Summer of 1941 in the Ghetto according to Mary Berg’s diary

I will do anything to save those who can still be saved and avenge those who have been so bitterly humiliated in the final moments of their lives. And those who were burnt to ashes, I shall always see alive. I will tell, I will tell everything about our suffering, about the struggles and murders of our loved ones – read the final passages of the Mery Berg’s diary, written as an imaginary letter to her friend who had been murdered by Germans. The notes from her life, suffering and death in the Warsaw Ghetto, published in English in april 1945 in New York,  were one of the first printed testimonies of the fate of exterminated community of the “confined district” in the capital of the occupied Poland.

The author of this unique document that still awaits a thorough investigation was born in 1924 as Miriam Wattenberg, to the family of a wealthy Jewish antiquarian, Shaia from Łódź and an American – Lena. She also had a sister, Ann, who was a few years younger than her. When the war broke out, the family was on holidays in the spa town of Ciechocinek. The fiftneen-year-old decided to start a diary on, 10 October 1939, the day of her birthday. It reveals the tragic fate of her family in the first weeks of the war and the German occupation that followed. From Ciechocinek, they managed to get to Łódź and from there – in the face of the incoming German army – to the already besieged Warsaw, where they  settled at Zielna 31 St. There, they lived through many dramatic moments. Not long after the surrender of the Polish capital, on October the 15th, they decided to return to Łódź, where they found that their apartment at Piotrkowska St (perhaps no. 117) had already been partially robbed. Due to the dramatically deteriorating situation of the Jews of Łódź, they finally left the city at the turn of 1939 and 1940, making their way to Warsaw. Due to inexplicable circumstances, Mary’s father ended up in Białystok, which was occupied by the Soviets, but managed to reunite with his family in April 1940. There, they managed to acquire an apartment at Sienna St. (first at. no 16, then – no. 41), in the area that would later on become the so-called  small ghetto, inhabited mainly by the wealthier people of the Jewish Warsaw community. As a result of changes forced by the occupier, in December 1941, Mary’s family had to move to a new place, which was however, still considered one of the best ones in the area of the “confined district” – the tenement house at Chłodna 10 St. There, the Wattenbergs, as holders of American passports, were  interned on 17 July 1942 in the prison at Pawia, only a few days before the beginning of the first transports of Jews from Warsaw to the death camp in Treblinka. In Pawiak, living in slightly better sanitary conditions and with more food than in the ghetto, but at the same time – in constant uncertainty of the future, together with other Jewish citizens holding passports of neutral countries or main Western anti-Hitler Allies, they survived until 18 January 1943 – until the transport to the “transit cammp” in Vittel, France. Early the following March they were exchanged for German prisoners of war in the United States, and travelled via Lisbon on board of a Swedish ship, “Gripsholm”, to finally reach New York. There, Mary Berg began a new life as – as she herself put it – a real American. She married an airplane mechanic and settled down in York, Pennsylvania, where she reportedly worked – like far father – as an art merchant. At the beginning, she was involved in the publication and promotion of her diary and the campaign to commemorate Jewish victims of Germans, but in the 1950s she gradually stepped down from public life. She even consistently refused (until the first decade of the 21st century) to make any comments on her life’s work, and until recently even the daily date of her death in the year 2013 remained unknown (it was eventually established that she died on 1 April).

As it turned out recently, Mary Berg left photo albums containing photographs from the pre-war period and never published materials concerning the time spent in the Warsaw ghetto and Vittel camp as well as from her life in the USA. She also left a collection of press clippings related to the first edition of her dairy, a true mine of information on the work and its author. However, we do not have the manuscript of the diary itself, which – together with certain excerpts from its printed version – may rise doubts regarding its authenticity, at least parts of it if not the whole. The question: what was published in 1945? Was  it Mary Berg’s diary or her memoirs? remains unanswered and is waiting for a researcher who will investigate it.

