw Ghetto, of whom I have written extensively (here, here, here, and here) recorded in her secret diary for October 1, 1942:

“Bombings by Soviet planes have been taking place every night.  The explosions shake the walls of the Pawiak [Prison]. We are now so accustomed to these bombings that we wait for them eagerly: they are like a greeting from the free world.”

Similarly, Avraham Krakowski, who worked in the secret counterfeiting operation in Sachsenhausen (which I have written about here) published a memoir after the war entitled Counterfeit Lives, where he observed:

“During April and May, 1944, the Allied bombings of Berlin were stepped up.  Day and night, the drone of the B-17s told us that the time of vengeance against the Germans was near.  The sound of the engines was music to our ears.”

Odd Nansen’s feelings about the bombing were, as typical of Nansen, more nuanced, but nevertheless instructive:

“The night before there was a big raid on Berlin. . . . A few bombs seem to have fallen nearer Oranienburg [site of Sachsenhausen]; the crash and blast were so powerful that they made one doubt that the hut would stand up.  But it did.  The attack lasted for an hour. . . . The whole time I was lying engrossed in the struggle between the forces in me that desired the raid, and those that were reacting against this barbarism—this degrading fashion of making war.  But for that matter is there any way of making war that isn’t degrading?  No, to be sure–! Later we shall return to culture, and all we’re fighting for; but now we’re fighting!” (diary entry November 20, 1943)

Even young Tommy Buergenthal enjoyed the feeling of Schadenfreude when the SS guards actually fled into Sachsenhausen precisely to avoid the bombs raining down elsewhere:

“Oh, how we relished this information, and how it must have irked them.  To think that the Germans now finally feared for their lives and had to seek protection in our camp!  That made us feel good, even though one or two stray bombs did fall just inside the camp wall and killed a few inmates.”

Concentration camp prisoners were not concerned with the measures by which the strategic bombing campaign was judged: tank and plane output, oil production, ball-bearing capacity.  They were fighting a more personal war—a war where the only weapon they had, the only weapon the Nazis could never take from them, was hope.  It was a war of hope versus despair.  And, from the (admittedly small) sample I have seen, knowing that someone cared enough to even try and improve their lot, no matter how little the chances for success, meant a great deal.

And as Wachsmann ultimately concludes, and as I have come to accept as well, the best rationale for bombing the approaches to Auschwitz was this:

“The realization that they had not been forgotten by the outside world gave the prisoners new hope, as well as greater determination to resist the SS.”

Auschwitz

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.

The Warsaw Ghetto Claims Its Final Victim (Part IV)

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I have previously sketched the history of the Warsaw Ghetto: its formation in 1940 (here); the mass deportations of its inhabitants to death camps in 1942 (here); and the desperate uprising of its remaining inhabitants in 1943 (here); all as seen through the eyes of diarist Mary Berg.

Mary Berg (All photos courtesy of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum)

Berg was one of the very few who survived the Warsaw Ghetto, initially because her relatively wealthy family could afford more and better food, etc., and ultimately because of her American-born mother’s U.S. citizenship.

On March 1, 1944, as part of a prisoner exchange with Germany, Mary and her family began their voyage to freedom, first by train from their internment camp in Vittel, France, to Lisbon, Portugal, and then by boat to New York City.  Mary carried with her few personal possessions, but among these were 12 small, spiral notebooks, written in her own cryptic shorthand (in case they fell into the wrong hands) which described “the most important facts” of her four-year stay in the Ghetto.  In her head she also carried “all the most important dates and names” which she had memorized.

Mary also had a mission, as she related in the very last entry of her diary:

“I shall do everything I can to save those who can still be saved, and to avenge those who were so bitterly humiliated in their last moments.  And those who were ground into ash, I shall always see them alive.  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 German murderers . . . who enjoyed the fruits of murder, and are still wearing the clothes and shoes of our martyrized people.”

