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Diary of Polish Jewish Teenager in WWII: International Holocaust Remembrance Day

On this, the International Holocaust Remembrance Day, I would like to commemorate a teenage girl diarist and my grandmother. The girl who wrote the diary was not Anne Frank, but Mary Berg.  She was a Polish Jewish Teenager who survived the  Warsaw Ghetto and told about her experiences in a series of articles published in 1944 after her escape to the U.S.

Mary in New York in 1945.

Mary in New York in 1945.

It was then made into a book the following year (1945) called Warsaw Ghetto.

Original cover of Warsaw Ghetto.

Original cover of Warsaw Ghetto. It is based on images drawn by Mary.

You can read about this remarkable woman in this New York Times article by Jennifer Schuessler.

Artifacts belonging to Ms. Berg were to have been sold in New York in November 2014, but the auction was cancelled after questions were raised by relatives.

Mary Berg in various photos.

Mary Berg in various photos.

Schuessler writes that Ms. Berg was “an Anne Frank before Anne Frank.”

Mary as a girl.

Mary as a girl.

By this she means that Berg’s experiences–as a young girl and teenager–became part of the public record before Anne Frank’s definitive diary — first published in 1952.

Historians have shown concern that such valuable artifacts–photos, writings, and the like–were to have a monetary value placed on them.  As Professor Rachael B. Goldman at the College of New Jersey says, “This could set a tragic precedent of less Holocaust material being put in archives and instead ending up in private hands–including the wrong private hands, I might add.”

Another photo from the Berg estate.

Another photo from the Berg estate. Some of Mary’s friends have armbands identifying them as Jewish.

Mary was able to flee because her mother was an American citizen.  Though the original notebooks do not, so far as anyone knows, survive, her memories and recounting have entered the historical record as valuable first-person accounts.

Apparently, according to the New York Times article, Berg was so traumatized by her experiences that the son of Mary’s sister, Anne, didn’t tell him he was Jewish “until shortly before his mother’s death.”


Mary and sister Ann (or Anna) in the Warsaw Ghetto.

And Berg’s book had never been mentioned. That son, Steven T. Powell, would like the heroism of various members of the family recognized, especially that of his grandmother (Berg’s mother), Lena Wattenberg, who got the family out of Poland.

The story she tells is unique. She even illustrates it.

This illustration by Mary shows how people tried to find food in the courtyard.

This illustration by Mary shows how people tried to find food in the courtyard.

Her diaries were in twelve notebooks, preserved at least until she arrived in the U.S. A journalist, Samuel L. Shneiderman, helped her edit them and translated them into Yiddish where they appeared in an important Yiddish publication over a period of 10 months.

Her eyewitness account shocked readers.  Though she was somewhat privileged with an art dealer father, she records images that horrify: ““Sometimes a child huddles against his mother, thinking that she is asleep and trying to awaken her, while, in fact, she is dead.”

After appearing in German and English language publications, the articles became a book.  The most recent edition can be found here.  Berg didn’t want to be seen as some sort of “hero.”  She found that repugnant. You can read more about her reaction to promoting her story here.

This short student video about her life can be found here.

Diaries are key for understanding the past, since they retell what everyday people experienced.  The diaries of my mother, Joan, end in February 1942.  So she doesn’t relate anything concerning the Holocaust and the extermination of the Jews, Roma, homosexuals, political dissidents, or other people considered undesirable by the Nazis. But her story touches Berg’s in another way beyond that of being teenage diary writers.

My mother’s mother, Neva Levish, was born in the U.S. in 1900.

Joan age 4 with her mother, Neva Wehlen (maiden name:  Levish).

Joan age 4 with her mother, Neva Wehlen (maiden name: Levish).

On her father’s death by suicide in 1902, she and her mother and brother returned to the parents’ home country of the Ukraine.  They returned to the U.S. in 1905.  Until I was in my 20’s, I had no idea my grandmother Neva was Jewish.  She had converted in her teens so I only knew her as a very active Christian who would pay us kids 25 cents to read aloud a chapter from the Bible.  Which of course we did since we wanted the money!

I also had always been told she came from Russia, not the Ukraine.

Ukraine in 1900.

Ukraine in 1900.

Now, borders of countries changed a lot, but still there were a number of things I only found out once I was an adult.  Some I discovered after Joan’s death in her papers.  In addition to her diaries, I found my grandparents’ birth certificates.  I discovered my grandfather’s parents were not yet married when he was born (which must have happened a lot in the countryside of Sweden).  And I discovered the name of my great-grandparents’ home town: Zolotonosha.  Immigrants often kept things secret from the next generation, perhaps out of fear or the desire to assimilate.