Though the diary does not contain descriptions of every day, but entries written several days or even weeks apart from one another, it contains an abundance of information on the author herself and the times in which lived. It tells us about such things as the group of resettlers from Łódź, who were involved in the activity of the theatre group “ŁZA” (Łódzki Zespół Artystyczny, Eng. the Łódź Artistic Team); about friends, Harry, Edek, Olga, Edzio, Stefan, Misza, Dolek, Mietek – and the best one – Rutka; about the times they played music together and discussed the books they read; about the fates of the members of the closest family, for example uncles Abi and Percy; about Mary’s art studies (the so-called courses of technical machine drawing); about her being torn between her love to Romek Kowalski, whom she preferred, and the tiresome advances of Tadek Szayer, whom she was pushing away; about the vegetable garden in the courtyard of the tenement house at Sienna that produced fresh radishes; about sunbathing on the rooftops of the ghetto tenement houses. We also learn the brutal truth about the disastrous housing and sanitary conditions, about high prices and speculation, about hunger and exploitation, social insensitivity and cases of collaboration with the occupier, about diseases, violence and death that were only partially counterbalanced by human solidarity, compassion and help, provided by, for example, the so-called committees and home kitchens. Many of these issues can be found in the notes from the summer of 1941, written between 26 June and 20  September. Below are some extensive citations from the Polish edition, published by the Warsaw-based publishing house, Czytelnik, in 1983, and translated from English by Maria Salapska.

I am writing these words in the shelter of our home – reads the last entry of June and the first of the astronomical summer of 1941 – I am on night duty as a member of air defense. The Russians are bombing us more and more often. Our house is in a dangerous spot – close to the main railway station. It’s eleven. I am sitting by a small carbide lamp. It is the first time since the beginning of hostilities between Russia and Germany that I can write. It was an immense shock. A war between Germany and Russia! Who could have hoped that it would happen so soon! She recalls the dramatic course of the first day of the war between the Third Reich and the USSR: on that historical day, 22 June, at four in the afternoon, our theatre group was giving it traditional Sunday performance in the Weismann Hall [at Pańska St. No. 54]. Misza [Bakst, one of the members of “ŁZA”] recited his piece, then I went on the stage and – I couldn’t say why – for the first time felt such an enormous stage fright. Romek who was sitting at the piano noticed my trepidation and gently, as always, whispered: “don’t be afraid, just temember the key!”. His gaze gave me courage and after the first notes the fear disappeared. When I finished the first song and was beginning to sing the second one, we suddenly heard a terrifying explosion and the whole stage shook. I didn’t know what was going on. Through the window I could see the ruins of the house on the other side of the street (it was bombed during the siege of Warsaw) falling into pieces. What could it be – I kept thinking – are they bombing us again? But who? The audience began to get anxious, but Romek did not stop playing and whispered to me: “keep singing, it’s nothing”. I could feel my legs giving way under me, various thoughts swirling around in my head, but I kept singing. We were still hearing explosions, but they seemed a little farther.  When I finished my performance, panic broke out in the Hall and the audience rushed to the door. Harry [Karczmar, another very active member of Łódź Artistic Group] tried to stop them, but to no avail. Within moments, the room was empty. Somobedy brought the news that the Russians were bombarding the railway station and many houses on the left side of Sienna, where we live, were hit. We left together only after the explosions ended. At the corner of Sienna and Sosnowa, I could already see that our house was standing unscathed and breathed a sigh of relief. In the streets people were snatching out of each other’s hands the special issue of “Nowy Kurier Warszawski” with huge colourfool headlines reading: “War against the red plague” and “Germans defending the world from the Bolshevik deluge”. These headlines were making people laugh. Mary Berg goes on to report on the successive Soviet bombings of Warsaw, the hypocritical information about the destruction of the city in propaganda rags, and the descriptions of the true state of affairs in the Polish underground periodicals reaching the ghetto. The entry breaks off abruptly: There seems to be an alarm going off just now; yes, a long siren whistle. I must run to wake up the commandant.

Goyim [i.e. Christians – FF], who were still caretakers in the ghetto, were ordered to leave the district immediately – we read in the diary under 1 July – many Jews wanted to get their jobs. That also included Mary Berg’s father and their uncle Percy, who had nothing to live on but what he got from us. Since the latter has little chance, the father ultimately decided to put forward his own candidacy and take Percy as his replacement. This plan can work. And she adds: There are four hundred tenants in our house and the caretaker can earn a decent income.

The plan succeeded, as Mary Berg reports under 25 July 1941: After a long struggle, my father finally got a job as a caretaker with all the benefits of the position. He has been in “office” for two weeks now and in addition to the usual Jewish armband, he wears a yellow one on his arm with the inscription “Householder”. He also received a passport from the Municipality stating that he was exempt from forced labour. Thus, he can wander freely through the streets without fear of round-ups. The caretakers are exempt from various fees, they receive extra food rations, two hundred zlotys a month as pay and free housing. But the caretaker’s main profit comes from opening the door at night: under curfew regulations, the gate is closed early and tenants give twenty grosz or more each for the caretaker to open it. Sometimes, during one night, it can amount even to twenty zlotys. In short: a caretaker’s income, by today’s standards, is extremely favourable; no wonder it is so hard to get the job.