Mary had just landed in New York on March 15, 1944, when she met Samuel L. Shneiderman, a Polish journalist who had escaped Europe in 1940.  When Shneiderman learned of her shorthand diary, he offered to work with her to transcribe and complete her narrative, adding explanatory context where necessary, etc.

Mary Berg in the Warsaw Ghetto with friend Romek Kowalski

Mary’s diary, originally published as Warsaw Ghetto: A Diary, was among the earliest personal accounts of the Holocaust.  It was first translated from Polish into Yiddish, and serialized in mid-1944 and appeared in English, in book form, in February, 1945.  Mary’s surname was shortened from Wattenberg to Berg to protect family members who might still be at risk in Poland.  The book was eventually translated into seven other languages.  It immediately garnered glowing reviews.  The New York Times Book Review recommended Warsaw Ghetto to everybody “without qualification.”  The New Yorker called it “one of the most heartbreaking documents to come out of the war. . . a brave and inspiring book.”  Accolades poured in from the Chicago Tribune, Dallas News, Cleveland Plain Dealer, and the Book of the Month Club News, among others.

By turns poignant, searing, tender, eloquent, and wise beyond its teenage author’s years, Mary’s diary is every bit as moving in its way as Anne Frank’s, with which it shares many similarities.  Mary Berg has even been called “Anne Frank before there was an Anne Frank.”

Meanwhile, Mary was focusing on fulfilling her earlier vow. Little more than a month following her arrival in New York City, she was leading a crowd of thousands in a march to City Hall to commemorate the first anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.  Her book’s publication in early 1945 only increased Mary’s profile, and soon she was doing everything, everywhere, all the time (as attested by her voluminous scrapbook, of which more later):

  • Being interviewed on New York City radio;
  • Sharing a panel on “Forging a World Bill of Rights” with Nobel laureate Pearl S. Buck;
  • Appearing in Marquis Who’s Who;
  • Serving as a delegate in a Model UN (representing Poland) on behalf of her college, Monmouth Junior College;
  • Speaking at a United Jewish Campaign rally;
  • Serving as commencement speaker at her 1947 graduation from Monmouth;
  • Purportedly working on a second book, of her initial impressions of America.

In other words, Mary had become “widely enough known that she was considered a New York celebrity” according to Amy Rosenberg, writing in Tablet Magazine.

Mary in the Warsaw Ghetto with a member of the Jewish police.

In a February 23, 1945 guest column Mary, writing for Outlook, the school newspaper of Monmouth Junior College, dwelt on the importance of freedom:

“[W]e should always remember that wonderful American privilege of freedom.  Let us teach it all over the world.  Let us show everybody how wonderful it is to have it.  Let us, America, be the best example.  That is how we can prevent future wars, and it depends entirely on us.”

Then something unexpected happened.

By the early 1950s Mary’s diary had gone out of print and she had disappeared from public life.

What is more, Mary disassociated herself from anything having to do with her diary or her past life.  She resolutely refused to participate in Holocaust-related events.  She refused to speak with researchers.  Soon she disappeared from view altogether, and on occasion denied being Mary Berg. There was even concern that she might label her own diary a fabrication.

Ultimately, Mary, who was now married and went by the name Mary Pentin, ended up living and working as an antiques dealer in York, PA.  Variously described as “eccentric,” “quirky,” “difficult,” and “prickly,” she disclosed to no one her past, and not only showed no interest in reissuing her diary, she actively discouraged it.  Her location and status were so completely concealed that Amy Rosenberg’s July, 2008 article in Tablet Magazine was entitled “What Happened to Mary Berg?”

As early as 1959, Berg was arguing with her old collaborator, Samuel Shneiderman, trying to prevent the publication of a Polish language version.  After expressing his disappointment over her attitude (“You have not shown the slightest consideration for me personally and the tremendous effort I put into this book”), Shneiderman nevertheless elected to proceed without her blessing (which he was permitted to do under his contract with her), explaining: “I feel it is my moral obligation to make this book available for the . . . reader, as a book of highly educational value concerning anti-Semitism.” Berg later broke off all contact with Shneiderman and his family.