Memorial plaque to an event in 1941.  If you can translate this, please let me know!

Memorial plaque to an event in 1941.It concerns incendiaries being released at a distillery. If you can translate this, please let me know!

Diaries always give us a glimpse of the truth.  And for that, we need to be diligent about finding them and making them available to historians and the public.

The following image suggests how my grandmother would have suffered–even died–if she had stayed in her parents’ homeland.

What seems to be a Jewish grave.  If you can translate this, please let me know!

This is a monument in memory of Jews shot in a pogrom in the 1920.  If you can translate this, please let me know!

According to one site, Zolotonosha had 7,714 Jews in 1897, a short time after my great-grandparents had left.  There were 2,769 Jews in the town of Zolotonosha. “Total population of Zolotonosha in 1897 was 8,739. Emigration, pogroms of 1905-1919, destruction of the Civil War, migration to larger cities and outside the Pale, the World War II devastation, and new waves of Jewish emigration followed.”  My great-grandmother was lucky to leave in 1905.  We need to be reminded that Jews were killed before WWII as well as during it.

Listed as Neva Levash, she was a passenger on the Ryndam with the age of 3 (though she would have been at least a year older).  The ship had left Boulogne-Sur-Mer and arrived in New York on July 11, 1905.  As a U.S. citizen (she and her brother had been born in Chicago), there was no problem with her re-entry to the United States with their widowed mother.


The Ryndam which my grandmother, Neva, sailed on in 1905.

The Ryndam which my grandmother, Neva, sailed on in 1905.

As for Mary Berg’s albums, there is good news about what has happened to them.  The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., has acquired them. This is crucial for preservation and research.  As Anne Wolfe, Mary’s sister, says in a New York Times article about the museum’s purchase, “There are fewer and fewer people left who remember these events.”  Let us hope journals like these remind people for posterity.

Start the New Year right–with a book sale!!

Home Front Girl and other Chicago Review Press e-books are on sale here and all through January!


Christmastime in 1937

Joan wrote poetry starting at a young age.  Needless to say, the excitement of the Christmas season appears in her verse throughout her childhood and teenage years.

Wilshire Boulevard in 1937.

Wilshire Boulevard in 1937. Can that be Santa and his reindeer?

A few days after she turned 15 years old, Joan wrote a poem she entitled Christmas 1937 :                                                                                                   

Mary’s son was not cold

When the Wise Men came with gold

Mary’s son was newly born

When the shepherds came with morn.

Mary bore her son alone

While above the wonder shone

Of the star on just that night

Led the shepherds there aright.

All the years since then have passed

Stars that shine will ever last.

Why did that star only then

Shine and never once again?

Only once He came to Earth

Only once proclaim His birth,

But each year at Christmastide

Yet we think of Him who died,

And was born in that small town

While the Wonder Star looked down.

Let all the heavens still proclaim

Honor to His Holy Name.

In 1938, she portrayed the Virgin Mary in the Christmas Pageant at her church.

Joan as the Virgin Mary i 1938.

Joan as the Virgin Mary in 1938.

May your season be peaceful and filled with joy!

Pearl Harbor: A Poem of Reflection

Joan was a poet as well as a diarist.  Two days after Pearl Harbor was bombed, Joan wrote this poem at age 18. She loved Homer and the Iliad, and frequently saw the political events around her in terms of the history of the past, particularly the destruction of Troy.

The USS West Virginia burns and sinks after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on Dec. 7, 1941. (Handout, Reuters).

The USS West Virginia burns and sinks after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on Dec. 7, 1941. (Handout, Reuters). From the Chicago Tribune.

Dec 9 – 1941[1]

Now it is come we are as calm as we have never been

We drink our coffee with still hands

And with grave eyes ask what is trump

Or whose lead now and carefully repair our rouge.

And read the Tribune and Thomas Aquinas

With equal imperturbability.

Once we were shifted by the sound of words

By great black headlines, by the screaming boy.


Now we are calm as we were calm in Troy

We are as silly as we ever were

But now our silliness is bravery

We are so shallow that the dying of a world

Cannot break through our consciousness

Or are so deep that it cannot.


That which we never quite believed has happened

And we touch inanely hands that never reach

And lie down to die with dignity.      


We are as calm as we were calm in Troy.


[1] Pearl Harbor was bombed on December 7, 1941; the United States officially declares war on Japan December 8 and on Germany and Italy on December 11.

