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Mary Berg: An American in the Warsaw Ghetto

(1939 - 1944)

The diary of Anne Frank has become world famous. The little Dutch girl left a remarkable record of her family’s life in the attic in Amsterdam. But Anne Frank could not describe the horrors perpetrated by the Nazis. She did not observe them from that attic. An American girl did bear witness, however, and she too kept a diary. That American, Mary Berg, survived the Warsaw ghetto.

In 1939, the head of the SS Intelligence Service, Reinhard Heydrich, issued instructions that Jews in the occupied areas of Poland be transferred to the ghettoes that were to be established in large cities. Anti-Jewish measures were instituted requiring the wearing of a special Jewish badge, imposing forced labor, and condoning the looting of Jewish property.

By the end of 1940, the largest ghetto had been established in Warsaw. Ultimately, nearly half a million Jews would be imprisoned there. Two years later, 70 percent of the Jews of Poland had been exterminated and most of the ghettoes liquidated. Before the war was over, almost three million Polish Jews perished.

Few people are aware that any Americans were in the Warsaw ghetto. The only mention of an American survivor of the Warsaw ghetto I could find in the press was a small item in the New York Times about Mrs. Stella Wegtman of Chatham, N.J. According to the report, she “lived through the siege of Warsaw, while her Polish husband was killed and all their possessions destroyed.” The Germans took her and other civilians into the countryside one day, but she escaped before learning what her fate was to be. She walked to Kraków and hid until the Red Army liberated her.

But Mary Berg’s diary makes clear many Americans were in the ghetto. Other than a record of a meeting in which the head of the Special Division, Breckinridge Long, was told this, the U.S. government seems to have no records of these victims of the Holocaust.

Mary was only 16 when she was sent to the ghetto. As the daughter of an American citizen, she was a member of a tiny, privileged group. She wore an American flag pinned to her lapel, and another flag attached to the door of her apartment to protect her from the Nazis. She was fortunate because she did not suffer the same fate as most of the Poles, but she lived with those who fought daily to survive.

On October 10, 1939, Mary’s family learned the Germans had broken through the Polish front lines and were moving toward Lodz. They did not know where to flee – toward Warsaw or Brzeziny. Most chose Warsaw. Those who went to Brzeziny were massacred.

In December, two drunken Gestapo men broke into Mary’s house and demanded certain objects they did not have. Her mother showed them her American citizenship papers, but they were not mollified. One drunk pulled out his gun and shouted: “‘Swear on Hitler’s health that you’re an American citizen or I’ll shoot you on the spot!’” Jews had been forbidden to say the Fuhrer’s name so Mary’s mother asked if an exception could be made. The Nazi smiled and put his revolver away. The men left, “clicking their heels and saluting the American flag that hung in the hallway.”

A few weeks later, Mary’s mother received a letter from the American consulate summoning her to Warsaw. Mary was already there living with a gentile friend who, at the risk of his life, pretended she was his daughter. Later her sister arrived, and the two girls used to go for walks in front of the American Embassy. “Somehow, we feel more secure in its shadows,” Mary wrote.

The situation deteriorated as spring arrived in 1940. Mary stayed off the streets where the Nazis were taking men, women, and children to do hard labor. “Better-dressed Jewish women have been forced to scrub the Nazis’ headquarters. They are ordered to remove their underclothes and use them as rags for the floors and windows. It goes without saying that often the tormentors use these occasions to have some fun of their own.”

One American woman underwent this treatment. Generally, foreigners were spared, but on this occasion the woman was forced to scrub floors in her fur coat. The woman complained to the American consul, who demanded that the German Governor pay her damages. The woman received 3,000 marks. “But Polish citizens of Jewish origin have no one to protect them, except themselves,” Mary wrote.

In late April 1940, Mary moved into an apartment. Her mother tacked a card saying “American citizen” on the door. “This inscription is a wonderful talisman against the German bandits who freely visit all Jewish apartments. As soon as German uniforms come into view at the outer door of our building, our neighbors come begging us to let them in so that they too can benefit from our miraculous sign. Our two little rooms are filled to the brim – for how could we refuse anyone? All of the neighbors tremble with fear, and with a silent prayer on their lips gaze at the two small American flags on the wall.”

By the end of May, all the American consulates in Poland were closed. Mary’s mother received word from the American consulate in Berlin her passport would be ready at a certain date. It no longer mattered. A new decree had been issued forbidding Jews from Warsaw to leave.

Jews also were prohibited from attending schools. Illegal classes were held in Mary’s home, which was considered safe because of her mother’s American citizenship. “The illegal character of the teaching, the danger that threatens us every minute, fills us all with a strange earnestness,” Mary wrote. “The old distance between teachers and pupils has vanished, we feel like comrades-in-arms responsible for each other.”

