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. 

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