Warsaw Ghetto: A Diary

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Diary by Mary Berg, 1945

The diary of a young teenage girl, Mary Berg's Warsaw Ghetto: A Diary (1945) was the first full, eyewitness account of life in the Warsaw Ghetto to appear in print in English. It was published before the Oneg Shabbat archives and other diaries and memoirs were recovered and is unique for its detail, authenticity, and its poignancy. Like many child diarists, Berg was searching to find meaning in the cruelty she experienced as she struggled to deal with the loss of childhood. Like Anne Frank and others, she began her diary as a means to comfort and occupy herself. Later it became an outlet for her and her friends. On her birthday they brought her notebooks, and she often read aloud. Gradually, she began to see that she had a chance to survive but that they had very little. Thus, her diary became a means for her to preserve a record of their torment and of remembering them.

In the ghetto Berg found a mission in recording her diary. After her boyfriend Kowalski said, "Little, girl, it is good that you don't understand too much," adding that he was happy she did not have to suffer, Berg wrote: "Tears choked me, because I do know and understand everything, but I am powerless and cannot help anyone." With amazing detail she wrote about daily life in the ghetto. She recorded experiences at school, street scenes in the ghetto, cultural life, and the bits of Aryan life she could see over the wall from their apartment. She explained that she often went outside "to learn by heart the look of the homeless women wrapped in rags and of the children with chapped and frozen cheeks." Berg visited a refugee center and felt shame because she had nothing to give a hungry child. She anguished at the sight of the hungry, greedily looking at bread in a bakery.

Gradually, as with many ghetto youth, Berg began to show a maturity beyond her years. She and other young people from Lodz, Poland, who came from prosperous homes were commonly referred to as "golden youth" in Warsaw. She came to realize that she was among the privileged, not among the "other Jews." With honesty, she explained that those without privilege "have only a ten per cent chance at most [to survive]." Later, she admitted with equal openness that: "Only those who have large sums of money are able to save themselves from this terrible life." Of course she did not know her fate, but her family's privilege and contacts abroad ultimately did become the key to her survival.

Berg's family still had funds in the ghetto and lived there among the well-fed elite. Her father was a janitor, a much sought-after position because residents who came in late had to pay a fee for the janitor to open the gate, and he got financial support from the Judenrat. Her uncle Abie was a ghetto policeman, a job, she admitted, that required "pull" to get. Kowalski was a close relative of Marek Lichtenbaum, the head of the Judenrat after Adam Czerniakow's suicide, so he used connections to get a job as an overseer to the building of the wall. Another suitor, Tadek Szajer, vied for her attention. His family lived a lavish lifestyle as his father was a member of the infamous "13," a group of Gestapo collaborationists in the ghetto. Szajer tried to impress her by joining the red-capped Ambulance Service known in the ghetto for its brutality.

Berg, however, remained sensitive to the growing desperation in the ghetto. In one passage, she wrote about the "dreamers of bread" in the streets whose "eyes are veiled with a mist that belongs to another world." She explained that "usually they sit across from the windows of food stores, but their eyes no longer see the loaves that lie behind the glass, as in some remote inaccessible heaven." In the same entry, she also expressed remorse for her privileges, concluding: "I have become really selfish. For the time being I am still warm and have food, but all around me there is so much misery and starvation that I am beginning to be very unhappy."

Berg was at an age when young people typically develop their moral codes and a sense of justice. On the one hand, she wanted to keep her prewar values and her faith in a just world in the future. On the other, she enjoyed being with her friends and having a good time as much as possible in the circumstances. At times, she understandably resented feeling guilty for the privileges she had in the ghetto and for the simple desire to survive. Clearly, her models for behavior were both the values of her youth in Lodz and those of the cruel world created by the ghetto.

In her last entry, after the exchange ship had reached its port in the United States, Berg describes the feeling of freedom she had leaving "the blood-drenched earth of Europe" behind her. But even as those on the ship saw the first skyscrapers of New York City, she knew forgetting would not prove so easy. She recalled: "I had thought that on the ship I would forget the nightmare of the ghetto. But, strangely enough, in the infinity of ocean I constantly saw the bloody streets of Warsaw," and thus she promised to never forget her young friends in the ghetto. The enduring value of Berg's diary is the fulfillment of her promise.

—Susan Lee Pentlin