A Rare Gem By Ada Pagis
"Ir betoch ir" ("City Within a City") by Batia Temkin-Berman, translated from the Polish by Uri Orlev, Am Oved and Yad Vashem, 226 pages, NIS 89
"I feel sad, therefore I write," Batia Temkin-Berman says in her diary. It is the diary of an underground activist who, in the midst of the transport of the Warsaw Ghetto's remnants to Treblinka, in September 1942, escapes from the ghetto with her husband, Dr. Adolf-Abraham Berman. Immediately afterward the two embarked on vigorous underground activities on behalf of the Jews who were hiding on the city's "Aryan side." The couple lived under an assumed identity, in the shadow of the constant fear of informers and blackmailers, known as szmalcowniks, and haunted by thoughts of the ghetto's fate.
Seemingly, there is no room in these conditions for existential sadness, for melancholy reflections and longings for the beauty of nature, yet these, too, appear here. Descriptions of daring acts of rescue do not dim the mood of the indefatigable underground fighter or mute the pulsation of her soul. In one of the dangerous ventures into the ghetto, while focusing her thoughts on how to deceive the guards stationed at the wall, Temkin-Berman could not help admiring the sight of the Vistula River, but also feeling sad: "We draw closer lethargically ... The Vistula River comes into view, all pink in the light of the breaking dawn. It has been a long time since I was privileged to see this sight ... I think to myself whether I will ever see the Vistula again."
The diary covers the period from May 1944 to January 1945, which includes the Polish uprising in Warsaw (August 1944). In the background the diarist constantly evokes the dying ghetto. An introduction by Israel Gutman, a native of Warsaw and a researcher of the city's history under the Nazi occupation, accords the diary its historical context, and remarks by Emanuel Berman, the writer's son, a psychoanalyst and a professor at the University of Haifa, sharpen her character and provide further details about her family and her life before and after the period when she kept the diary. The many footnotes offer vivid descriptions of the activity of members of the underground, Jews and Poles alike.
Toward the end of 1942, Dr. Adolf-Abraham Berman became one of the heads of the newly created Zegota (Council for Aid to Jews). Batia worked within the framework of the organization to remove children from the ghetto and hide them outside it. The two also helped hide the written documentation of the period, the continuation of the "Oneg Shabbat" project (which documented life in the ghetto), initiated by the historian Emanuel Ringelblum - a project he pursued alone in his hiding place on the Aryan side. However, most of Temkin-Berman's time and inner strength were devoted to the dangerous daily grind: distributing small amounts of money to those in hiding, finding places of shelter, supplying false papers.
"I would like to describe the state within a state, more accurately the city within a city, the public in the underground ... I would like to describe the history of the contemporary Marranos ["secret Jews," who were forced to convert to , who are being persecuted and annihilated with a viciousness unparalleled in history, even as a handful of the condemned have assumed the mission of saving the remnants of the nation from destruction ... I would like to describe our workers, who are extremely devoted," she writes, and goes on to list dozens of underground and Zegota activists, Jews and Polish intellectuals, most of them from left-wing circles, mainly women, some of them colleagues and acquaintances from the couple's past.
The diary was first published in Hebrew in 1956, translated by H.S. Ben Avram, under the title "Underground Diary: Episodes from Occupied Warsaw." The Polish original was published in Warsaw in 2000. The book's initial Hebrew publication did not resonate as it should have, perhaps because in that period the focus was exclusively on the memoirs of ghetto fighters and partisans, who were perceived as reflecting the Zionist spirit of the Land of Israel. Nowadays people's hearts are receptive to other expressions of heroism, too, including rescue operations, and a proper place has been accorded to the Polish rescuers, the "Righteous Among the Nations," whose noble deeds stand out in contrast to the general indifference displayed by the majority of the Polish population toward the annihilation of the Jews and to the denouncers of Jews to the authorities.
