November 13, 2014
Warsaw Ghetto survivor and diarist’s private mementos lost and found
by Monika Zaleska
A cancelled auction of private mementos has brought diarist and Warsaw Ghetto survivor Mary Berg back into the spotlight she shied away for most of her life. The mementos, including 300 some photographs of life in Poland before and during the German occupation, were set to be auctioned by Doyle New York before an inquiry by relatives prompted the auction house to reconsider selling to a private collector. Here is the description before the collection was pulled from the sale:
the archive of photographs and ephemera of Mary Berg (born Wattenberg), author of The Diary of Mary Berg: Growing up in the Warsaw Ghetto, including many images taken in the Ghetto between 1940 and 1943, poignantly showing the routines of family life amid the direst of catastrophes.
The collection itself was discovered last summer by Subway manager and collector Glen Coghill, at an estate sale in Red Lion, Pennsylvania. They were in a World War II memorabilia lot that he bought for ten dollars. However, it is unclear how Doyle New York acquired them.
Berg became a New York celebrity and activist for Polish Jews upon the publication of her personal diaries in 1944. She and her family had escaped to the United States that same year via a prisoner of war exchange. She was nineteen at the time. Having the privilege of an American mother and a wealthy family saved her from much of the suffering she witnessed first hand and recorded in her journal, first in the Warsaw Ghetto, then in a prison in the city, and finally at an internment camp in France. She met the journalist who would edit her diaries, Samuel L. Shneiderman, “before she cleared immigration.” Berg’s diary portrays both the quotidian (weddings, school, work) and the monstrous realities of Jewish life in occupied Poland: “Sometimes a child huddles against his mother, thinking that she is asleep and trying to awaken her, while, in fact, she is dead.”
However, the account fell out of print in the mid-1950’s around the same time that The Diary of Anne Frank was published in English. Berg disappeared, refusing to speak to the media or participate in the revival of interest in her works in the mid-eighties and nineties. She went so far as to deny who she was when contacted. According to Tablet Magazine, in 1995, when there was hopes to reprint the English version of the diary, Berg sent this reply to Professor Emerita of Modern Languages Susan Pentlin:
“Instead of continuing to milk the Jewish Holocaust to its limits,” she wrote, “do go and make a difference in all those Holocausts taking place right now in Bosnia or Chechin….Don’t tell me this is different,”
Pentlin, who taught at the University of Central Missouri, would go on to champion the 2006 reprint of the diary despite Berg’s reticence. It is unclear why Berg decided to disappear from the public eye, but both Pentlin and her extended family have some ideas, as reported in The New York Times:
“Basically, she doesn’t want to be Jewish,” Ms. Pentlin wrote to one researcher in 2012. “It’s a strange story for a survivor. She totally denies who she is.”
Mr. Powell, a son of Ms. Berg’s sister, Ann, said it wasn’t until shortly before his mother’s death that she told him the family was Jewish. The family, he said, never mentioned Mary’s book. He said the silence might have been a reaction to perceived criticism that the Wattenbergs, with their privileges, had survived while others died.
According to the Times piece, it is unclear what will happen to the private photographs. Berg’s relatives had no prior knowledge of either the estate sale or the auction, but when notified contacted the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. asking them to acquire the material. A spokesman for Doyle New York said the auction house was in the process of locating an “appropriate permanent home” for the photographs.
Berg passed away in last December after living in self-imposed anonymity for over sixty years.