Same old, same old: the struggle for representation

Same old, same old: the struggle for representation


Congratulations to Alison Twells on being shortlisted for the Tony Lothian Prize for her unpublished biography of her great-aunt, Norah, who lived through WWII and wrote about it!

Originally posted on Socks for the Boys!:

I spent a couple of days in London at the end of last week. Socks for the Boys! was shortlisted for the Tony Lothian Prize for an unpublished first-time biography and I was invited to the Biographers’ Club Prize Dinner at the Liberal Club in Whitehall Place (very posh, as my great aunts would say, the ‘o’ pronounced as in ‘post’).  I was really delighted to be shortlisted; to see Norah take her place amongst the royals and assorted aristocrats, the Bloomsbury-ites and Romantics of previous shortlists, was very very satisfying.  One of the judges, Lara Feigel, praised the ‘wonderful immediacy’ of Norah’s diary entries and read the ‘Lovely among the boys’ sequence from September 1938.  (You can see the full shortlist – and indeed the winner, Polly Clark, who is doing creative things at the interface of history, memoir and biography – here).

I also used the opportunity of this trip…

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Veteran’s Day: The 100th Anniversary of the Start of WWI

The diary of my mother, Joan, from when she was a teenager in the lead up to World War II and after it began, taught me many things.  Among them, how present in her mind World War I loomed.  Not even born when World War I raged, she grew up in a world dominated by the horrors of that conflict.  It enters her diary at numerous points.

Joan even dreams about the war.  Here she is at age 15:

Friday, December 31, 1937

I had the awfullest dream last night. I dreamt a war was begun and people were running about with brightened looks in their eyes. I was a boy and I knew I would have to be a soldier. I was afraid to go to war. I kept seeing trenches and mud and horror and pain and things—and killing people—and I was terribly scared inside. But I knew I would have to join the army anyhow because otherwise people would call me coward. I went to enlist and that’s all I remember. I figured I might have three months in a training group before I would have to fight. It was a terrible dream and I was so scared. That’s all I remember. . .

Poster for the movie Wings from 1927.

Poster for the movie Wings from 1927.

At this point, the image of war in people’s minds included trench warfare, as shown in movies like The Big Parade or Wings.

Poster for the film The Big Parade (1925)

Poster for the film The Big Parade (1925)

Two years after the start of WWII in Europe and not a month away from Pearl Harbor, Joan has become more cynical.  Here is an entry written when she still 18 years old.

Thursday, November 13, 1941

. . . Day before yesterday was Armistice Day, if you can call it that—1941 A. D.. . . If we live, we’ll look back on these days and know, perhaps, either that they were not as important as we thought they were—or that they were much more important. God, in the heavens, look down on the world! . . . Today they finally finished repealing the Neutrality Bill.[1] Arm our ships and send them into belligerent ports—drums beating louder now—we had a peace meeting at school day before yesterday—what the hell, what is Armistice? Time goes on.

[1] One of the bills of the 1930s that came from noninterventionist desires. With its repeal, the involvement of the United States in World War II was only a matter of days.

War becomes real to Joan after Pearl Harbor.  Here she is, age 18.

Wednesday, December 10, 1941

The Japanese paratroops have captured Luzon in the Philippines and sunk two British ships, the Repulse and another near Singapore. Hitler speaks to Reichstag tomorrow. We just heard the first casualty lists over the radio. . . . Lots of boys from Michigan and Illinois. Oh my God! . .

Here is a short film about the invasion of the Philippines by Japan.

Here is a trailer of The Big Parade.

Here are scenes from Wings.

Norah’s 1941 photograph

Norah’s 1941 photograph


Norah, an English girl experiencing WWII on the home front in England, gets photos taken of herself. As I’ve discovered in Joan’s diary, photos are key for sharing my mom’s story and visualizing the past.

Originally posted on Socks for the Boys!:


20th September 1941: Photos from Winter’s arrived. Sent Danny one.

 Norah’s visit to W.W. Winter, a professional photographer on Midland Road, Derby, was her second attempt to acquire a decent photograph of herself in the late summer and autumn of 1941. She had visited a different studio in August but was unhappy with the result (‘just horrid’). So she took herself off to Winter’s, the oldest and most established studio photographer in town.

Winter’s photograph – the one I have used for the banner for this blog, the one that will hopefully be the main image on the front cover of my book – lies in front of me on my desk. Norah half sits, half leans against a high bench. She is wearing a dark dress, belted to the waist, with a pleated skirt, short sleeves, a white collar and four white buttons from…

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