Mary Berg survived the Łódźghetto, Warsaw ghetto, and Vittel internment camp. Raised in Łódź, Poland, her family fled to Warsaw when the Nazis arrived. Her diary presents a vivid picture of life and tragedy in the Warsaw ghetto. Mary, her parents, and sister were eventually incarcerated in the Pawiak prison. Berg’s mother was American-born and her family was brought to the United States in March 1944 in a prisoner-of-war exchange.
Her 12-album diary was published in the Yiddish daily Der morgen Zshurnal. The story was subsequently translated into English and published in 1945 by L.B. Fischer as Warsaw Ghetto. Her papers were acquired by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC in 2014.
The diary excerpt below was written on July 29, 1941 during Berg's time in the Warsaw ghetto.
Where are you, foreign correspondents? Why don’t you come here and describe the sensational scenes of 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?
Some time ago, I read in the Nazi-controlled NowyKurjerWarszawski just such reports on the ghetto by Spanish and Rumanian correspondents. And how surprised I was to see that an American correspondent, too- one who represented a large magazine – had let himself be deceived by the Nazi propaganda about the hygienic necessity for a ghetto in Warsaw! Is the whole world poisoned? Is there no justice anywhere? Will no one hear our cries of despair?
Komitetowa Street, near Grzybowska, is a living graveyard of children devoured by scurvy. The inhabitants of this street live in long cellar-caves into which no ray of 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 stretched out from one of these little windows, begging for a piece of bread. (pp.80-81)
Born Jacob Udy in 1906 in Riga Latvia, Jacob Barosin received a doctorate in art history from Freiburg University. After the Nazi dictatorship gained control of Germany, Jacob fled to France with his wife, Sonia, where they changed their last name to Barosin. In May, 1940 he was arrested by the French as a hostile alien, and interned in camps in Southern France. A painter and an artist, Barosin painted during all of the war years, whether in camps, or in hiding. His paintings document “the exhaustion and despair borne of endless waiting,” and give “expression to the fear of the un - known.” Barosin immigrated to the United States, where he remained active as an artist and worked as an illustrator for the NBC television network.
"Bewildered and frightened we stood there, Sonia and I, at the corner of Berlin’s Kurfurstendamm watching those goose stepping, noisily singing, torch carrying and flag-swinging storm troopers who by the thousands had come out to celebrate Hitler’s seizure of power on this 30th day of January, 1933. The crowds on the sidewalks were delirious, screaming, singing, holding up little swastika flags. There was a ground-swell of German irrationality, this massive and instinctive Furor Teutonicus that Tacitus writes about, this trance created by the heavy marching and deadly music. The ancient German tale of the Pied Piper, the rat exterminator of Hamelin, came to mind who, centuries ago, had led the children of that town to the river where they all drowned. The tune which the unrewarded and angry pipe-player produced was so alluring that all the kids marched singing behind him to their death. And here, this fateful night, hundreds of thousands of Berliners went overboard in their frenzy, their enthusiasm and their blind obedience to a leader that had promised to free them from all their ills, the central cause of which—naturally—were the Jews."
Suzanne Loebl was born in Germany and immigrated to Belgium with her family in April, 1938. In May 1940, her family was separated when the Nazis invaded Holland and Belgium. Her father managed to reach the United States, however her mother and younger sister remained trapped in Belgium.
A prolific writer, in 1980, she rediscovered her wartime diary and published it as a memoir of her years in hiding. As many other Holocaust memoirs describe, Loebl recalls the difficulty of obtaining accurate news from the outside world. Radios, which had provided a lifeline to the BBC News, were confiscated in the spring of 1941. With her father interned in a camp in unoccupied France, Loebl, her mother and sister remained in Belgium as the persecution of Jews escalates:
I hate waiting. Yet that’s all we seemed to be doing. During that long, first winter of the war, we waited for coal, for letters from my father, for food and packages from Switzerland, for the next month’s ration stamps, for the next German decree, for the English to get stronger, for America to enter the war, and most of all, for deciding what to do with ourselves.
