Mary Berg was a fifteen year-old Jewish girl who lived in Poland at the onset of the German occupation. She was present at the establishment of the Warsaw Ghetto and was one of a very small number who wrote extensively about life in the ghetto and who also survived the Holocaust. The great stroke of luck that enabled her to survive happened years before she was born. This stroke of luck was that her mother was born in the United States of America. Her mother’s status as an American citizen extended protection to the entire family. As a result, Mary and her family avoided the large scale deportations from Warsaw to Treblinka that claimed the lives of over 300,000 Jews in 1942 and 1943. By March 1944, Mary was in the United States. She was able to come as a part of a prisoner exchange with Nazi Germany. She brought her diary with her and it was published before the end of the war – one of the first eyewitness accounts to emerge from the Holocaust.
On November 15th, 1940 Mary wrote about the establishment of the Warsaw Ghetto. Preparations for the ghetto had been in the works since April, but were not officially announced until mid-October. Within the following month, the work to enclose the area was largely completed. During that time, there were arguments and disagreements among Jewish people about how to respond to this development. On November 20th, Mary wrote, “The streets are empty. Extraordinary meetings are taking place in every house. The tension is terrific. Some people demand that a protest be organized. This is the voice of the youth; our elders consider this a dangerous idea. We are cut off from the world.” Mary went on to explain the impact that the enclosure of the ghetto had on some of Warsaw’s Jews. “The Jews who have been living on the Aryan side of the city were told to move out before November 12. Many waited until the last moment, because they hoped that the Germans, by means of protests or bribes, might be induced to countermand the decree establishing the ghetto.”
It is clear from reading Mary’s account that the Jewish residents of Warsaw did not yet see the extent to which the ghetto policy fit into a larger pattern leading toward total destruction. In fact, no one could yet imagine what developments would occur over the next two and a half years. What is clear from our perspective today is that the disagreements that Mary described on November 20th were pointless. Neither protest nor compliance would matter in the end. The ghetto that was just getting started on that day was doomed and no amount of resistance would change that fact. The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising that would come later was inspirational in the annals of the struggle against Nazism, but the ghetto itself, and any hope for lasting Jewish life within, could not be saved.
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 enclosing of the Warsaw Ghetto as well as its subsequent history.
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