Thursday, October 10, 2019

The Germans are here

Eighty years ago today, a young Polish girl, Mary Berg, was turning 15, yet she was far from celebrating, for her world had very recently been upturned - ‘Everyone is afraid to go out. The Germans are here’, she wrote in her precious diary. She and her family spent most of the war in what became the Warsaw Ghetto, but eventually - thanks to her mother being an American citizen - they managed to organise their flight from German territory, to the US, as part of a prisoner exchange. Soon after, Mary’s diary was serialised in American newspapers, and then published in book form.

Mary (Wattenberg) was born in Lodz  Poland, in 1924. Her father was a prosperous art and antique dealer, and her mother was a dress designer, American born of Polish parents who had returned to Poland when she was but 12 years old. Mary had a younger sister Anna. As the Germans neared Lodz in the summer of 1939, the family fled, on bicycles, to Warsaw; but, a few weeks later, they returned home only to find their shop and apartment vandalised. The Germans requisitioned their apartment in December 1939, and within a week or two the family was summoned to Warsaw by the American consulate. There they remained, as with other Jewish citizens, increasingly confined to a specific area of the city, which, eventually in November 1940, was officially established as a ghetto. When the mass deportation of the Jews (to extermination camps) from the ghetto began, in mid-1942, the Wattenbergs, due to their American connection, were instead sent to a prison in Pawiak, and then to an internment camp in France. In March 1944, finally, they took a train to Lisbon, and a boat to New Jersey.

On arriving, Mary was befriended by a young Yiddish journalist, S. L. Shneiderman who was intrigued by her diary. Subsequently, he worked with her to decipher and transcribe the shorthand script, flushing out some details, for publication in a Yiddish periodical. An English translation in the Jewish Contemporary Record followed (under the shortened name of Berg to protect any family still alive in Poland). It was published as a book by L. B. Fischer in February 1945 - The Diary of Mary Berg - but went out of print in the 1950s. Although, initially, Mary Berg gave interviews and appeared on radio programmes, she later refused to take part in Holocaust-related events, and distanced herself from the diary, preferring to live quietly and privately. Wikipedia states: ‘She is believed to have lived in York, Pennsylvania for many years, where she wed William Pentin and was known as Mary Pentin. Her known relatives, descended from her sister, Anna, who married a pathologist, Leon Williams Powell Jr. and had four children, have either refused to provide or have disclaimed any new or additional information about Berg, so little is known about her years in the United States.’ She died in 2013. A little further biographical information can be gleaned from

In 2007, Oneworld Publications reissued the book (‘prepared’ by Susan Lee Pentlin) as The Diary of Mary Berg: Growing up in the Warsaw Ghetto, and, in 2019, the book was reprinted again for a 75th anniversary edition. Some pages can be previewed at Googlebooks but the full work can also be found online at EPDF. Many reviews can be browsed at Goodreads. Here are several extracts from the diary, including the first entry, written on Mary’s birthday 80 years ago.

10 October 1939
‘Today I am fifteen years old. I feel very old and lonely, although my family did all they could to make this day a real birthday. They even baked a macaroon cake in my honor, which is a great luxury these days. My father ventured out into the street and returned with a bouquet of Alpine violets. When I saw it I could not help crying.

I have not written my diary for such a long time that I wonder if I shall ever catch up with all that has happened. This is a good moment to resume it. I spend most of my time at home. Everyone is afraid to go out. The Germans are here.

I can hardly believe that only six weeks ago my family and I were at the lovely health resort of Ciechocinek, enjoying a carefree vacation with thousands of other visitors. I had no idea then what was in store for us. I got the first inkling of our future fate on the night of August 29 when the raucous blare of the giant loud-speaker announcing the latest news stopped the crowds of strollers in the streets. The word “war” was repeated in every sentence. Yet most people refused to believe that the danger was real, and the expression of alarm faded on their faces as the voice of the loud-speaker died away.

My father felt differently. He decided that we must return to our home in Lodz. In almost no time our valises stood packed and ready in the middle of the room. Little did we realize that this was only the beginning of several weeks of constant moving about from one place to another.

We caught the last train which took civilian passengers to Lodz. When we arrived we found the city in a state of confusion. A few days later it was the target of severe German bombardments. The telephone rang again and again. My father dashed from one mobilization office to another, receiving a different-colored slip of paper at each one. One day Uncle Abie, my mother’s younger brother, rushed unexpectedly into our house to say goodbye before leaving for the front. He was ragged, grimy, and unshaven. He had no uniform; only his military cap and the knapsack on his shoulders marked him as a soldier. He had been making his way from one city to another, looking for his regiment.

We spent most of our time in the cellar of our house. When word came that the Germans had broken through the Polish front lines and were nearing Lodz, panic seized the whole population. At eleven o’clock at night crowds began to stream out of the city in different directions. Less than a week after our arrival from Ciechocinek we packed our necessities and set out once more.

Up to the very gates of the city we were uncertain which direction we should take -toward Warsaw or Brzeziny? Finally, along with most of the other Jews of Lodz, we took the road to Warsaw. Later we learned that the refugees who followed the Polish armies retreating in the direction of Brzeziny had been massacred almost to a man by German planes.