Letters were our lifeline to the free world, yet we received few; and when we did, part of the text was blackened by the censor. There was no direct communication with my grandparents and my aunt Erna in England. It took four months until we learned indirectly that Opa had died in October 1940. Our most reliable correspondents were our devoted Swiss cousins, who were in touch with my father and our family in America. The Ullmans felt responsible for our well-being. They sent money and food, and in 1941 they told us that they had managed to buy three visas for Ecuador. Nobody knew whether they were genuine.
News from Germany was grim. The harassment of the Jews continued. Elizabeth received anxious letters from her parents. Although the information was veiled, it transpired that her parents’ medical practice was nonexistent and that they could shop for food only during a few hours each day.” (57)
Arthur Schallerwas 11 yearsoldwhenGermanyinvadedPoland in 1939. He and hisbrothereventuallyfoundthemselvesalone in theWarsawghettoafterbeingseparatedfromtheirparents. In 1940, hisfather, Chaim, fled to theterritoryoccupiedbythe Soviet Union. Hismother , Halina, wasdetainedbytheGermans in 1942 whilebuyingfoodforherfamily. Shemanagedtosend a note to Arthur tellinghimtoseekthehelp of a JewishpoliceofficernamedKazimierski. TheofficerarrangedforArthur’syoungerbrother, Jerzyk, to staywithanaunt, and orchestratedArthur’s escape fromtheghetto.
As he explains in hismemoir, Arthur neverknewthe time or place of hismother’sdeath. HislittlebrotherJerzykdiedalongwithhisotherrelativesduringanuprising in theWarsawghetto in 1943. Hisfather, managed to makeit to eitherUzbekistanorKazakhstan, butperishedduringanepidemic. Arthur survivedbywanderingfromfarm to farmlookingforwork, and posing as a Pole. Hisresourcefulness and instinctsensuredhissurival, despitethedangerous and harshconditions he faced.
Arthur arrived in Halifax, Nova Scotia in 1948 at theage of 20, and eventuallybegan a career as anaccordionteacher. Thetitle of hismemoir, 100 Cigarettesand a Bottle of Vodkareferstothereward in German-occupiedPolandforturning in a Jew.
Men in the work battalions were being searched by the Germans and the Polish policemen to make sure that they weren’t taking any valuables out of the. Tnings such as gold and diamonds were worth a lot more on the Aryan side. The work battalions were led out of the Ghetto each morning under armed civilian guard to perform heavy labour outside the ghetto and brought back in at the end of each day. While the search was in progress, Officer Kazimierski and I, keeping close to the ghetto wall, approached the Jewish policeman who was standing near the sentry booth on the right. He perked up when he saw his superior. “Get this boy out of the ghetto, “ said Kazimierski. The man nodded. Kazimierski left.
I stood beside the sentry booth with my back pressed tightly against the ghetto wall. I was out of sight of the Germans and the Polish police who were still searching the men in the work battalion. The Jewish policeman thruned his face slightly towards me. “Listen”, he said, “when I give you a signal like this” – he twisted his right hand at the wrist behind his back – “you throw down your armband and mix with the ment.” He motioned to the work battalion with his chin. “if they catch you” – he paused – “you don’t know me. Understand?” I nodded.
My heart pounding through my back against the brick and concrete of the ghetto wall. With my left hand, I loosened the band with the blue Star of David on my right arm. I waited….
Then it happened. The signal. The armband slid off easily. A few quick stpe, and I found myself between two rows of marhinc mean at the back of the work battalions. They kept pushing me away, fearing for their lives. But they remained silent. Their feet were kicking me as they pretended that I wasn’t there. I couldn’t stand the pushing and kicking much longer.
Now! I jumped over to the sidewalk and kept walking. My mind buzzed. Don’t look back!
Born in Ukraine in 1930, Donia Rosen was only 12 when her entire family was murdered. Surviving alone, she was hidden by a woman who was already over 60 years of age, named OlenaHryhoryshyn. Olena protected Donia, feeding her and hiding her, while living under constant terror of discovery by the Nazis and their local collaborators.
The two were eventually found by a policeman and beaten, butmanaged to escape together into the woods. Donia Rosen continued to hide in the forest during the winter of 1942-43. Olena would bring Donia sustenance and warm her from the cold. They were finally separated when Donia escaped local authorities and was found by the Red Army.