In 1995, Susan Pentlin—the similarity in surnames is entirely coincidental—a professor at Central Missouri State University, and teacher of Holocaust courses, composed a note to Mary, again seeking her approval of a reissue of the English language version, which she planned to annotate in much same the way I annotated From Day to Day.  (The publishing rights were held by Shneiderman’s heirs, who were amenable.)  Pentlin knew from Shneiderman that her quest was an uphill battle.  She assured Mary that she would respect Mary’s wish to remain private.  “You can trust me not to divulge any information you prefer me not to. . ..  I will not give your present name and address to anyone. . ..  Please believe me, I would never want to do anything that might cause you pain,” Pentlin wrote.

Mary Berg’s handwritten reply in full:

“Your participation in all those Holocaust conferences to satisfy your ego and feelings of self-serving importance is pathetic.  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 Chechnia [sic] or have you no sympathy for Moslems being slaughtered?  Why don’t you organize conferences in memory of the Armenians or Kurds or Rwandans?  By teaching about the Holocaust you’ll stop its occurrence in the future, right?  But the future is now.  When the Jews were victimized, they wanted the world to save them.  Are the Israelis dropping bombs on the Serbs to save Bosnian Moslems?  Don’t tell me this is different.

So bug off and stop invading my privacy.

Your request is denied.  M.P.”

What had happened to the vow Mary made in her final diary entry (“I will tell everything”)?

What had happened to her college exhortation (“It depends entirely on us”)?

What had happened to the person who maintained a scrapbook of all her achievements that was so voluminous she engaged the services of a clipping agency?

What prompted such a cynical response to Susan Pentlin?

The precise reason for this volte-face will probably never be known.

Was it a case of survivor’s guilt? While at the Vittel internment camp she had written: “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.”

Was it dejection that, despite her avowed mission to “save those who still can be saved,” her diary and her appearances had failed to alter the fate of a single Hungarian Jew, thousands of whom were murdered even after her diary’s publication?

Was it disillusionment that, despite her demand for “punishment for the German murderers,” so many Nazis were let off scot-free as the Cold War with the Soviets heated up?

Perhaps she simply lost faith in mankind.

Perhaps her obsessive secrecy and angry responses were a case of delayed PTSD. Perhaps the flurry of activity following her arrival in the U.S. was merely an attempt to keep her demons at bay, and they finally got the better of her.  Perhaps, as Amy Rosenberg suggests, “even those who escaped were never free.”  In her final diary entry Mary mentions the unique feeling of freedom, now that New York City was in sight, which almost took her breath away, a feeling that was nevertheless still very tenuous:

“In the last four years I have not known this feeling.  Four years of the black swastika, of barbed wire, ghetto walls, executions, and, above all, terror—terror by day and terror by night.  After four years of that nightmare I found it hard to enjoy my freedom at first.  I constantly imagined that it was only a dream, that at any moment I would awaken in the Pawiak [prison] and once again see the aged men with gray beards, the blooming young girls and proud young men, driven like cattle to the Umschlagplatz on Stawki Street to their deaths.”

Mary Wattenberg died ten years ago this month (the exact date is unknown), age 88.  There was no official obituary, and it was only following her death that her friends and neighbors in York learned for the first time that she was even Jewish, let alone a Holocaust survivor, and the author of a famous diary.

Perhaps the Warsaw Ghetto had claimed its final victim.

Mary’s diary was reissued in 2006 as The Diary of Mary Berg, and is still available.  It is both an eye-witness record of an immense tragedy, and, despite Mary’s personal misgivings, a way of “educating future generations about the past [that] will empower them to build a new world without hate,” in the words of Susan Pentlin.

Soon: Part V: How Mary’s secret life was finally uncovered. 

Warsaw Ghetto Uprising (April 19, 1943): Part III

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“God, why do we have to suffer all this?” Diary of Mary Berg, June 15, 1943

Warsaw Ghetto burning.