Due to the fact that Dad does not have the strength to fulfill all the duties of a caretaker – namely, keep the house clean, scrub the stairwell and take out trash, he carried out his original plan and got uncle Percy to help. He gives him back all the money he receives directly.

At first, our neighbors were distrustful of the new caretaker who, just yesterday, was merely a tenant just like everyone else. They could not imagine an art antiquarian and classical painting specialist being able to perform caretaker duties. However, they soon got used to the idea that even a respected citizen could become a caretaker and still be a respectable man. They now show this respect to both my father and uncle. Incidentally, they are not the only people who fell so low in the social hierarchy in the ghetto. The caretaker of the neighboring property is Engineer Plonskier, a close friend of our family. Moreover, a great number of lawyers now enjoy holding the position of a caretaker.

I am now sitting at the window of the new housing we were assigned as a caretaker’s family; I’m looking out onto the street, the diary author continues, the window overlooks Sienna Street next to Sosnowa Street – there is always a lot of traffic there. One of the important points here was a kiosk with newspapers, some of which were smuggled into the ghetto. Next to it, Mary Berg saw two figures: A candy and cigarette vendor standing near the newsstand. He is an older man with the appearance of an intellectual. He leans against the wall half asleep. The candy he sells is made from molasses and saccharin in tiny factories in the ghetto. Sugar currently costs thirty złoty per pound. Some sweets are wrapped in paper with a Star of David and the words “Jewish District”. They cost up to thirty grosz per piece.  But there are also sweets for one złoty each.

A little further on, an elderly lady sitting at a small table sells wristbands of various qualities at prices ranging from fifty grosz to two złoty for one. The cheapest are made of paper on which the Star of David has been printed; the most expensive are made of linen with a hand-embroidered star and retractable rubber bands. In the ghetto there is a great demand for these armbands because the Germans are very “sensitive” about it; when they see a Jew with a torn or dirty armband, they immediately beat them.

These window observations did not lack drastic “images” either: The house opposite ours, at number 42, was demolished during the siege of Warsaw [in September 1939]. This morning a middle-aged woman sat by its ruins. Her bare feet, which she stretched out in front of her, were covered with festering wounds, her face twisted with suffering, and her nostrils unnaturally dilated, as if they were sniffing. The woman tried to lift her heavy body, but was unable to. People passed her in a hurry without looking back. They could not help her anyway. She pulled out a piece of bread from the bundle lying next to her and tried to bite it, but her teeth clattered against each other and her head heavily hit the pavement. A moment later, she rose to a sitting position, bit a piece of bread and began chewing it. But her stomach refused to accept the food – she vomited. Then she tried to get up by helping herself with a stick and finally succeeded.  She took a few steps, started to wobble, leaned inertly against the stick and suddenly started banging her head against the wall screaming: “People, have mercy on me, kill me!” After a while, she fell heavily with her arms spread out to the sides and for a moment I thought that her suffering was over. But a moment later the woman began to move and shout something unintelligible in a hoarse voice. I ran to the sanitary station and made such a fuss that someone was finally sent to help this poor creature.

Typhus is rampant, writes Berg under the date 26 July about one of the most important “plagues” of life in the ghetto. Yesterday, the number of people who died of this disease exceeded two hundred. Doctors simply wring their hands in despair. There is no medicine and all the hospitals are overcrowded. New beds are still being added in the halls and corridors, but this does not solve the problem; the number of casualties is increasing day by day.

The hospital on the corner of Leszno and Rymarska has put up a sign in the window of the emergency room: “No beds”. Berson’s children’s hospital on Sienna is full of children of all ages – all sick with typhus. The hospital on the corner of Leszno and Zelazna has completely closed its doors – there is no room for a single patient there.

And once again, we come across a scene observed by the author which has the feel of a Greek tragedy: A few days ago, on Leszno Street, I saw a father carrying a quite large boy in his arms. They were both covered in rags. The boy’s face burned with a fiery flush, he shook horribly. The man stopped hesitantly in front of the entrance to the hospital on the corner of Leszno and Żelazna. He remained motionless for a moment, apparently contemplating what to do. Finally, the unfortunate man placed his sick son on the steps leading to the emergency room and stepped back a few centimetres. The exhausted boy convulsed and groaned silently. Suddenly, a nurse in a white apron came out and started shouting at the father, who was frozen in pain and stood with his head lowered, crying bitterly. After a while I noticed that the sick boy had stopped shaking, as if he had fallen asleep. His eyes were closed and there was an expression of mild satisfaction on his face.