Donia Rosen immigrated to Israel in 1948 and became the head of the Department of Righteous Among the Nations at YadVashem, Jerusalem. Her testimony ensured Olena’s recognition as Righteous Among the Nations.
In 1971 Donia Rosen published her memoirs, dedicating them to Olena, who had helped her survive:
“To Olena, to dear unforgettable Olena – if I were a sculptor, I would create a memorial for you. I would immortalize your noble image – the image of a mother who is willing to suffer the greatest cruelty to save her children, who will sacrifice her life.”
Donia Rosen’s memoirs include excerpts from her diary which she wrote while hiding in the forest, using a small pencil stub, and a few pieces of paper that Olena managed to bring her:
“I am convinced that I shall not live to see the end of this war, but it is my dearest hope that these words, which I write with a hand shaken by fright, will live after me. It is my hope that this diary will serve as a witness to the suffering and the torment which were my lot. I do not know when the day of victory will come, but I am certain that it will come; that better days than these are ahead. And it is my hope that precisely in those better days my words will be heard; that after many years, when a better life blurs the memory of this cruel period; when a schoolchild does not even know how to answer the question “did Hitler have a moustache or a beard?”, precisely then my words will take you back to these years.
I believe that these memoirs will teach you to love your friends and to hate your enemies; will teach you to take revenge on the fight against the enemies of mankind, of freedom, of justice and righteousness. It is difficult for me to write, perhaps I lack the necessary talent; I won’t know whether I shall be able to portray reality with my simple vocabulary. I don’t know whether I shall have enough colors to paint a lasting picture of this reality, of life and of death, of the struggle against evil and cruelty, along with the bitterness, the endless bitterness in my soul. I lack words. But I must write, I must because after I die I want to talk to you, you people who have been saved. I want these words to bind me to you. I want to beg you not to forget the dead.” (p.65)
Cecilie Klein born on April 13, 1925. She was the youngest of six children born to an orthodox Jewish family in the Czechoslovakian town of Yasinya. Her father, who was from Poland, taught private lessons in math and German and passed away from cancer before the war. Her mother provided for the family by running a small grocery store out of their home. Because her father had been registered as a Polish citizen, according to Hungarian law the entire family was considered Polish and would have been expelled to Poland. They eventually managed to escape to Hungary where they lived, concealing their Jewish identity. In March,1944 the Germans occupied Budapest and deported her family to Auschwitz.
Upon arriving at Auschwitz, her mother, sister Mina, brother-in-law Nathan, young nephew, Danny, and friend Joe were immediately separated. Cecilie’s aged mother heard from another prisoner that the elderly and women with small children would be immediately gassed. Without telling her daughters what she had heard, she asked to take the young baby, Danny, in her arms in order to spare the life of the baby’s mother, 20 year-old Mina. Following this, the family was separated into two lines by Dr. Mengele, with her mother and nephew sent into one, and Cecilie and her sister sent to another. Although Cecilie suspected that her mother and nephew had been sent to their death, she tried to conceal this fact from Mina in order to keep her from falling into despair.
In the winter of 1944, Cecilie and her sister were deported from Auschwitz to the the slave labor camp at Nuremberg. They were liberated by the Soviet army in the spring of 1945. She married Joe in a Budapest Synagogue that same year. The couple would eventually immigrate to the United States, and following the death of Joe in 1985, Cecilie published her memoirs.
My fear for Mina’s physical and mental health kept me alert to any signs of deterioration in her condition. I developed various strategies to keep her alive. I traded my occasional slice of salami for a pat of soft margarine, which I could force down Mina’s throat. I spoke to her incessantly while in the bunk and sometimes outside while loitering in the camp. I bombarded her with questions about Fran, Chaim, Perla and Menahem, even in earshot of the blockeldest, so fearful was I that Mina would lapse into total withdrawal.
I would point to the Czech family camp, which was adjacent to ours and separated with a mesh wire fence. Seeing young mothers with their children comforted my sister, giving her hope that Danny too was alive and in Mother’s care. Sometimes I would detect a glimmer of hope in her eyes and she would begin eating.