I have previously written about the Warsaw Ghetto several times already—primarily as seen through the eyes of teenage diarist Mary Berg.

Part I described the establishment of the Ghetto in September 1940; the lethal living conditions which consigned thousands of inhabitants to death by disease or slow starvation; the start of Grossaktion Warschau on July 25, 1942, sending many inhabitants to their death at Treblinka, a Vernichtungslager (death camp), a process that murdered 250,000 to 300,000 Jews within the space of 60 days.

The deportations to Treblinka from the Warsaw Ghetto were suspended for a brief time (September 21, 1942 – January 18, 1943).

Part II explained how the resumption of deportations was met for the first time with concerted resistance on the part of the Ghetto’s remaining inhabitants, now numbering approximately 63,000 men, women, and children.  Unlike the initial wave of deportations, where the Germans promised—and the inhabitants believed—”resettlement” to labor camps “in the East,” by 1943 the existence, and purpose, of Treblinka was well known.  According to Berg, “Many Jews barricaded themselves in their houses and fired at the manhunters.”  Others deliberately infiltrated columns of rounded-up Jews, and, at a signal, stepped out and attacked the Nazis.  After a few days, the Germans had only been able to collect 5,000—6,000 Ghetto dwellers for transport, at considerable cost to their own forces, and the Germans elected to withdraw from the Ghetto.

The Ghetto’s remaining population now engaged in feverish activity in anticipation of renewed German efforts to collect and deport the remaining inhabitants.  These survivors had no illusions.  According to Berg, “They knew that their fate was sealed, that the Nazis had decided to exterminate the Jewish population completely.”  Water, food, and medicines were stockpiled; bunkers prepared; arms smuggled in from the outside.  It was only a question of time before the Germans would return, more determined than ever.

That day arrived 80 years ago today, April 19, 1943, a date chosen by the Nazis because it was the eve of the start of the Jewish holiday of Passover.

The Germans came with tanks, heavy artillery, flamethrowers.  They employed members of the police, Wehrmacht, Gestapo, and Waffen-SS, among others.  When the defenders refused to surrender, the German’s commander, Jürgen Stroop* ordered all structures in the Ghetto to be systematically burned and/or destroyed, block by block.  Berg observes that, “For many nights, the fire of the ghetto could be seen for miles around Warsaw.”  The suppression of the uprising officially ended May 16, 1943, although sporadic skirmishes with holdouts continued as late as June 5, 1943.  In the end, all but eight buildings in the Warsaw Ghetto were destroyed.  Approximately 7,000 Jews were killed during the uprising, many via suffocation from smoke inhalation or from being burned alive.  The remaining population (50,000) were captured and deported to the death camps of Treblinka and Majdanek.

In this iconic photo, women and children evacuate their bunker and surrender to German authorities

Today, with the memory of Yom HaShoah fresh in our minds, it is fitting to reflect on those who fought and died for the honor of the Jewish people.  As eloquently commemorated by Mary Berg:

“The Battle of the Ghetto lasted for five weeks.  Its starved, exhausted defenders fought heroically against the powerful Nazi war machine.  They did not wear uniforms, they had no ranks, they received no medals for their superhuman exploits.  There only distinction was death in the flames.  All of them are Unknown Soldiers, heroes who have no equals.  How horrible it is to think of all this—so many relatives and friends among them. . . . I have been standing at my window for the last few days [in an internment camp in France] talking with the newly arrived internees [from the Ghetto].  I drank in their words avidly, and my thoughts carried me over there, to the burning houses of the ghetto where I had lived for three years with all these heroes.  Every now and then I felt faint, as if my very heart had withered. . . . “

Diary of Mary Berg, June 15, 1943

The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was the largest single revolt by Jews during World War II.

TO BE CONTINUED

* Stroop was hanged for his crimes in Warsaw’s Mokotów Prison on March 6, 1952.

The Warsaw Ghetto (Part II): Deportations Recommence

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In an earlier blog (here) I described the creation of the Warsaw Ghetto, and its partial liquidation beginning on July 22, 1942 and lasting until September 21, 1942, resulting in the deaths of 250,000—300,000 Jewish inhabitants, all as described in the diary of Mary Berg.

