YORK, Pa. (AP) - On June 7, a Saturday, Glen Coghill perused the photo albums on a table at Steve Farmer’s auction house in Red Lion.
One of the albums caught his attention. It contained photos, dating to perhaps the early 1950s, of military aircraft, prop planes from, probably, the Korean conflict era. He likes military stuff and has a pretty steady side business, supplementing his income as a manager of a Subway by selling military memorabilia, along with toys and other collectibles, on eBay.
He’s been doing it for eight or 10 years, going to auctions to buy things for resale. He has a pretty good eye for what will sell and what won’t. The photos of the old aircraft would.
The albums were part of an estate sale. It just happened that he was sort of acquainted with the person who had owned the items up for action, a local antiques dealer named Mary Pentin, who died last year. He would frequently run into Pentin and her husband, Bill, at sales. They knew each other well enough to say hello or exchange brief pleasantries.
Along with the photo albums was a scrapbook containing newspaper clippings, photos and some other things. He really didn’t take a good look at it. It was the album of photos of military aircraft that he was really after.
The bidding opened, and closed. He got the album for $2. He was given “bidder’s choice,” a term that means he could buy the other, similar items for the same price. He exercised the option and bought the four photo albums and the scrapbook for a total of $10.
That was when he took a closer look at the scrapbook. It contained telegrams, inviting a person named Mary Berg to speaking engagements in New York. The newspaper clippings were also about this Berg woman; some were advertisements for a book she had written. Then, he took a good look at the photos. They were all taken in the Warsaw Ghetto during the Nazi occupation.
He thought, “Oh my God.”
He went home and Googled Mary Berg, and what he learned blew his mind.
He had no idea.
Nobody had any idea.
And that’s exactly how Mary Pentin wanted it.
Some news articles described her as reclusive. Couple that with the fact that she was an antiques dealer and you’re left with the impression that she lived in an old, rundown Victorian home, surrounded by ancient furniture and a herd of cats.
She wasn’t reclusive. She was, according to those who knew her, eccentric and quirky. But no recluse. She was a regular at auctions and antique shows.
Still, she guarded her privacy to an acute extent. For instance, when she published a novel on Amazon’s Kindle Store a few years back, she wrote it under a pen name.
Every now and then, a researcher or reporter would look for her. Very few people knew where she lived, and they guarded that secret. In 2007, the Jewish news website Tablet published a piece titled, “What Happened To Mary Berg?” The story concluded, essentially, we don’t know. The reporter did not know if she was even still alive.
She simply didn’t want people knowing who she was. She didn’t want people knowing that, as The New York Times once put it, she was “Anne Frank before Anne Frank.”
Mary Pentin was Mary Berg.
Actually, she was born Miriam Wattenberg in Lodz, Poland. Her father, Shya, was a painter and an art dealer, and her mother, Lena, was an American-born fashion designer. She was the oldest of two children; her younger sister was named Ann. Mary, as they called her, studied art, literature and theater. She wanted to be a novelist when she grew up.
On Sept. 1, 1939, the Germans invaded Poland. She was 14.
“The days that followed brought hunger, death and panic to our people,” she wrote in her diary. She described a scene in which a German aircraft strafed a line outside a bakery. A man waiting to buy bread was shot in the head.
Her family fled Lodz, under heavy German attack, and walked and bicycled the 70 miles to Warsaw. She turned 15 on Oct. 10, 1939, in Warsaw.
Her family was lucky. They had some wealth and were able to escape with some assets.
During the siege of Warsaw, she described finding shelter from the bombing in the basement of a burned-out house.
“Beside me lay a little boy convulsed with pain from a wound,” she wrote. “When his mother changed his dressing, one could see that a shell fragment was still embedded in his flesh and that gangrene had already set in. A little further on lay a woman whose foot had been torn off by a bomb. No medical aid was available for these people. The stench was unbearable.”
The family, at the urging of Mary’s mother, returned to Lodz to find their apartment looted. She described seeing German soldiers beating a Jewish man on the street. They bound his legs with a rope and tied the other end to the bumper of a cab, ordering the driver to drive, dragging the man down the cobblestone street. The road was streaked with his blood.
They returned to Warsaw.
A year later, the Germans cordoned off the Jewish population into a walled-in ghetto. German guards patrolled the ghetto and its perimeter. She witnessed German guards beating and killing Jews, apparently for sport or amusement.