A few moments later the weeping father looked at his son. He leaned over his child, sobbing as if his heart would break, and looked long for a long time into the boy’s face, searching for a trace of life. But it was all over. Soon a small black cart pulled up and the still warm body of the boy was added to several others gathered in the neighbouring streets. For some time, the father looked behind the moving cart.  Then he disappeared.

The epidemic took a particularly acute form in the region of Gęsia, Nalewki, Nowolipki and Nowolipia – we read further on in the pages of the diary – In the “small” ghetto the situation is a little better because it is a neighbourhood inhabited by wealthy people who can afford private medical care.

A typhus serum has recently been imported from Lviv, which fell into the German hands a month ago. The Soviets, when evacuating Lviv, left a large warehouse containing typhus remedies stored in vials. Now this precious medicine is smuggled into Warsaw. But only rich people can afford them – the price reaches several thousand złoty per vial.

Some residents of the ghetto receive parcels through the post from Switzerland; they contain various medicines and, above all, anti-typhus serum. The Swiss remedy is better than the Russian one.

As if in tragic contrast, under the same date of 26 July we can also find this entry: A favourite place of entertainment in the heart of the ghetto is the “Café Hirszfeld”. This building is located on the corner of Sienna and Sosnowa streets. Here you can get everything your heart desires – the most expensive liqueurs, cognacs, pickled fish, tinned food, ducks, chickens and geese. The price of lunch with drinks varies from one hundred to two hundred złoty. This café is a meeting place for the biggest smugglers and their sweethearts; here women sell themselves for a good meal. Sixteen-year-old girls come with their lovers, some scoundrels who work for the Gestapo. These girls do not think about what will happen to them in the future – they are too young for that. They come here to have a good meal. The next day they may be shot along with their lovers. The organised youth of the ghetto are ruthless to traitors.

A Gestapo agent using the alias Miłek is a regular at this café -– no one knows his real name. He is a tall, well-fed blond man, wearing officers’ breeches and a sports jacket. He is a notorious Don Juan, and if he picks up a girl, she cannot escape him, because if she resists, she is threatened with the Gestapo – and that usually means death. Miłek always carries a gun and boasts of having shot several underground activists who wanted to get rid of him. […] Resistance leaders also meet at Hirschfeld’s – the fact that the place is known as a house of rendezvous for various depraved elements makes the cafe a perfect hideout for underground fighters.

However, there is no shortage of positive events in Mary Berg’s life this summer: Examinations are coming up at school, we read under the date of 4 July. The school year lasted only seven months; the Germans refused to extend the classes. Professors are pleased with the progress made by most of the students However, there are huge shortages when it comes to any materials. Only two shops in the ghetto still sell small quantities of paper and paint at fantastic prices. Before the war, a sheet of paper cost twenty grosz – now it costs four złoty. Ink, brushes and quills are unavailable. Despite this, we somehow manage to continue our studies. However, some students had to drop out of school and take up jobs to earn a living.

Next, the author of the diary characterises her selected colleagues, the participants of these courses, with a touch of humour: The most popular student is Zdzisław Szenberg, a bony young man walking in jackboots and an elegant coat. He has a slim face and large, glossy black eyes with strangely long eyelashes […]. His hands are gifted with a wonderful talent for drawing and painting. He is a talented designer and makes fun of painters who, in his opinion, waste time and material on unnecessary things. But that’s just an act; he also paints “miserable” ghetto figures and landscapes consisting of mutilated chestnut trees against a background of bombed-out houses.

Józek Fogelnest and Kazik Kastenberg are also interesting students. They are a great match for each other and always sit at the same desk. They are a cause of despair for teachers – every time one of them speaks up, the whole class roars with laughter. Kazik has a funny, long face resembling a horse’s head, while Józek is a well-built man with innocent eyes of a child. His glasses have a habit of sliding down to the tip of his nose. Both are nineteen years old and take courses only to avoid being forced to work for the Germans. They do not have the slightest idea about drawing and they only got through the entrance exams because of the “strong backing” they have. However, they manage to tackle the tasks set by their teachers – both boys pretend to be neo-impressionists and draw complex, often quite absurd compositions that resemble nothing. When teachers point out to them that their works do not solve any problem, they accuse them of being conservative and insisting on outdated views, then begin to explain the deep symbolism of their proposals. The rest of the class almost cries with laughter, and the professors give in and often join in the general fun.

