Mary Berg: March 5, 1944

By the beginning of March 1944, Mary Berg’s long nightmare was finally coming to an end. On March 5th, she began the last entry in her diary on board the Gripsholm, the ship that would bring her to freedom in America. Over the course of the previous four years, she had witnessed some of the worst crimes committed by Nazi Germany in the Warsaw Ghetto, yet she survived. Her eyewitness accounts were among the first to be published in the United States.

Mary’s survival was due in part to her mother’s status as a U. S. citizen. When the Germans began large-scale deportations from the Warsaw Ghetto to Treblinka, Mary and her family were placed in Pawiak Prison instead. They were held there on the possibility of a prisoner exchange with the United States and thus avoided deportation to their deaths. Early in 1943, the family was transferred to the Vittel Internment Camp in France. Finally, in March 1944, the long-awaited prisoner exchange took place. Mary and her family boarded a train that took them to the port of Lisbon – to the ship that would carry them to freedom.

Freedom did not come easily at first. Mary wrote, “I was awakened by the sound of the ship’s engine. The Gripsholm was on the open sea. I went out on the deck and breathed in the endless blueness. The blood-drenched earth of Europe was far behind me. The feeling of freedom almost took my breath away. In the last four years I have not known this feeling. Four years of the black swastika, of barbed wire, ghetto walls, executions, and above all, terror – terror by day and terror by night. After four years of that nightmare I found it hard to enjoy my freedom at first. I constantly imagined that it was only a dream, that at any moment I would awaken in the Pawiak and once again see the aged men with gray beards, the blooming young girls and proud young men, driven like cattle to the Umschlagplatz on Stawki Street to their deaths.” She went on to write, “I had thought that on the ship I would forget the nightmare of the ghetto. But, strangely enough, in the infinity of the ocean I constantly saw the bloody streets of Warsaw.”

It’s not surprising that Mary couldn’t forget the terrible experiences she had just come through. These events changed more than a young girl’s life. They also changed the world. Never again could thinking people believe that the forward progress of civilization was guaranteed. Of course, this doesn’t mean that there can never be joy or beauty in the world. Mary also wrote about making new friends among the American servicemen who were on their way back home. Still, peace, safety and happiness would not blot out her previous memories. Instead, they would guarantee that she would never take her present circumstances for granted. “No one will ever appreciate freedom as much as we who once lost it.” The words that Mary wrote on this day stand as a warning for all time that people need to be on constant guard against the return of barbarism, which after all, lurks just beneath the surface of human affairs.

The Diary of Mary Berg: Growing Up in the Warsaw Ghetto has been made available since 2007 by Oneworld Publications. It was originally published in February 1945, just over two months before the end of World War II.

Click here to learn more about the Gripsholm, the prisoner exchange ship that carried Mary Berg and her family to freedom.

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