The actions of the Polish rescuers, who were not deterred by the death penalty that awaited those who were caught sheltering Jews, touched the writer's heart: "I traveled by tram outside the city. A light, warm rain trickled down ... She took us into some sort of corridor. Behind the door someone was playing the piano. A minute later the door opened and we were received with such heart- touching warmth. When I remember it today it makes me cry ... The woman who gave us the first shelter, in the apartment we stayed in for two weeks, did not recognize us. One of the people who looked after us searched for her sister, who had not yet returned from her vacation ... When she was informed that the shelter was for us, she said, 'Please come to my home.' Asked if she knew who the people in question were, she replied that it was not her concern ... That was our first apartment."
Many of the rescuers were ready to extend a hand also to those of "bad appearance" (meaning those who looked like Jews) and even to the "very bad" - sometimes against the wish of their spouse - and offered them a haven in their home. Some also made their offices available as liaison bureaus between the Zegota activists and those who needed their help. Particularly daring in Temkin-Berman's view was the activity of a group of physicians in a hospital in Praga (the old section of Warsaw), who assisted Jewish men after hospital staff discovered their origin while washing or treating them and wanted to inform the authorities.
Duty of documentation
The reader learns from the historical introduction that not long after Warsaw's occupation by the Nazis, in September 1939, when all the state's institutions collapsed and the leaders fled, the activists of Warsaw's Jewish public also left for the east. The Jews of the capital and the surrounding towns were left without a leadership. They were aided by the few who remained: staff of the Joint Distribution Committee and volunteers, including Ringelblum and Dr. Berman. The latter had been the chief psychologist of Centos, an organization that aided orphans and children in distress, and assumed its management upon the start of the occupation. Batia, his wife, a librarian by profession, was in charge of supplying books to the ghetto and lending them out. The two of them (as well as Ringelblum) were members of the Poalei Zion party, which fused radical socialism with Zionism in the spirit of Ber Borochov.
As mentioned, during the last transports from the ghetto to extermination, the Bermans moved to the Aryan side and immediately began to assist Jews who were in hiding there. But they did not sever their ties with the ghetto, and played a major part in extricating Jews from it and moving them to the Aryan side, among them Ringelblum and his family. They also worked to hide the writings that documented the events of the period. This is Batia Temkin-Berman's description of the couple's connections with the ghetto after they had supposedly become "acclimatized" to the Aryan side: "First of all, even though we met people of noble spirit here, and interesting people, too, nevertheless we felt that we were living in a strange city, and now the connection with all those who are condemned to death has restored our sense of belonging to the place. Even though we were cut off by such impregnable walls ... and I could not discover what had befallen the people who are close to me, we felt bound with every fiber of our being to that public."
Until the period covered by the diary, Temkin-Berman wrote a great deal for herself - diaries that have not been preserved. She was essentially a private person, but felt that the period of annihilation did not sit with her inclination to privacy, and declares at the start of the diary: "I will write as I used to, exclusively for myself, even though I am well aware that if these pages survive until the end of the war they will cease to be my private property, because none of us, those who remain, can remain a private person." At moments she is overwhelmed by the magnitude of the task she has undertaken, reveals that she would prefer to keep a diary together with her husband, and is skeptical about her writing ability. But the duty of documentation triumphs, "because we took part in many matters which no one but us can write about." Similarly, it is clear to her that, "In a situation in which part and perhaps most of the documentation has been lost, all material will be vital and important, even if not written with great skill."
Despite her flagrantly "bad appearance," as the photographs in the book attest to, she walked the streets of Warsaw as one of the crowd, meagerly dressed and armed with a tattered bag and a veil, which was meant to hide her Jewish face. At the time this was quite a widespread camouflage ploy, and as such, dangerous, but she clung to her props and believed in them. Sometimes, as she made her way between the hiding places of the "Marranos," among whom the blackmailers festered, she hid beneath an umbrella and under its cover dedicated herself to her many tasks: "... Drawing up a financial report for the past 10 months. In the meantime a book about Treblinka has appeared and must be obtained and distributed. The poems have been prepared and given to the printer, the Yearbook is being prepared, and in the coming days we will have to go back to the routine aid work, support payments for the month of June."