Another strange character is Bolek Szpilberg. He comes to school in different clothes every day. He is a rather talented son of very wealthy parents. He looks older than eighteen years of age; he is of average height and his appearance is very distinguished. Bolek was born in Palestine, he is a British subject and, as such, he was required to report to the Gestapo. But for a large sum of money, he obtained an Italian certificate, registered with the Gestapo under his own name, and as an Italian citizen, he walked around the school without an armband proud as a peacock. However, one day when the Germans came to visit the school, Bolek quickly put on the armband. Then I realized what a coward he was.

There are two German refugees among our students, they are the Libermann brothers. The younger, sixteen years old, is petite and plain-looking but very gifted as a draughtsman; the older is twenty-three years old and shows a special talent for decorating and posters. They are cousins of a famous German painter, a Jew, Professor Max Liebermann.

As for the girls, Inka Garfinkel is very talented in interior decorating and fashion design. She has original ideas and is a true individual. Tall, slender, with chestnut hair, black eyes and a fair complexion, she often looks like a fashion magazine model herself. I recently did a pastel portrait of her that our teacher really liked. Inka is very firm in her ideas. Soon, she marries Józef Świeca, also a student, a ghetto police official. This couple has known each other for a year, they love each other so much that they are completely unafraid of the world around them. So far, their marriage plans were hampered by their financial situation, but now Inka earns a little money and her fiancé gets a good salary – so they are getting ready to get married.

Nina Wygodzka and Janette Natanson are an inseparable pair; they are pretty and elegant but terribly gushing. They are very popular with the boys. One of their pretentious habits is to speak French constantly. I always answer them in English. They do not look Jewish so they often manage to get through to the other side, where they make important purchases – they are later well rewarded for them. Although very young, they have a lot of experience. Their fathers died several years ago. Nina is not too tall, rather plump nineteen-year-old who wears her hair braided and wrapped around her head. Janette is also of average height, with long curls and a pale face covered in freckles. Her green cat eyes are very shiny. These two swept all the boys at school off their feet; they were deemed dangerous “vamps”.

And she sums up these somewhat stinging characterisations: In general, students live in harmony and help each other if they can.

Nevertheless, completing the course and enrolling in the next “semester,” as well as spending time with the friendly students, did not fully remove the horror of life in the ghetto. Under 20 September, Mary Berg recounted her dramatic “adventure” from a few days before when she had a brush with death while walking to her beloved Romek’s apartment: It was a hot day. We left [Mary’s] house at four in the afternoon. On the street, people were rushing about with an unusual expression of fear on their faces. You could feel the tension at every turn. When we reached the crosswalk at the corner of Leszno and Żelazna Street, we noticed that the neighbourhood was completely empty. I asked Harry [one of her cousins] to escort me back to the house; but it was too late, for just at that moment we noticed a German guard pointing a rifle at us. Everything in me froze; I felt the last moment of my life approaching. My legs began to tremble. The boys [Harry and Bolek] linked their arms through mine and boldly started crossing the street. I felt pain in my shoulders, burning as if from a bullet. On the heated street, there was profound silence. Suddenly, a dry bang was heard and a bullet flew along the middle of the street; the usually most dangerous section was behind us. Harry and Bolek were pale as death. I myself was white with fear when we entered Romek’s house. I was deeply shaken and could not calm down.

In Mary Berg’s diary, the summer of 1941 ends with a dramatic entry of pessimistic significance: The Nazis are triumphant. Kiev has fallen, we read under 20 September – Soon, Himmler will be in Moscow. London is heavily bombed. Will Germany win this war? No, a thousand times no! Why aren’t the Allies bombing German cities? Why is Berlin still untouched? Germany must be wiped off the face of the earth. Such people should not be allowed to exist. Not only uniformed Nazis but all Germans, all civilians who benefit from the effects of the looting and murder committed by their husbands and fathers are criminals. And she adds passionately, in a sense prophetically: If only we had guns, if only we could defend ourselves, take revenge! But we are vulnerable; we can only bow our heads and pray to God.

The ordeal of the Jews confined in the Warsaw Ghetto continued. By the second half of July 1942, Mary Berg’s family was a participant. She witnessed the next steps of the extermination of this community from afar: from the Pawiak prison – the great deportation to the extermination camp in Treblinka (starting from 22 July), from internment in Western European camps – the Ghetto Uprising (19 April – 16 May 1943). These horrible experiences and news strongly influenced Mary Berg; in one of her last daily diary entries, from her birthday – 10 October 1943, she wrote: I feel very old even though I am only nineteen.

dr Paweł Freus