By January 18, 1943, nearly four months had passed without a single deportation (Treblinka was being kept busy by deportations from other Jewish ghettos in Poland, including Tom Buergenthal’s Kielce Ghetto).  On that date, Mary and her family were moved to an internment camp in France.  And on the same day those remaining behind were left to face renewed deportations.  Here is how The Holocaust Encyclopedia describes the events:

“On 18 January 1943 a second wave of deportations began.  This time Jews who were ordered to assemble in the courtyards of their apartment buildings refused to comply and went into hiding.  The first column that the Germans managed to round up in the early hours, consisting of some 1,000 people, offered up a different kind of resistance.  A group of fighters . . . armed with pistols, deliberately infiltrated the column, and when the signal was given, the fighters stepped out and engaged the Germans in hand-to-hand fighting.  The column dispersed, and news of the fight soon became common knowledge.  The whole action lasted only a few days, by which time the Germans had rounded up about 5,000-6,000 Jews from all parts of the ghetto; after the events of the first day hardly any Jews responded to the German order to report.

The fact that the action was halted after a few days, and that the Germans had managed to seize no more than 10 percent of the ghetto population, was regarded by Jews and Poles alike as a German defeat. . . .   [T]hese deportations had a decisive influence on the ghetto’s last months.  The Judenrat and the Jewish police lost whatever influence they still had; the fighting organizations were the groups that were obeyed by the population.  The Jewish resistance also impressed the Poles, and they now provided more aid to the Jewish fighters.  The ghetto as a whole was engaged in feverish preparations for the expected deportations.  The general population concentrated on preparing bunkers. . . .   Much thought went into the planning of the sophisticated entries and exits of the subterranean hiding places. . . .   Water, food, and medicines to last for months were stockpiled.”

While it is appropriate to focus on the heroic actions of the poorly armed but highly motivated resistance fighters of the Warsaw ghetto, one should not lose sight of the enormous human suffering even those few days in January 1943 produced.  According to historian Martin Gilbert, among those deported were 150 doctors and all the patients at the ghetto hospitals.  The crowds also included a well-known cantor of pre-war Warsaw, Meir Alter, and Alter’s father.  On the way to the Umschlagplatz, the transit assembly area, Alter fils supported Alter pere, who was blind and moved with difficulty.  When the SS escort asked why the old man did not walk by himself, Alter explained that his father was blind.  “The Nazi fired a shot, ‘killing the blind man instantly. . . . ‘”

Similarly, on January 19, when the Germans once again entered the ghetto, David Wdowinski went into hiding.  Again, there were the familiar German voices, the heavy footsteps, the alarming hammering, according to Wdowsinski.  As he later recalled:

“A child began to cry.  Fright, alarm—we’ll be betrayed.  The mother closed her hand tightly over the child’s mouth and nose.  The crying stopped.  The child was quiet, very quiet.  The German went away.  The quiet child was a little bluish and from his mouth issued a small stream of bloody foam.  It was never to cry again.  So went a Jewish child into another world.”

To be continued.

January 13, 1942: Odd Nansen Becomes a Hostage

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Odd Nansen: Self-Portrait

On this date 81 years-ago Odd Nansen was ordered, by the local sheriff and two Germans, to accompany them to Oslo “for questioning.”  He would soon learn the truth—the authorities had no interest in questioning him, and no intention of releasing him from their grasp.  His crime? None.  Nansen was never accused or convicted of any wrong-doing or anti-German activity (even though he was in fact involved in the Resistance).  Instead, he learned of his new status: hostage.

The taking of hostages in wartime is as old as antiquity—a means of ensuring obedience by the local civilian population.  The major difference the Nazis brought to the taking of hostages was the ruthlessness with which they implemented and enforced their hostage-taking activities, which encompassed every country they occupied.