This was still before the ghetto was constructed. On November 15, 1940, she described the change: “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?”

As an American, Mary’s mother was allowed to leave the ghetto. Once a month, American citizens could pick up a package of foodstuffs from the American colony relief office in Warsaw. Friends gave Mary’s mother letters to post, which had to bear Mrs. Berg’s name, because the addresses had to match the name on the passport-holder mailing them.

By the summer of 1941, the situation in the ghetto had deteriorated. Mary wrote a plaintive entry in her diary that reflected the feeling of Jews after the war: “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 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 windowpanes 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 mid-September, Mary was out with a friend and wandered into an empty neighborhood. She said she wanted to go home, but it was too late. A German guard spotted them and aimed his rifle. “Everything died in me; I felt a stinging sensation in my shoulders, as though a bullet had hit me.” She escaped unhurt.

Mary celebrated her 17th birthday on October 10. She thought it frivolous given the unhappiness and misery surrounding her. She said her uncle had taken ill with typhus. The day before Mary found a louse on herself and knew that it would only be two weeks before she, too, would be infected if the louse had been contaminated.

A month later, her uncle was skin and bones. Only 27, he had once been strong and handsome. “At every step in the ghetto one encounters such human wrecks, and these are the lucky ones who succeeded in escaping the Angel of Death,” Mary wrote. “In the streets, frozen human corpses are an increasingly frequent sight.”

In another entry, Mary says that 60 people were executed the night before. A few lines later, she talks about her garden. “The greens and sun remind us of the beauty of nature that we are forbidden to enjoy.”

In June 1942, Mary learned that an American woman was allowed to take her child to an internment camp. Meanwhile, three other American women, who had husbands and children who were born in Poland, remained in the ghetto.

Adam Czerniakow, the leader of the Jewish community in the ghetto, was told by the authorities that all foreign Jews would be allowed to leave provided their documents were in order. More than 80 were taken to Pawiak Prison in mid-July.

The Bergs believed they would be among those to be exchanged. They were then deluged with people who expected them to get help the minute they reached the United States. But at that point it did not look as though Mary or her father would be allowed to leave. They were told that Mrs. Berg would be exchanged because she was an American, but she could only take children under 16. By then Mary was older, but her sister Ann was still 15 and would be permitted to leave. The Gestapo later told Mrs. Berg the whole family could go with her. “Today, I boldly removed my armband,” Mary wrote. “After all, officially I am now an American citizen.” But her ordeal was not yet over.

The Bergs and other Americans were transferred to Pawiak Prison. Mary anticipated freedom but was guilt-ridden. “Have I the right to save myself and leave my closest friends to their bitter fate?” she asked herself.

It was Mary’s impression that the Germans needed people they could trade for Germans held in the United States. She was in a prison cell with a total of 11 Americans. When she was sent to register with the Germans once, 21 Americans were in the group.

At this time, Dr. Gaither Warfield, a missionary from Warsaw brought a list of Americans still in Warsaw to Breckinridge Long. Warfield said they had been caught accidentally and had been unable to get out. He also brought a list of 83 Americans in the internment camp at Laufen. Long told him “the German government had prevented our efforts to return Americans to the United States in any quantity and it would depend largely upon the ability of each one to arrange for exit permits.” He added he would be happy to do whatever he could to help. Of course, it was virtually impossible for anyone in Warsaw to obtain an exit permit on their own. No records of any effort by Long to assist them could be found in the archives.

Meanwhile, the foreigners living in the prison were isolated but not mistreated. The internees composed an “anthem” in honor of the different nationalities in the prison:

There is in the Pawiak a brand-new nation
From every country and every city.
They live together in great unity
In great cold and great starvation.

Most of them are from the land
Which lies near the Paraguay;
There the life is especially gay
For the fowl and flies in the sand.

The most aristocratic group
Comes from Costa Rica;
Among them there is the black beard
Who is the leader of our troupe.

There is the prospective wife
Of a citizen of Bolivia.
Little she knows what to expect
From her future married life.

And our only Mexican
Has proposals without number.
All the girls are raving mad
To get hold of this rare man.

Two brunettes from Nicaragua –
One is quiet and one is loud,
One is modest and one proud,
But both fighting mad pro domo sua.

Three Carmens and a toreador,
An old woman and granddaughter
With lots of bags and heavy bundles
Dream of their “native” Ecuador.

Those whose flag has stars and stripes
Are the proudest of them all;
Though locked up behind these walls
They are the lords and masters

Despite their relative seclusion, the inmates were aware of what was taking place in the ghetto, and it was driving them mad. “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?” She considered the waiting “worse than death.”

The Germans did not believe the exchanges would allow American Jews to escape the Final Solution. Mary remembered the deputy commandant of Pawiak rapping his riding crop against his shiny boots while he boasted: “The Germans will conquer America too; we will be there before you have been exchanged.”