One day we heard no sounds coming from the Czech family camp. The whole camp had been emptied during the night and the people gassed. We heard a lot of commotion, but thought that new arrivals had been brought into the camp. Even the blockeldest was moved to tears when we received an extra portion of bread – the bread of the murdered mothers and children. I choked on every morsel. Even the most hideous place is brightened by a child’s voice or laughter. Mina fell into a severe depression. To fabricate evidence proving that Danny was still alive I devised a plan by which I got an extra piece of bread in exchange for taking another woman’s place in the dreaded shower-and-shave ordeal. When I returned from the showers I ran up to Mina breathless and excited, and told her how, en-route to the bathhouse, we encountered a maintenance crew, and Joe among the men. He threw me a crust of bread and called out that Mother and Danny were at a nearby camp. Mina looked doubtful, but at my urging, began to eat the bread. (p. 83)
Born in Lithuania in 1919, Nathan Katz came to New York City in 1951. With no knowledge of English, and no money, he went on to develop a successful family real estate business. Katz was a longtime contributor to the American Society for YadVashem and wrote about his experiences as a holocaust survivor in Teach us to Count our Days.
His narrative recounts his family’s attempt to escape Lithuania on foot, sleeping in the fields and forests. They eventually found refuge on a farm owned by the Zhilevicius family who managed to hide Katz, his father, and 5 other relatives for seven months. As he describes in his memoir, he survived both Hitler and Stalin before finally crossing into French-occupied Berlin where he awaited transfer to the American zone of occupation.
In the 1990s, he was able to return to Lithuania and thank the children of the Zhilevicius family, Two siblings from the family eventually travelled to the United States to be reunited with Katz, bringing with them a painting of the farm where they had hidden.
In this passage, Nathan Katz describes the conditions that his family hid under on the Zhilevcius family farm in Lithuania.
The first thing we did was dig a bunker under one of the barns, but we couldn’t use it because water seeped in from below. So we hid in a shack where chickens were kept in winter. It had a heater and that’s how we managed to survive the bitter cold. We didn’t have much to eat, but we had a bucket of water that all seven of us would use for drinking.
Stasia, the Zhilevicius’ teenage daughter, would bring us food. Sometimes there was more food, sometimes less. We stayed indoors day and night and got on each other’s nerves. At one point I thought jail might be better than where we were, but I realized I was being silly.
My father had his tefillin from his bar-mitzvah, made much smaller in those days than they are today. When we were in hiding, and our enemies were catching Jews left and right, we begged him to throw it away. We knew that if they caught us and my father had them, things would go ten times worse for him, and for us. But my father said he would never throw them away – not for all the money in the world, not for anything. He told us, “I would never do that! Let them catch me with my tefillin.” Every morning he would put them on for one minute to say the brocha and then he would quickly put them in his pocket.
When we got the feeling that we weren’t safe enough, my uncle suggested that we build a double wall and spread sawdust on the floor to make the space look like a carpenter’s workroom. We put up a false wall, papered it with newspapers that we burned and smoked to look old, and hung up some tools. The space was about 18 inches deep and six feet wide.
We put a bed in front of the wall and made an opening under the bed the size of a manhole for us to crawl through. The bed was attached to a piece on the wall and secured with a handle on the back. Once inside, we used the handle to pull the bed and wall panel into place. Over the months we stayed there, we would have practice drills to see how fast and how well we could hide. It took seven of us, together with all our belongings, less than five minutes to climb into hiding.” (141- 142)
Dov Freiberg was born in Warsaw, Poland in 1927. He spent the first years of his childhood in Lodz, an industrial city where his father was a factory worked. After his father was shot by the Nazis, his mother moved her four children to Warsaw to live with her parents where they lived under the horrid conditions of the ghetto.
In 1941, as the conditions worsened, Freiberg escaped from the ghetto with the help of a smuggler. He lived with his father’s family in Turobin until May 17, 1942 when the town was besieged by the SS. Freiberg was transported to Sobibor, surviving the camp for 17 months before participating in the prisoners’ revolt in October 1943. He escaped into the woods to join Joseph Serchuk’s Jewish partisan unit in the Lublin area of occupied Poland until the region was liberated in July 1944.