As early as August 19, 1940, William L. Shirer was broadcasting that the German military commander of the Netherlands had issued another warning against continued acts of sabotage.  If they continued, the general warned, collective punishment would be levied, not only against the perpetrator, but also the town in which the perpetrator lived “and hostages [will be] taken.”

Similarly, in Nansen’s case, it was the commando-style attacks by the British against Norway—Operations Anklet and Archery, which provoked Reichskommissar Josef Terboven (Hitler’s personal representative in Norway) to order in January 1942 the arrest of twenty of the most prominent citizens of the country—preferably ones with ties to the royal Family—as hostages.

The life of a hostage was precarious in the extreme—as it depended, not on the actions or behavior of the hostage him- or herself, but upon the actions of others.

In Mary Berg’s diary for June 10, 1941, she notes that the Polish underground was enforcing its own laws against collaborators, as well as the resulting retaliation by the Germans:

“The famous Polish moving-picture star, Igo Sym, who collaborated with the Nazis, was executed recently by the patriots.  The Nazis posted red placards all over the city, promising a reward of ten thousand zlotys for the delivery of the “traitors.” Meanwhile, a few hundred prominent Poles have been imprisoned as hostages and some of them have been shot.”

In France, which generally had a weak and ineffective resistance organization early in the war, 471 hostages were nevertheless shot in an eight-month period (September 1941—May 1942).  In general, however, the further east in Europe one traveled, and the longer the war lasted, the more vicious the reprisals against hostages became. For example, to quell an incipient uprising in Serbia in mid-1941 (as the Russian invasion increasingly required all of Germany’s resources) Hitler personally ordered between 50 and 100 hostages be shot for every German soldier killed.

Similarly, by late 1943, Greece experienced a spasm of extreme violence directed against hostages.  As historian Mark Mazower relates in Hitler’s Empire, on December 4, 1943, 50 hostages were shot in Aigion.  The next day another 50 hostages were hanged at the Andritsa rail station.  A few days later, on December 13, the entire male population of Kalavryta—over 500 men—were killed in reprisal for the kidnaping and killing of German soldiers by nearby partisans.

Thus, it is perhaps something of a miracle that Odd Nansen never knew of such wanton killings and survived his 40-month incarceration—until the war’s final days—without facing any such reprisals, for his own sake, and indeed, for ours as well.   Otherwise, we might never have Nansen’s masterpiece, From Day to Day, to offer us a unique, and uniquely insightful, look into the inner workings of the German concentration camp system.

Note: In one of the ironies of history, on January 13, 1942, the very same day that Odd Nansen first entered a Norwegian prison cell, the governments of nine German-occupied countries (Norway, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, France, Greece, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, Poland and Yugoslavia) met at St. James’s Palace in London and issued a joint declaration (the St. James’s Palace Declaration on the Punishment for War Crimes) that those found guilty of war crimes would be punished after the war.

The very first recital of their declaration reads: “Whereas, Germany, since the beginning of the present conflict which arose out of her policy of aggression, has instituted in the Occupied countries a regime of terror characterized amongst other things by imprisonments, mass expulsions, the execution of hostages and massacres.” The declaration was the first joint statement of goals and principles by the Allied Powers during World War II, later to be superseded by the Atlantic Charter and still later by the Declaration by United Nations. The Norwegian signatories were Terje Wold, Minister of Justice, and Trygve Lie, Minister for Foreign Affairs, and, after the war, first Secretary-General of the United Nations.

Did those guilty of war crimes receive the punishment they were promised by the St. James’s Palace Declaration? The Lagerkommandant of Grini, Alfred Zeidler, was sentenced after the war to life imprisonment, but was released in 1953.  Anton Kaindl, Commandant of Sachsenhausen (1943-45) was also sentenced to life imprisonment, by the Russians, and died in the Gulag in 1948.  Max Pauly, Neuengamme’s Commandant in 1945, was sentenced to death in May 1946, and hanged later that year.  Josef Terboven died by suicide in May 1945 rather than surrender.