Outside the prison, shootings continued. Inside, the “fortunate” Jews were slowly starving to death. They received four ounces of bread in the morning and ersatz coffee. At noon, they were given a dish of hot water the Germans called soup and some kasha. In the evening, they received another bowl of soup with a potato or beet in it. This diet left Mary’s mother too weak to move.

While many Jews were killed within earshot of the prison, others were deported. It was not until late September 1942 that Mary learned the deportees were sent to Treblinka where they were exterminated.

On October 23, 150 “Americans” (including citizens from Latin America) were assembled in the prison yard to leave. The commandant then ordered all the men to report to the gate. He said the trains did not have room for the women; they would have to wait until tomorrow. Mary managed to kiss her father goodbye before he was taken to the train. She was relieved to see him go because he was a Polish citizen and therefore had no American papers. Once he was in an internment camp, however, he would not have to live under the threat of being sent to Treblinka. Nevertheless, Mary could not help asking herself: “Shall we ever see him again?”

Mary, her mother, and sister did not leave the next day. Nor were they allowed to leave in the following days or weeks.

In December, a new group of Americans from Radom arrived in Pawiak. Mary also received two letters from her father, who was now interned in Titmoning. He wrote that he felt as if he were in “paradise” after what he had gone through the last few years.

On January 17, 1943, Mary and her mother and sister were taken to the “Aryan” side of the ghetto so they could say goodbye to some of their friends. When they left the prison, the streets were empty. “In many houses the windows were wide open despite the cold, and the curtains fluttered in the wind. Inside one could see the overturned furniture, broken cupboard doors, clothes and linen lying on the floor. The looters and murderers had left their mark.”

After they said goodbye to their friends, they were returned to Pawiak. Mary watched transports being loaded with people bound for Auschwitz. “Is that where the Nazis intend to send us, too?” she said to herself.

Finally, at two a.m. the next day, Mary and her family left Pawiak prison for the last time. They were taken by train to the internment camp at Vittel. “Of course, I was glad to be rescued from this valley of death, 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.”

Like her father, Mary also felt the internment camp was paradise compared to the three years she spent in the ghetto. Each person had their own bed and the camp was clean. “What more could one ask for?” For the first three days, Mary said she did not leave her bed because she “couldn’t get enough of the pleasure of lying in the clean sheets.”

One day Mary saw some American nuns in the park. They began to ask her about Poland, and she told them about starving for six months in prison. They gave her some chocolate, but she was afraid to eat it. A nun broke off a piece and put it in her mouth. It was the first chocolate Mary had eaten in four years.

At the beginning of February 1943, Mary saw her first Red Cross parcel. Her mother cried. “All of us admired the care with which some unknown American had packed everything. Every little item reflected human warmth.”

Mary continued to feel conflicted by her escape from the ghetto. On one day she would rejoice in her freedom and on another she would lapse into feelings of guilt. Of course, she was not the only one who felt this way. Survivors of the concentration camps would later experience similar emotions. “We, who have been rescued from the ghetto, are ashamed to look at each other,” she wrote in June. “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?”

On August 6, 1943, almost 10 months after she last saw him, Mary was reunited with her father when a transport with all the men from Titmoning arrived. A couple of months later she celebrated her 19th birthday.

Strangely, the Nazis allowed a travelogue about New York to be shown in the camp cinema. Mary saw the Statue of Liberty and Broadway. The film ended with a ship entering the port and the crowd applauded wildly.

Shortly thereafter, the mood of the camp again swung as the Germans ordered Jews to register. No one knew the reason for the order, but rumors flourished. Nothing happened.

Still more weeks passed. After more than a year in Vittel, Mary learned the first exchanges were to take place. Her mother was desperately trying to arrange for her family to be in the first group. The Nazis’ vacillation was fraying the inmates’ nerves. At one point, Mary learned her family would not be allowed to leave because her father was of military age and the commandant did not want to separate families. Of course, such a rule would have meant almost no family could have left. “This reminds me of the Nazi tactics in Pawiak,” Mary wrote. “There, too, they changed their minds every minute, apparently for the sole purpose of torturing us.”

The torture continued for a few more days. Then, on March 1, 1944, three-and-a-half years after being sent to the Warsaw ghetto, the Berg family boarded a train for Lisbon. They arrived in New York on the S.S. Gripsholm two weeks later.

The Bergs had survived, but 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!”

Source: Mitchell G. Bard. Forgotten Victims: The Abandonment of Americans in Hitler's Camps.. CO: Westview Press, 1994.
Susan Lee Pentlin, The Diary of Mary Berg: Growing up in the Warsaw Ghetto, (Oneworld Publications; Annotated, Revised Edition, 2007).