Doubting her talent, she disavowed all literary pretensions, yet her diary contains passages that are unparalleled in diaries literature, conveying the feeling of the ghetto inmates precisely when they are outside its walls: "In the meantime, we listened to the sounds of the street through the open window, as we have forgotten already how the life of normal people is conducted. It was strange and somehow exotic. We listened with amazement to the singing of an old beggar woman. Can it be? Old people walking in the street! And begging is permitted. The height of freedom! And the children are laughing, children we have not seen in the street for the past six weeks, apart from those who were being herded to the Umschlagplatz [the collection point from which Jews were transported to the death camp]. Calls of peddlers who are selling tomatoes from small carts. People are talking about yesterday's bombing. What a topic they found to get excited about! They do not have the slightest feeling that half a kilometer from here so many people are being led to oblivion."
Toward the end of 1944, when the destruction and perdition had become certainties, and Ringelblum was already among the dead, despair creeps into the diary: "Even after the final liquidation [of the ghetto], we clung to fairy tales about underground bunkers and sophisticated shelters in which thousands of people are supposedly living. Then we deluded ourselves that they were in the camps and when the nightmare ends will return with a fanfare of victory to the ruins. And now the last storm has scattered every which way this invisible reality, too ... The last of the Mohicans are lost, dispersed and slaughtered. Almost all documentation of our martyrology has been lost, all the material about the struggle and the work and these crumbs which we carry with us at risk to life, can be destroyed."
But, as we know, not all the written documentation from that dark period was destroyed, and among the writings that were saved, the diary of Batia Temkin-Berman glows like a rare gem.
Ada Pagis' book "Days of Darkness, Moments of Grace: Chapters from the Life of Israel Gutman" has just been published (in Hebrew) by Hakibbutz Hameuchad Publishing House and Yad Vashem
Between Warsaw and Tel Aviv
By Tom Segev
When Emanuel Berman was a little boy his mother told him about something that had happened to her on one of the city streets: Juvenile delinquents attacked her and when she tried to get away from them, she slipped and fell and broke one of her fingers. "That picture preoccupied me endlessly," recalls Berman, a Polish-born psychoanalyst and professor at the University of Haifa. "I felt terrible anger at those boys, a strong desire to protect Mother from them, frustration at being a little boy who probably would not have been able to overcome them, and had fantasies in which I confront them with their cruelty."
The incident his mother described did not take place during the Holocaust in Warsaw, but in the early 1950s, in Tel Aviv. "Israel did not welcome Basia," wrote Holocaust historian Israel Gutman in the foreword to the diary of Basia (Batya) Temkin-Berman, which was published in 1956, and is now being published in a new Hebrew translation by Uri Orlev ("Ir betokh ir," "A City Within a City"; Am Oved and Yad Vashem).
In the early 1950s, when Israeli society was still ashamed of the Holocaust, many diaries of heroism and rebellion were published, and the term "Holocaust and heroism" was invented, as though the two were equally powerful. The diary of Basia Berman did not quite fit the mold, and Gutman believes this may have been why it did not make the impression it deserved. The truth is that there are many Holocaust diaries that have disappeared in the storage rooms of libraries, and some of them are worth republishing
The fighters in the Warsaw Ghetto wanted to die with honor: Batya and Adolf Berman thought about life - he was also involved in smuggling weapons into the ghetto - but they postponed the "honor" until after the war. Her diary is so fascinating because it was written in the Aryan part of the city during the final months of the war: She and her husband managed to escape the ghetto in September 1942 and survived by concealing their Jewishness. They pretended to be brother and sister. That required initiative, daring and luck, and connections with Polish intellectuals on the Aryan side, who gave them refuge and money.
Together with others, Jews and Poles, the two operated a rescue organization. The Polish government-in-exile in London transferred money to them via clandestine couriers, usually American dollars, at least part of which came from the American Joint Distribution Committee. In her diary Berman described how she carried cash with her everywhere in a large bag.