The Warsaw Ghetto (Part I)

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“Today I attended a concert by Vera Gran. . . .  She sings classical songs and modern songs by the young composer Kuba Kohn, a product of the ghetto.  His music expresses all the sadness and resistance of the ghetto.  It has a new and original note that could only be born in this atmosphere of suffering, torture, and dogged endurance.” (Diary of Mary Berg, December 14, 1941)

Today marks the 82nd anniversary of the official establishment of the Warsaw Ghetto, the largest Jewish ghetto created by the Nazis during World War II.  Over 400,000 Jews (equal to approximately 30% of the total prewar population of Warsaw) were confined to an area of roughly 1.3 sq.mi., representing about 2.4% of the total prewar area of metropolitan Warsaw.

Warsaw Ghetto

Before it was all over, and the Ghetto finally destroyed by the Nazis in retaliation for the Warsaw Uprising (April—May, 1943), virtually all of the Ghetto’s inhabitants—noncombatants all—would be dead.

To put the scale of this tragedy into some perspective, the Jewish death toll in the Warsaw Ghetto alone is equivalent to:

  • 100 times the number of Allied troops killed on D-Day;
  • Over 20 times the number of Americans killed during the entire Battle of the Bulge, America’s deadliest battle in World War II;
  • All American soldiers killed during World War II.

One of the reasons so little has been written about the Warsaw Ghetto is that so few survived the experience—less than 1% of the initial inhabitants.  As one historian observes: “The heroic struggle and suffering of the Jews in the Polish ghettos constitute one of the most tragic and least known chapters of the war.”

Fortunately, a diary written by 15 year-old Mary Berg (born Miriam Wattenberg), spanning the period October 10, 1939 to March 5, 1944, offers a detailed and poignant, picture of life inside the Warsaw Ghetto. Mary’s family had been living comfortably in Lodz, Poland (her father was a successful art and antique dealer) when the war began on September 1, 1939.  When Lodz came under attack the family fled to Warsaw, which soon also came under German bombardment.  After 27 days of increasing punishment, Warsaw surrendered, and Poland became an occupied country.  By the following July, Mary writes that a de-facto Jewish Quarter has developed in part of Warsaw, beyond which one dares not go, on pain of being “hunted by the Germans or attacked by Polish hooligans.”

Five months later, in November 1940, rumors began to circulate that the Jewish Quarter would soon be isolated and its residents locked in.  Even then—more than a year of living under Nazi rule, many Jews did not fully realize the extent of their predicament:

“Some people say that this will be better for us, because the Germans will not dare to commit their crimes so openly and because we will be protected from attacks by Polish hooligans. But others, especially those among us who escaped from the Lodz Ghetto, are aghast: they have already tasted life in a secluded Jewish quarter under German domination.” (November 2, 1940)

At the time the Warsaw Ghetto was established, the Wannsee Conference—which would coordinate and implement the “Final Solution to the Jewish Question”—was still more than a year in the future.  Moreover, the major killing centers, such as Treblinka and Auschwitz, had not yet been built.  Nevertheless, life in the Ghetto became a constant struggle for survival, and the Nazis seemed more than willing to let starvation and disease take its toll.

The official per capita food ration was set below subsistence levels.  Those with some financial resources—like Mary’s family—could resort to the black market.  A well-established smuggling operation began almost as soon as the nine-foot-high, barbed-wire-topped, brick walls enclosing the Ghetto went up.

On the other hand, those without such resources simply starved:

“On Leszno Street in front of the court building, many mothers often sit with children wrapped in rags from which protrude red frost-bitten little feet.  Sometimes a mother cuddles a child frozen to death, and tries to warm the inanimate little body.  Sometimes a child huddles against his mother, thinking she is asleep and trying to awaken her, while, in fact, she is dead.  The number of these homeless mothers and children is growing from day to day.” (November 22, 1941)

Even those with some resources found the ever-increasing price of smuggled goods put most food items beyond their reach:

“Only a few people in the ghetto are still eating normally: the managers of public kitchens, the very wealthy, and the food smugglers.” (February 2, 1942)

In such a weakened state, in such crowded conditions, and without all but the most rudimentary medical supplies, disease festered in the Ghetto.  As Mary observes on the first anniversary of the enclosure:

“Of the former one hundred students in our class,* only about twenty-five remain.  Many are unable to pay the tuition fees and a great number have perished of typhus.” (November 15, 1941)

By mid-1942, 83,000 Jews would be dead, victims of disease and starvation.

