The diary of Anne Frank is world famous, but she could not describe the horrors perpetrated by the Nazis from her attic. An American girl did bear witness, however, and she too kept a diary. That American, Mary Berg, survived the Warsaw ghetto, which was liberated 75 years ago.
Mary was only 16 when she lived in Warsaw with her family. By the end of May 1940, the American consulates in Poland were closed and Jews were forbidden from leaving Warsaw. The Nazis subsequently confined Warsaw’s Jews in a ghetto. On November 15, 1940, Mary described its construction:
Today, the Jewish ghetto was officially established. Jews are forbidden to move outside the boundaries formed by certain streets….Work on the walls – which will be three yards high – has already begun. Jewish masons, supervised by Nazi soldiers, are laying bricks upon bricks. Those who do not work fast enough are lashed by the overseers. It makes me think of the Biblical description of our slavery in Egypt. But where is the Moses who will release us from our new bondage?
By the summer of 1941, the situation in the ghetto had deteriorated. Mary wrote: “Where are you foreign correspondents? Why don’t you come here and describe the sensational scenes in the ghetto? No doubt you don’t want to spoil your appetite. Or are you satisfied with what the Nazis tell you – that they locked up the Jews in the ghetto in order to protect the Aryan population from epidemics and dirt?”
Mary described the scene the correspondents missed: “Komitetowa Street is a living graveyard of children devoured by scurvy. The inhabitants of this street live in long cellar-caves into which no ray of the sun ever reaches. Through the small dirty window-panes one can see emaciated faces and disheveled heads. These are the older people, who have not even the strength to rise from their cots. With dying eyes they gaze at the thousands of shoes that pass by in the street. Sometimes a bony hand stretches out from one of these little windows, begging for a piece of bread.”
In July 1942, Mary’s family was told they would be exchanged for German prisoners and were sent with other Americans to a prison in the ghetto. “We are here as on an island amidst an ocean of blood,” Mary wrote. “The whole ghetto is drowning in blood. We literally see fresh human blood, we can smell it. Does the outside world know anything about it? Why does no one come to our aid? I cannot go on living; my strength is exhausted. How long are we going to be kept here to witness all this?”
On January 18, 1943, Mary’s family was transferred to an internment camp in France. “Of course, I was glad to be rescued from this valley of death,” she wrote, “but I could not help reproaching myself and wondering whether I really had the right to run away like this, leaving my friends and relatives to their fate.”
The internment camp was paradise compared to the ghetto and Mary felt conflicted about leaving friends behind. “We, who have been rescued from the ghetto, are ashamed to look at each other,” she wrote in June 1943. “Had we the right to save ourselves? Why is it so beautiful in this part of the world? Here everything smells of sun and flowers, and there – there is only blood, the blood of my own people. God, why must there be all this cruelty? I am ashamed. Here I am, breathing fresh air, and there my people are suffocating in gas and perishing in flames, burned alive. Why?”
In March 1944, nearly three-and-a-half years after being sent to the ghetto, the Berg family arrived in New York. Mary could not forget those she left behind. She wrote to one of her friends in Warsaw:
My Rutka, tell all of those who are still alive that I shall never forget them. 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 and their Gretchens in Berlin, Munich and Nuremberg who enjoyed the fruits of murder, and are still wearing the clothes and shoes of our martyred people. Be patient, Rutka, have courage, hold out. A little more patience, and all of us will win freedom!
The Nazis liquidated the Warsaw ghetto on May 16, 1943. Before the war, Warsaw had the second largest Jewish population of any city in the world – 350,000. Only 11,500 survived.
Dr. Mitchell Bard maintains the Jewish Virtual Library and is the author of Forgotten Victims: The Abandonment of Americans in Hitler’s Camps.