Berman was a librarian. Her husband, chief psychologist in a children's institution, was among the activists of Poalei Zion Smol (Left), a small Zionist and socialist party whose members believed that the Soviet Union would bring about the realization of the Zionist dream. He had connections with the two main Polish underground organizations and with the government-in-exile.
The money was earmarked for Jews who also disguised themselves as Christians and had to pay rent, and buy food and clothing. They were often in need of medical care, which was also hard to find in conditions of hiding and therefore very expensive. Gutman estimates that these efforts led to the rescue of no fewer than 30,000 Jews. Once a librarian, always a librarian: Batya Berman also tried to get books for these Jews.
In her diary Berman recorded the routine of daily life - mainly the difficulty of finding places to sleep for herself, her husband and many other people. "One day we should spend some time discussing tenant-landlord relationships and describing the various types of cheats and vampires who make a living from the terrible catastrophe," she remarked. Often the Jews in hiding fell victim to extortion and if they didn't pay up - to betrayal.
There were people who managed better than others. Several men underwent "cosmetic surgery" as Berman puts it, which was meant to hide the fact that they had been circumcised. And there were Jews in occupied Warsaw who brought babies into the world. Sometimes the pregnancy was unplanned, but there were couples who created new life because they believed their children would have a chance to be happy in a better world.
As the war drew to an end the attempt to survive became more difficult. Berman described a group of Jews who used to wander through the basements of demolished homes. In order not to lose one another, they tied themselves together with a rope. Often they walked in the dark on rotting corpses. Among the ruins they managed to find food, but not water. If they were lucky they found bathtubs that were sometimes covered with fragments of bricks; the tenants - who had disappeared to some unknown place - did not have time to empty them after bathing.
Berman wrote all this down for history. Only rarely did she deviate from her factual report, and then she reprimanded herself: "I promised myself so often not to philosophize, but to describe actual events," she wrote. "There is no value to expressing my thoughts here; on the other hand, facts that are committed to memory can be valuable material."
In its own way this is a very optimistic document; it sanctifies life and demonstrates that there were apparently many more decent Poles than is generally believed. Students who are about to leave for a trip to Poland will learn more from it than their textbooks usually tell them.
As opposed to most of the memoirs of Holocaust survivors, Basia Berman's diary does not end in 1945, but also recounts what happened to her and her husband after the war. Believing in the world of tomorrow, the couple remained in Poland, assisting in the rehabilitation of Jewish life there. She was engaged in restoring the Jewish library, collecting 120,000 volumes in Yiddish and Hebrew, many of which later found their way to the Jewish National and University Library in Jerusalem. He returned to politics and was elected to the Polish parliament. That was a brief period of happiness, during which Emanuel was born. But the communists did not want the Jews who, although they believed in the Soviet Union, did not give up their belief in Zionism. In 1950 the Bermans settled in Tel Aviv, almost out of a lack of choice.
Basia Berman wrote a touching letter to the city's municipal library; the letters are carefully drawn and the language betrays her foreignness. At the time she was still a student in an ulpan (Hebrew-language program). She asked for a job: She described her professional experience and downplayed her heroism. "I want to give all the knowledge I gathered abroad for 20 years to the city of Tel Aviv, which I love very much," she wrote - and apparently did not receive a reply.
Her son Emanuel recalls the sad ending. His mother was ill, and although she worked for a few months as a school librarian, she began to fade: She suffered from Parkinson's and depression, and was aware of it: "I miss a real [political] party very much," she once wrote.
In 1953 Berman passed away. Meanwhile her husband became a Knesset member.
Always with Stalin
Berman represented Mapam (the United Workers Party),.... Moshe Sneh. He founded a new faction and joined the Communist Party. Adolf Berman went with him. After the 1967 Six-Day War he joined various parties established by the left over the years, and in 1978 he passed away as well.
The lifelong hopes of MK Berman seem painfully naive to his son Emanuel, he writes.