Berg, Mary

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article Share Article
views updated

BERG, Mary

Pseudonym for Miriam Wattenberg. Nationality: American (originally Polish: immigrated to the United States, 1944). Born: Lodz, Poland, 1924. Education: Graduated from a Lodz Gymnasium; attended junior college. Family: Married an American-born student, late 1940s. Career: Has lived in the United States since the end of World War II. Has worked as an artist. Award: First prize for a Winter Relief poster, graphic arts school, Warsaw Ghetto, 1942.

Publication

Diary

Warsaw Ghetto: A Diary, edited by S. L. Shneidermann. 1945.

*

Media Adaptation:

A Bouquet of Violets, produced Warsaw, 1986, from the diary Warsaw Ghetto: A Diary.

Critical Studies:

"She Lived in the Warsaw Ghetto: An Interview with Mary Berg" by Esther Elbaum, in Hadassah Newsletter, March-April 1945, pp. 20-21; "Diaries of the Holocaust" by Marie Syrkin, in Midstream, May 1966, pp. 3-20; The Case of Hotel Polski by Abraham Shulman, 1982; Forgotten Victims: The Abandonment of Americans in Hitler's Camps by Mitchell G. Bard, 1994; "Holocaust Victims of Privilege" by Susan Pentlin, in Problems Unique to the Holocaust, edited by Harry James Cargas, 1999.

* * *

Mary Berg, the author of Warsaw Ghetto: A Diary (1945), was born Miriam Wattenberg in 1924 in Lodz, Poland. Her father, Shya, was a prosperous art and antique dealer in the city and belonged to an Orthodox synagogue. Her mother, Lena, a dress designer, was born in the United States to Polish-born parents and had U.S. citizenship; she returned to Poland in 1918. Mary—who had a younger sister, Anna—had only been in the United States once to visit her grandparents.

Berg wrote the first entry in her diary on 10 October 1939, when her father, in spite of the danger, went out on the streets of Warsaw to buy violets for her fifteenth birthday. In the entry she described her family's return to Lodz from summer vacation as war grew imminent in late August. As the Germans neared the city, the family fled to Warsaw on bicycle and foot. They arrived safely and survived the siege of Warsaw. A few weeks later, they returned to Lodz, where they found the family's shop and apartment vandalized.

In Lodz the family realized they had made a mistake returning. Berg's father returned to Warsaw after a neighbor informed on him and then fled to Soviet-occupied Poland. She returned to high school but soon witnessed atrocities. From the apartment window, she saw blood on the pavement as a man was tied to a car driven by Germans and dragged. At school students grew too afraid to come to school. Germans tormented two girlfriends, making them strip and dance. In December Berg returned to Warsaw with her mother and sister.

After her father's return in April, they got an apartment at 41 Sienna Street. They put her mother's calling card on the door to indicate that she was a U.S. citizen, hoping it was a talisman against the frequent German raids. Berg's high school began meeting in secret, and she finished her exams and graduated. She joined the Youth Club of the House Committee in their block of apartments and founded a club with a group of friends from Lodz. They called themselves the Lodz Artistic and began giving shows to raise relief funds. Berg became known as "the American girl" because she preformed American songs.

When the ghetto gates were closed, Berg and her family remained on Sienna Street in an area called the Little Ghetto. Berg's father became a janitor in the building, and the family remained relatively well-off. In early 1941 she registered for a graphics arts class offered by the Judenrat. At first she resisted using "pull" to secure a seat, as there were more than 600 applicants, but she eventually relented. She was horrified with the corruption she saw in the ghetto and torn by moral dilemmas she and her friends faced.

Berg's mother registered with the Gestapo as a U.S. citizen. On 17 July 1942, a few days before the major deportation to Treblinka, Berg and her family left the ghetto with a group of about 700 people who were foreign-born or held foreign passports, and they were interned in the Pawiak Prison. From the prison windows, she could see friends working amidst the abandoned apartments and desperate lines of Jews marching to the deportation site. She learned about Treblinka and the use of gas from another inmate.

The day before the first ghetto uprising on 18 January 1943, the Berg family boarded a train that they feared would head east. To their relief, it traveled west to an internment camp at Vittel in France. There, they lived in resort hotels and were well fed, but they continued to receive mail from desperate friends and family in Warsaw. It was uncertain if Berg would be considered a citizen and allowed to travel to the United States with her family on a prisoner exchange, but finally, on 1 March 1944, they boarded a train bound for Lisbon, Portugal.

They finally arrived in New Jersey on 16 March 1944, on a Swedish exchange ship, the S.S. Gripsholm. A young Yiddish journalist, S. L. Shneiderman, met Berg on the dock. He learned she had brought a diary with her. Written in shorthand, it consisted of 12 small spiral notebooks. In the next months Berg worked with Shneiderman, flushing out some details and adding full names to the diary where she had only used initials. It was published in Yiddish, in serialized form, in the fall of 1944 and in English in the Jewish Contemporary Record. Her name was shortened to Berg to protect family who might be alive in Poland; an English translation by Norbert Guterman appeared in February 1945.

On 19 April 1944 the Wattenberg family headed the mourners at the Warsaw Synagogue in New York as they marched to city hall commemorating the first anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Berg gave interviews and appeared on radio programs that spring, but she was also eager to return to life. She entered junior college and continued to develop her work as an artist. She never published her experiences again. Her diary has been republished around the world, but it has not been republished in English. A Bouquet of Violets , a play based on the diary, was performed in Warsaw in 1986.

—Susan Lee Pentlin

See the essay on Warsaw Ghetto: A Diary.