Hunger and disease were rampant. She described seeing frozen corpses in the streets, blue faces, fists clenched. “What are the last thoughts of such people, and what makes them clench their fists so tautly?” she wrote. “Surely their last glance was cast at the window of the store across the street from where they have laid themselves down to die. In that shop window, they see white bread, cheese, and even cakes, and they fall into their last sleep dreaming of biting into a loaf of bread.”
Women and children, barefoot and wearing rags, were housed in refugee homes.
“I have visited a refugee home,” she wrote. “On the floor I saw half-naked, unwashed children lying listlessly. In one corner an exquisite little girl of four or five sat crying. I could not refrain from stroking her disheveled blond hair. The child looked at me with her big blue eyes, and said, ‘I’m hungry.’
“I was overcome by a feeling of utter shame. I had eaten that day, but I did not have a piece of bread to give that child. I did not dare look in her eyes, and went away.”
Normal life, or what passed for it, continued, striking in its contrast to the horrors. People got married, went to cafes and cabarets where theater groups put on shows, she continued her studies of the graphic arts.
Descriptions of theater performances gave way to scenes like this:
“Sometimes a child huddles against his mother, thinking that she is asleep and trying to awaken her, while, in fact, she is dead.”
In July 1942, her family and others with foreign passports were imprisoned, awaiting deportation. She watched from her window while German soldiers beat and shot Jews, the cries of despair, unrelenting. She watched as Jews were shot and rounded up to be packed into boxcars and sent to Treblinka, the death camp.
“We are here as on a little island amidst an ocean of blood,” she wrote. “The whole ghetto is drowning in blood. We literally see fresh human blood, we can smell it. Does the outside world know anything about it? Why does no one come to our aid? I cannot go on living; my strength is exhausted. How long are we going to be kept here to witness all this?”
In January 1943, her family was sent to an internment camp in France, where they awaited a prisoner exchange that would allow them to flee. Their journey to freedom began March 1, 1943, when they boarded a train for Lisbon. There, they boarded the ocean liner SS Gripsholm for the voyage to America.
As the ship entered the New York harbor, she wrote, “I shall do everything I can to save those who can still be saved, and to avenge those who were so bitterly humiliated in their last moments. And those who were ground into ash, I shall always see them alive. I will tell, I will tell everything, about our sufferings and our struggles and the slaughter of our dearest, and I will demand punishment for German murderers and their Gretchens in Berlin, Munich, and Nuremberg who enjoyed the fruits of murder, and are still wearing the clothes and shoes of our martyrized people.”
Mary Berg had barely set foot on American soil when she met Samuel L. Shneiderman, a Yiddish journalist who had fled Europe in 1940.
Shneiderman, then 37, had worked in Warsaw and as a Paris correspondent for several Polish dailies before coming to America in 1940. He was on the dock that day to meet the Gripsholm, in search of a story.
And he found one.
It’s not clear how he met Berg, then 19. But he did and soon learned that she had brought her diary with her, chronicling the past four years in the Warsaw Ghetto in a dozen spiral-bound notebooks. He immediately knew of the diary’s importance. While other accounts of the persecution and murder of Jews had escaped to the West, this was among the first complete eyewitness accounts to make it to these shores.
Shneiderman worked with Berg over the next few months, editing the diary and translating Berg’s shorthand, a kind of code she developed in case the notebooks fell into Nazi hands. He then translated the diary into Yiddish and published it, in serial form, in Der Morgen Zshurnal, one of New York’s leading Yiddish newspapers. He then arranged to have the diary translated into English and had it published in New York’s P.M. newspaper.
In February 1945, Shneiderman published the diary in full, titling it “Warsaw Ghetto: A Diary.” The author’s last name was shortened to Berg to protect family who may have still been in danger in Poland. Berg designed the book’s cover, the dust jacket a depiction of the red brick wall that enclosed the ghetto.
The diary was published before the war’s end and before the world knew of the scope of the Nazis’ crimes against humanity. The book was widely hailed as an important work. The New Yorker said it was “a grim book, full of darkness and horror.” It was translated into several foreign languages. It was studied by students in Hebrew school.
Berg was an in-demand speaker and interview subject. In a radio interview in early 1945, asked whether she ever wanted to return to Poland, she said, “No, I will never go back. America is my country now and I’m going to be a real American.”