Apparently, even this murder rate was not sufficient for the Nazis—things needed to be speeded up.  But as bad as conditions were, even Mary, despite all she had witnessed, could not conceive that the ultimate aim of the Nazis was to wipe out the Ghetto entirely:

“[M]ost people think that a pogrom like the one in Lublin cannot happen in Warsaw, because there are too many people here.**  According to official figures, there are 450,000 inhabitants in the ghetto, but actually there are many more, because this number does not include the unregistered fugitives from provincial towns and the loads of Jews from Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Austria.  It is estimated that the total is really more like 500,000.  To exterminate such a number of people seems impossible, inconceivable.” (May 8, 1942)

Inconceivable, so Mary thought.  But then again, Mary had not—could not—conceive of a Vernichtungslager—an extermination camp.  A place like Treblinka.

On July 22, 1942, the Grossaktion Warschau (Great Action Warsaw) began.

Umschlagplatz

Each day, Ghetto inhabitants were rounded up, marched through the Ghetto, assembled at the Umschlagplatz station square, and crammed into boxcars—5-6,000 victims per day, for 60 days (July 23—September 21), all ostensibly for “resettlement in the East.”  In reality, the victims were transported 50 miles to Treblinka, recently completed and equipped with gas chambers disguised as showers, and capable of murdering entire transports at a time.  Adam Czerniaków, head of the Judenrat, the Jewish Council charged with operating the Ghetto, chose to die by suicide at the inception of the Grossaktion rather than be party to such deportations.

In the space of 60 days, somewhere between 250,000 and 300,000 men, women, and children were sent to Treblinka and gassed.

Fortunately, Mary possessed one advantage that few others in the Ghetto had.  Her mother, Lena, had been born in the United States, and thus was an American citizen, a status which gave the entire Wattenberg family protection and privileges.

Accordingly, on July 19, 1942, Mary, along with other American citizens and foreign nationals, was moved to the Pawiak prison, also located within the Ghetto.  Conditions there were rough—overcrowding, poor food, etc., but at least the inhabitants of Pawiak were excluded from the Grossaktion. Nevertheless, from her vantage point Mary could witness the daily scenes of terror as the deportations continued, involving many of her closest friends.

The deportations ceased after September 21, leaving approximately 63,000 Jewish inhabitants remaining in the Ghetto. The respite was short-lived, however, for on January 18, 1943, the Aktion commenced once again.  On that same date Mary, her family and other foreign internees were transported from Pawiak to an internment camp in Vittel, France. More than a year later, she and her group were finally exchanged for German prisoners being held in the United States.  She arrived safely in New York City on March 16, 1944, where her diary ends.

And yet, much like Tom Buergenthal, Mary Berg remained haunted by the past:

“After four years of that nightmare I found it hard to enjoy my freedom at first.  I constantly imagined that it was only a dream, that at any moment I would awaken in the Pawiak and once again see the aged men with gray beards, the blooming young girls and proud young men, driven like cattle to the Umschlagplatz on Stawiki Street to their deaths.” (March 5, 1944).

Mary Berg

TO BE CONTINUED.

*A number of informal—and illegal—schools were established in the Ghetto, where “every subject is included in the curriculum.”

** Approximately 30,000 of the 34,000 Polish Jews in the Lublin Ghetto were sent to their deaths at the Belzec extermination camp between March 17, 1942 and April 11, 1942.  A few individuals managed to escape the liquidation, and made their way to the Warsaw Ghetto.  This undoubtedly explains why Mary mentions the issue in her diary one month later.

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