Among the four of us, my mother, my father, my sister, and I, we had three bicycles, which were our most precious possessions. Other refugees who attempted to bring with them things that had been valuable in the life they had left behind were compelled to discard them. As we advanced we found the highway littered with all sorts of objects, from fur coats to cars abandoned because of the lack of gasoline. We had the good luck to acquire another bicycle from a passing peasant for the fantastic sum of two hundred zlotys, and we hoped it would enable us to move together with greater speed. But the roads were jammed, and gradually we were completely engulfed in the slow but steady flow of humanity toward the capital. [. . .]’

15 October 1939
‘We are again in Lodz. We found our store and our apartment completely looted; the thieves had cut the larger pictures out of their frames. My father is miserable over the loss of the Poussin and the Delacroix he bought in Paris for a considerable sum only a few weeks before the outbreak of the war. We have been here in Lodz for only two days, but we know now that it was a mistake to return here. The Nazis are beginning to intensify their acts of terrorism against the native population, especially the Jews. Last week they set fire to the great synagogue, the pride of the Lodz community. They forbade the Jews to remove the sacred books, and the “shames,” or beadle, who wanted to save the holy relics was locked up inside the temple and died in the flames. My mother cannot forgive herself for having persuaded my father to bring us back here.’

22 July 1942
‘Today the ghetto had a bloody Wednesday. The misfortune everyone expected has struck. The deportations and street pogroms have begun. At daybreak, patrols of Lithuanians and Ukrainians led by Elite Guards surrounded the ghetto, and armed guards were stationed every ten yards. Anyone approaching the gates or showing himself at a window was shot on the spot. The Lithuanians and Ukrainians displayed great zeal in their murderous work. They are tall young beasts of seventeen to twenty who were especially trained for their job by German instructors.

For a long time there has been talk in the ghetto of the impending replacement of the German guards, mostly old soldiers, by young Ukrainians and Lithuanians. Now these rumors, which were generally disbelieved, have been confirmed.

Last night the German authorities informed the Jewish community that all the inhabitants of the ghetto would be transported to the east. Only forty pounds of luggage are allowed per person; all remaining possessions will be confiscated. Everyone must bring provisions for three days. The deportation was supposed to begin this morning at eleven o’clock. The order exempts only those Jews who are employed in German factories and workshops in the ghetto, as well as the officials of the various ghetto institutions. This includes the Jewish police force, the community officials, the employees of the ambulance service, the hospital staffs, the undertakers, and all possessors of registration cards issued by the Labor Office who have not yet been assigned jobs. The families of these chosen people are also exempt from deportation.

The Jewish police is charged with the sad task of preserving order during the deportation and of employing force against those who refuse to give themselves up.
The concentration point of this mass migration is situated at the Umschlagplatz on Stawki Street. The Germans demand 3,000 persons a day for deportation. The panic in the ghetto is indescribable. People with bundles in their hands run from one street to another, and do not know what to do. Many are trying at the last moment to obtain jobs in the German factories of Toebens and Schultz, which are situated in the ghetto. I was told that some people are paying bribes of as much as a thousand zlotys for such a job. The Jews themselves are trying to organize large workshops to make goods for the Germans, in order to give employment to people threatened with deportation.

Today the Jewish police gathered up all the beggars from the streets and emptied the refugee camps. These unfortunates were locked up in freight cars without food or water. The transports are being sent in the direction of Brzesc, but will they ever reach there? It is doubtful that all these starving people will arrive at their destination alive; they will perish in their sealed cars. A hundred persons are crowded into each car. The Polish prison guard who whispered all these details to us had tears in his eyes. He lives near Stawki Street, and he witnessed horrible scenes of people being driven into cars with whips, just as though they were cattle.

Today we received a package of food from Uncle Abie, in which he enclosed a note. Fortunately for us, he is on the police force, otherwise he would not have been admitted to Dzielna Street. His short note expressed despair. He cannot accept the idea that, as a policeman, he will have to help in the deportation, and is thinking of resigning from his job. But, on the other hand, his job protects him from deportation. He wants to know what we think about it.

From our window I can see that something unusual is going on in Korczak’s children’s home. Every now and then someone walks in and, a few minutes later, comes out leading a child. These must be the parents or families of the children, who in this tragic moment want to be with their loved ones. The children look clean, and are dressed neatly though poorly. When I bend out of the window I can see the corner of Smocza Street. There is terrible confusion there; people are running back and forth as though possessed. Some carry bundles, others wring their hands.

Dzielna Street must have been opened for traffic, because suddenly many passers-by have appeared there, and until now it was empty. Often I can see whole families, parents with their children, the mothers holding babies in their arms, and the bigger children following them. There must be many Jews who are reporting voluntarily for deportation - those who have no other way out, no possibility of hiding. The Germans give them a kilogram of bread per person, and promise them better working conditions. But these desperate volunteers do not fill the quota of 3,000 people a day. The police must supply the rest by means of force. They drag their victims out of their homes or seize them in the streets.’

26 December 1943
‘This time we got away with only a scare. The Nazi commission has vanished and the whole camp, Jews and non-Jews, breathed with relief.

This year our Chanukah feast coincided with Christmas, and many Jews and Gentiles felt that this fact was symbolic. Chanukah candles are lit in many of the rooms occupied by Jews, while the Christmas tree in front of the church is decorated with tinsel. Perhaps our common suffering and persecutions will finally eradicate blind race hatred?’

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