Then, in the early 1950s, still in the spotlight in New York, she disassociated herself from her diary. She said she wanted to forget about the past.
And then she disappeared.
Mary Berg’s memoir went out of print in the early 1950s, just as Anne Frank’s diary was published. It remained out of print for decades; Frank’s diary has been widely available since it was published.
Why Mary Berg dropped out of the public eye remains a mystery. People who knew her speculated that she suffered from acute survivor’s guilt. Others speculated that she didn’t want to be defined by her past. Her family is fairly mum on the subject. A niece, Victoria Powell, who was close to her, said that the accounts that have been reported are inaccurate, but declined to elaborate.
Berg offered some insight in her diary. While her family was detained in the Vittel internment camp in France, awaiting deportation to the United States, she wrote, “We, who have been rescued from the ghetto, are ashamed to look at each other. Had we the right to save ourselves? Here everything smells of sun and flowers and there - there is only blood, the blood of my own people.”
Over the years, several people attempted to convince her to get her diary back into print, saying it was an important historical document. She declined. In the mid-1990s, when a Polish edition was published, a theater was planning to stage a dramatic reading and invited Mary Berg to attend. Responding through friends, The New York Times reported, she declined.
In 1995, Susan Pentlin, a professor of modern languages at the University of Central Missouri, approached Berg about republishing her diary. Pentlin, who had a particular interest in Holocaust literature and who taught Berg’s book in her classes, had been in touch with Shneiderman, who then held the rights to the book. Shneiderman put Pentlin in touch with Berg.
Berg, according to Pentlin’s husband, Floyd, “basically told my wife to buzz off.”
Pentlin, who died last Christmas of a heart attack, previously told the Jewish news website The Tablet that when she contacted Berg about republishing her diary in 1992, Berg responded bitterly.
“Instead of continuing to milk the Jewish Holocaust to its limits,” she wrote to Pentlin, “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 went ahead and ushered in a new edition of Mary Berg’s diary in 2007. Shneiderman’s heirs held the rights to the book and the author’s permission was unnecessary.
In the introduction to the new edition, the professor wrote, “It is not known if she found happiness in her adult years. We can only hope that she was able to make a life for herself in the post-war world and find solace from her past memories.”
When they found out that she was, essentially, Anne Frank before Anne Frank, her acquaintances in York County were kind of shocked.
“I had no idea,” Sarubin said.
There aren’t many Jews involved in the antiques business in York County - it’s a closely knit group. And Sarubin, who is Jewish, never knew that Mary Pentin was a member of the tribe.
“I would mention that I couldn’t make a show because it fell on a (Jewish) holiday and she never said anything,” Sarubin said. “There was no recognition at all.”
Her acquaintances in the antiques trade all said that her background explained a lot about her personality. To have gone through that kind of trauma, and witnessed that kind of horror, while still a child, would have a profound effect on a person, they all reasoned. They figured that had all of the people who found Pentin difficult and prickly known her background, they would have been more understanding.
Sarubin recalled reading Mary Berg’s diary in Hebrew school and that it was deeply affecting and moving.
“Had I known that was her, I wish I could have given her a big hug instead of just talking about antiques,” she said. “I just wish I had known.”
The thing was, she didn’t want people to know.
And her family has honored her desire for privacy. Relatives initially agreed to share her story, but after checking with other family members, cut off contact. Contacted by phone, her husband, who moved out of the county after Pentin died last year, said, “All I can say is I have no comment. Do not call this number again.”
When Mary Pentin died in 2013, no obituary was ever published. If there was a memorial service, it was private, very private.
The scrapbook is now the property of the National Holocaust Memorial Museum. Coghill, who was hoping it would find a proper home, a museum or collection where it would be publicly available and appreciated, had sent it to Doyle New York, a high-end auction house. After The New York Times did a story about the sale, Doyle canceled the auction and brokered a sale to the holocaust museum for an undisclosed price. (Doyle had previously estimated the value of the scrapbook at between $4,000 and $6,000, the Times reported.)
Steve Farmer said that at the end of the estate sale, Bill Pentin told him to just throw out what didn’t sell.
Had Coghill not bought that scrapbook - he was the sole bidder - it would have been sent to the York County Solid Waste Authority’s trash incinerator.
And we would have never known that Mary Berg had lived among us all of these years.
Worse, we would have never known who she was.
Information from: York Daily Record, https://www.ydr.com
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