September 24, 2018

The Journey of Dorka Berger: From Childhood in the Lodz Ghetto and Auschwitz to Incarceration in Mandate Palestine

By Leslie Starobin

For over a decade, I have been conversing with Dorka Berger née Altman about her childhood in the Łódź Ghetto and Auschwitz and her journey to Mandate Palestine in 1946. In her Polish diary, she refers to this geographic region as Ziemia Obiecana—the Promised Land. In conversational Hebrew, she refers to it as Eretz Yisrael—the Land of Israel. The warmth of these biblical designations stands in contrast to the welcome Dorka received when she landed in Haifa. The British apprehended the young Holocaust survivor and transported her to the Atlit Detainee Camp 15 kilometers south of the port city. Disembarking from a military vehicle, Dorka surveyed the scene. “Again, barbed wire?”

Last summer I visited Dorka in Jerusalem and presented her with the book Memory Unearthed: The Lodz Ghetto Photographs of Henryk Ross. The catalogue accompanied a 2017 exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Viewing this visual tome sparked Dorka’s memory of the Altman family’s final days in the ghetto before their passage to Auschwitz in cattle cars.

One of the most striking photographs in the collection was taken during the liquidation of the Łódź Ghetto in August 1944. Ross had photographed the deportation from a crack in a wall in a storeroom across from the train depot. Afterwards, he buried his negatives in the ground so they could be dug up later to serve as indisputable evidence of Nazi crimes. In the foreground of this particular picture, a Jewish policeman clutches a suitcase. Behind him is a densely packed crowd of Jews. After seeing this photograph in the book, Dorka recalled that no Jewish policemen stood on guard when they arrived at the station—only German soldiers. “They even helped Ima get up onto the platform from the ground.” On the loading dock, a Nazi scooped jam onto square sheets of newspaper. “Everyone got a little loaf of bread—it was like a treasure that fell from the sky—and a teaspoon of jam. Everyone said, ‘Even a drop should not fall. Even a drop gives you strength. It’s jam, it’s sugar.’ They licked the paper, so nothing would be lost.”

Months after Dorka and I perused this book of photographs, her own wartime chronicle resurfaced. Long forgotten, the Diary of Dwojra Altman turned up in the archives of the Jewish Historical Commission in Warsaw. An Israeli Ph.D. student discovered a copy of it while doing research in Poland. Recognizing the surname, he reached out to Dorka’s sons in Jerusalem. They contacted my husband, who is Dorka’s nephew. I shared the diary with a native Polish speaker who assisted with the English translation.

Reading it, I discovered that Dorka had noted the date of the transport to Auschwitz—August 17, 1944. On the opening page of her diary, inaugurated on July 2, 1945 in Łódź where the Altman sisters returned after liberation, Dorka venerated her parents who perished in Auschwitz. A few pages later, Dorka acknowledged their loss and expressed her hopes for the future:

I will never see my beloved parents again. I know that all too well. But if it were possible to go to Ima’s grave, to Aba’s, to pray for their souls, or at least to cry my eyes, I would feel a lot better in my heart…. I miss them terribly…. I can’t speak of this [to] my sisters, so as not to remind them, although they are suffering as much as me…. They think about our future existence…. I would just like to leave this country, which created so much evil for me, such complete tragedy for me. Possibly in the Promised Land it will be better for me.

Exactly one year later, Dorka glimpsed the shores of Zion from the deck of the Birya, the Turkish vessel she boarded near Marseilles, France for the journey to Eretz Yisrael. As the sun rose on July 2, 1946, a cry broke out among the ma’apilim—illegal immigrants—on the ship. We stood up like one person and together we started to sing ‘HaTikva’ from all of our hearts,” Dorka said. “Now, when I hear ‘HaTikva,’ I am used to it, but then it was very emotional. Even with confused words, a thousand people [were] singing from their hearts.”

Unbeknownst to the British authorities guarding the entry to the port of Haifa, an American reporter named I.F. Stone had embarked on the journey. “The journalist took a megaphone and pointed it towards the British. He shouted to them in their language. ‘Whoever listens to such a “HaTikva” knows that you cannot defeat these people.’”

In a recent conversation by Skype, I asked Dorka why she didn’t bring the diary to Eretz Yisrael in 1946. “We were told [by Haganah emissaries leading the Bricha—the escape from Europe] that we would not be able to carry many things on the journey.” A representative of one of the Jewish agencies assisting survivors in Poland offered to take the journal from her and deposit it in a safe place in Warsaw.

Today Dorka regularly speaks to visiting groups at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. On the eve of the 70th anniversary of Israeli independence, Dorka described her passage on the Birya to an attentive crowd of Israelis and reminisced about her incarceration at Atlit in July 1946.

“The British soldiers were intense,” Dorka recalled in our June conversation, “but not threatening.” The British permitted nearby kibbutznikim to visit the camp everyday and mingle with the newcomers. “We loved them very much. They taught us songs in Hebrew. We would go very near to the soldiers, singing ‘Kalaniot,’” a Hebrew folk song about anemones ablaze in the valley. The bloom of the flowers matched the red of the soldiers’ berets. The tune had become the code song to alert Jewish fighters about the advance of British forces, but Dorka and the other ma’apilim were unaware of the cipher. “We annoyed them [the soldiers]. They were nervous. Because they were nervous, it was funny for us. We were young,” Dorka said.

Then, less than two weeks after Dorka arrived in Mandate Palestine, the Irgun bombed the King David Hotel on July 22. At Atlit, Dorka heard few details about the explosion other than something “big” had happened in Jerusalem.

A few weeks later, Dorka moved to the contested city. A representative from Agudat Yisrael, one of the ultra-Orthodox political parties facilitating Jewish immigration to Mandate Palestine, arrived at Atlit and requested to bring Dorka to Jerusalem to study. At Penina Bet Yakov, a girls’ boarding school, female teachers greeted her. “They say here comes a new girl. She speaks Polish. Who wants to be her friend? Another time a Hungarian girl arrives. The next time a Romanian girl arrives.” Then a German girl entered the classroom. “She looks at me. I look at her.”

A year earlier, when Dorka began chronicling her wartime memories, she could not have imagined reconnecting with this schoolmate from the Łódź ghetto. To her confidante—the diary, Dorka had disclosed, “I don’t have any friends. They all fell victims of Majdanek and Auschwitz. I’m the only one from my class still here, possibly by accident, or saved by a miracle.”

The two survivors became lifelong friends.

With the discovery of the Diary of Dwojra Altman, I am compiling an essay—juxtaposing singular excerpts from the journal with edited passages from my recorded conversations with Dorka. While I write about her wartime experiences, I often look at Memory Unearthed: The Lodz Ghetto Photographs of Henryk Ross. No matter how chilling the deportation scene is, an educator at Yad Vashem points out in a video, Ross’s picture “cannot show us what happened inside the cattle cars or what happened when the Jews of Łódź arrived at their final destination—Auschwitz. For this historical information, we rely on the testimonies of survivors.”

 

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