Women’s Shoah Stories

Hunger, bravery, loyalty, and the drive to record it all

These three Holocaust memoirs, each republished after years of obscurity, are stories of courage, compassion, and dignity under conditions of unspeakable horror and cruelty. Tania, the fictionalized author of Tell Me Another Morning: An Autobiographical Novel by Zdena Berger (Paris Press, $15.95) was 14 when she was deported from Prague with her family. She does not name places or quote facts and figures, a style which intensifies the absolute uncertainty of Jewish destiny under Nazi rule. She writes from the inside of her consciousness and with the sensibilities of a young girl emerging into womanhood. In her opening chapter we feel the warmth and closeness of home and family “before.” Later, we touch the bare walls of her barracks; we smell the cramped women’s bodies in the cattle car; we breathe the dust of the never-ending road. And we laugh and weep with her as she finds her way back to her only living relative in the nameless town that is recognizable as Prague.

Tania’s hunger permeates every day of her four-year ordeal. She writes, “It is that time now when the hollow round in the center of my body becomes a growing circle of nothing, so heavy my body is filled with it. The time before the soup.” This is the hunger of waiting for the one bowl of watery soup and crust of bread at the end of working a 12-hour shift in the town laundry. Later, in a slave labor camp, it is the excruciating, month after month hunger of a body long ago emptied of all surplus flesh. On the forced march to unknown destinations, it is the agony of death-predicting hunger. A woman at the side of the road surreptitiously throws her a precious apple; Tania carefully shares it in equal parts with her two camp sister/ friends, saving a bite for the woman who had also reached for it, unsuccessfully.

In The Diary of Mary Berg: Growing Up in the Warsaw Ghetto (Oneworld, $24.95), Mary Berg begins her account on her fifteenth birthday, in 1939. Determined to “bear witness” to the facts of ghetto life, she writes with the eyes, ears and curiosity of a mature reporter. Ghetto maps, drawings, and photographs add a vivid dimension to the text, preserving a record of historical developments within the Warsaw ghetto alongside the ordeals and challenges of her own family. She tells of cultural and educational opportunities within the ghetto, where she helped organize a group of young artists to perform in cafes. Berg also writes of hunger, of children dying in the streets, of deportations and random cruelties, and of the growing underground resistance. She explains the complex tasks of the Jewish community administration and the Jewish police. With mixed disapproval, guilt, and compassion, she reports the desperate favor-seeking for the few positions that could buy a temporary reprieve from the inevitable deportations.

The young Mary is aware of — and uncomfortable with — her family’s privileged position among other Jews. They had money to buy food and favors; and her mother’s American citizenship and passport protected them to some extent from the ultimate fate of other Jews. Berg’s family was finally allowed to leave the ghetto in an exchange for German prisoners who had been interned in America. The Bergs arrived in New York in 1943. Concerned about endangering herself and others, she had written her diary in shorthand and had disguised names. Her book was first translated and published in 1945, shortly after her family’s arrival in the United States.

When the Nazis invaded Budapest in 1944, Gemma La Guardia Gluck, age 63, was sent to Mauthausen and then to Ravensbrück as a political hostage, because she was the sister of Fiorello La Guardia, mayor of New York City. In Fiorello’s Sister: Gemma La Guardia Gluck’s Story (ed. Rochelle G. Saidel, Syracuse University Press, $16.95), this courageous and energetic woman writes of her life before the Holocaust, her childhood in Arizona and New York, and her married life in Budapest with her Hungarian Jewish husband.

Gluck relates that in Ravensbruck, the infamous concentration camp for women, she taught underground classes in English, and organized an international table, gathering women from various countries who would otherwise not have come near each other. She chronicles surreptitious political meetings and the dissemination of underground information. She shares vivid details of the punishment block and the “rabbit block” where medical experiments were perpetrated on women. After liberation, reunited with her daughter Yolanda and her infant grandson, she is sent to a Gestapo prison in Berlin. Released without money, identity papers, or citizenship, she makes heroic efforts to find shelter and food for her family and to reach her brother in New York. He died shortly after her arrival in the United States and she lived out her life in a public housing apartment built under his administration. Her original memoir, My Story, was published in 1961. Her words echo now as they did then: “If I survived, I wanted people to know what happened there. So I stuck my nose all over. I saw everything and wrote it down.”

Rachel Josefowitz Siegel, a retired feminist psychotherapist, has co-edited three collections of essays by and about contemporary Jewish women.