Mary Berg: 2nd week of August, 1942

Mary Berg had lost track of the date when she recorded a series of tragic events that she had recently witnessed in the Warsaw Ghetto. In order to describe these scenes, she penned a lengthy entry in her diary dated simply “August 1942”. She wrote from within the Pawiak prison, which was inside the Warsaw Ghetto. She and her family were being held there to keep them separate from the general ghetto population. We can assume that the date was sometime during the second week of August, because she described events that happened on the 6th as having occurred “a few days ago”.

Mary was being held in segregation because she and her mother were American citizens. This made them valuable as possible candidates to be exchanged for German prisoners of war. As a result, she saw from a distance the beginning of the “Grossaktion”, the huge series of round-ups and deportations from the ghetto that began on July 23rd. Although they did not know their destination, the deportees were being sent to the newly opened death camp of Treblinka as part of the Nazis’ plan to murder the Jews of Europe. In spite of her relatively protected status as a foreign national, she could hardly have felt safe. In fact, one of the events she wrote about was the deportation of some fellow Pawiak prisoners from neutral countries whom the Germans were unable to use for exchange. Reflecting on their unknown fate, she wrote “So our turn may come soon, too. I hope it will be very soon. This waiting is worse than death.”

Mary was unsure what happened to the neutral county deportees, but she was convinced of the tragic end of another group – the children of the orphanage run by Dr. Janusz Korczak. She wrote, “Dr. Janusz Korczak’s children’s home is empty now. A few days ago we all stood at the window and watched the Germans surround the houses. Rows of children, holding each other by their little hands, began to walk out of the doorway. There were tiny tots of two or three years among them, while the oldest ones were perhaps thirteen. …They walked in ranks of two, calm, and even smiling. They had not the slightest foreboding of their fate.”

The deportation of Janusz Korczak and his children has been written about and the story has been told many times. It is one of the most famous events in the entire history of the ghetto. Legends have grown up around Korczak’s last moments, but the details are not known for sure. Mary’s account was not correct in every aspect, but she was right about his ultimate fate. She wrote, “Thus died one of the purest and noblest men who ever lived. He was the pride of the ghetto. His children’s home gave us courage, and all of us gladly gave part of our own scanty means to support the model home organized by this great idealist. He devoted all his life, all his creative work as an educator and writer, to the poor children of Warsaw. Even at the last moment, he refused to be separated from them.”

You may learn more about Mary Berg, her diary, and how it came to be published here.

You may also learn more about the life and work of Dr. Janusz Korczak here.

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