Freiberg testified at the Eichmann trial in 1961 where he related the horrors of the Sobibor camp.
Only 15 years old at the time he entered the Sobibor camp, Dov Freiberg witnesses many horrors in his first two weeks of internment. Like many camp prisoners, he does not know whether other members of his family are still alive. He relates the following passage about his mother and 7 year old brother, Yankele:
During the night I dreamed that my mother came to visit me with little Yankele. Mother was as beautiful as she had been during the holidays, before the war. She wore a tight, fancy dress, and he hair, tied back, set off her high forehead. Her sad face expressed a love for me. Cute little Yankele, who was wearing a winter coat lined with fur, his cheeks red and his face sad, stood without moving, like a doll. I wondered about their visit. A few meters separated us – something kept us from coming close to one another. I wanted to tell them something, but I couldn’t speak. My mother looked at me for a long moment and finally said they had to go. I wanted to go with them, but my mother, as if she knew what I wanted to say, told me I had to stay here. “It’s good for you,” she said, and I couldn’t understand why I could not go with them. I started to follow them, but they got farther and farther away from me until they disappeared.
That day I forgot all the pains and blows I had received the day before. I thought only about this dream. I was glad I had seen my mother and Yankele so clearly and up close. I went over every detail of the dream, over and over, trying to interpret it. I finally drew the conclusion that my mother and Yankele were no longer alive. My mother had come to tell me not to go with them – meaning not to commit suicide – I had to stay alive. (221)
Max Rodrigues Garcia was born in Amsterdam in 1924. When Hitler invaded Holland on May 14, 1940, Max and his family went into hiding. Although Max almost escaped, he was betrayed and put on a train to the Westerbork transit camp, and later to Auschwitz. He developed appendicitis while in the camp. Although most prisoners in need of surgery were sent to the gas chambers, the Nazi doctors kept Max alive in order to use his condition as a “teaching” example for a young doctor in-training.
Finding himself on one of the last transports out of Auschwitz as the Russians advanced, Garcia was forced to march from Linz to Ebensee. On May 6, 1945, he was liberated by the US Army at the Ebensee labor camp in Austria. He immigrated to the United States in 1948 where he pursued his dream of becoming an architect.
Max Garcia describes the unique experiences of Dutch Jews in the camps. With little knowledge of German or Polish, many were unable to communicate with their captors and for this, suffered a great deal.
One evening on the way back from the factory some words were hurled my way which I could not understand, and I was severely beaten by a Kapo. I broke down and cried. That night in my sleeping space I was still crying, utterly defeated, and too exhausted and hungry to sleep. That my father, mother, and sister were gone burst fully into my mind. Remembered scenes of our lives together ran through my head and were more than I could bear. And what did I have to look forward to? These madmen were going to work me until my last ounce of strength was gone. They wanted me to die. They couldn’t wait for me to die.
As I continued to mutter and sob out of my despair, I heard a voice at my ear, a Polish voice. An older prisoner, probably in his late twenties, who was a tent mate, laid a hand on my shoulder. “Hey, young one,” he tried first in Yiddish, then halting French, “don’t cry. That won’t help.”
“But I can’t help it. I am afraid to die,” I got across in French. We began to talk to each other, switching languages, groping for words we might each understand. He asked me to tell him the story of my background, and I did as well as I could.
“That is a sad story, boy, but everyone here has a sad story to tell. So let me ask you this: do you want to survive this camp or die sometime soon like most of these poor men?”
“Of course, I want to live, but how in a place like this?”
“That’s what I want to tell you, boy, and listen to me well. From now on never think of where you came from or about your family and friends. Think only of today and what you must do to stay ahead of your captors. Just figure you dropped out of the sky into this awful place. You have to survive. You have to live for the future. Forget all that has passed. Toughen up. Learn their games and outsmart them.”
A heavy dose of philosophy these words were for me at the age of 19, but I thought about them a great deal and resolved to try and live by his advice. I wanted to hope. Without hope, I realized, I could not last many more days.” (82-83).