On August 27, 1940, Maria Rotblat, the director of a Jewish orphanage in the Warsaw Ghetto, wrote a letter to Regina Bergman, one of the students who had been in her care and who fled the city a year earlier, after the German invasion of Poland. “My dear, I’m happy at your happiness. I bless you Reginka, just as your mother would, and I am so delighted with your joy, just as she would be,” she wrote.
Behind these warm words lay a grim reality. Rotblat and the one hundred orphaned girls she was caring for at the Youth Home for Girls — a boarding school affiliated with the Central Agency for the Care of Orphans — were trapped inside the ghetto. Bergman’s parents had died when she was a child, and she then moved to Rotblat’s orphanage. When the war broke out, she fled the bombardment of Warsaw and moved east to areas under Soviet rule.
Rotblat tried to see the bright side of things and encouraged Bergman to be happy with her lot, with the fact that she was free, and newly and happily married. “You are in the hands of a man guided by values, who loves you with the love you are worthy of, someone who respects you” she wrote to her former student. “When you have a man beside you who loves you and whom you love, life and its circumstances are not frightening or difficult. Do you remember, Reginka, the words describing how ‘life is worth living if there is something to live for’?” she asked.
Rotblat smuggled her letters out of the ghetto to the Aryan side of Warsaw. From there, they were sent east to Bergman, who kept them until the day she died in 2013 at the age of 95.
“Those letters were very dear to her heart, but now we’ve decided to entrust them to an archive, since they’ve begun to crumble,” Bergman’s daughter Miriam explained this week. Last summer, the letters, written in Polish, were transferred to the archive at the Ghetto Fighters’ House Museum at Kibbutz Lohamei Hagetaot north of Haifa. The letters were carefully handled there and translated into Hebrew. Ahead of Holocaust Remembrance Day, which is being marked this Wednesday evening and Thursday, they are now being made public for the first time.
The letters reveal a close bond between the two women, the director and her former ward, who despite the difficult circumstances, managed to maintain contact during the war. “My dear Reginka, Any news from you is cause for celebration for me. ... The longing and yearning to see people who I am close to is so great that it is overwhelming,” Rotblat wrote in November 1940. In a request to Bergman’s husband, she added: “Could you write and tell me what your wife, my Reginka, looks like now? Is she healthy? Is she happy? Have you already gotten to know her and to appreciate her pure character? Is she a bit more serious now that she’s a married woman? I really beg you to answer all these questions.”
Later in that letter, Rotblat writes: “My dear and beloved ones, If you only knew how much I worry about you since I don’t know how you really are. There is nothing new here. I work, and since there is no shortage of work, I don’t have time to think too much.... I haven’t been paid for four months, but that’s insignificant compared to the really serious problems. I embrace you, my children, and kiss you from my heart. Can you feel, Reginka, how strong [it is]?”
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The correspondence between the two continued as Bergman wandered across the Soviet Union. She stopped first in Bialystok, which in 1939, by virtue of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact between Germany and the Soviet Union, was transferred to Soviet rule. Later she was deported to Soviet labor camps in Siberia. From there she and her husband continued to Dagestan and Turkmenistan in Soviet Central Asia.
As as result of the war, there were interruptions in their correspondence. Some of the letters apparently did not arrive at their destination in a timely fashion — or at all. On January 21, 1941, Rotblat noted that she had stopped receiving letters from Bergman. “For several months, I’ve had no news from you. I’ve written countless letters, and I have the impression that my words to you end up in a vacuum. I’m scared to death”, the orphanage director wrote. “My love, There hasn’t been a moment that my thoughts have not been with you. Always, but always, they involve you. There isn’t a moment in which I don’t think about you, my good Reginka, my dear and beloved one. The worst thing is the sense of helplessness: Right, my dear?”
At the end of her letter, Rotblat expressed concern for her other wards, who were in hiding in various places as a result of the war. “If I could divide myself into pieces and send each one of you part of my heart, you could bear anything, knowing that I am on the job, waiting for the moment when I can gather all of you [back] to me,” she wrote.
In March 1941, Rotblat wrote that her work at the ghetto orphanage was helping her deal with the harsh reality. “If I didn’t have the concern over one hundred girls, I probably would go crazy, but these concerns don’t permit me to, and I hold on because of them,” she wrote.
The archive at the Ghetto Fighters’ House has a photo of Rotblat with some of the girls who were cared for at her orphanage during the war. There are no photos of Bergman during the war years. Her daughter explained that, when her parents wandered across the Soviet Union fleeing the Nazis, they did not take photo albums with them.
“There was a strong bond between my mother and Rotblat, and there was great mutual love there,” said Bergman’s daughter Miriam. The letters attest to that.
In one letter, Rotblat wrote: “My Reginka, I place my entire heart and soul in these few words that I write. You mustn’t doubt. I am trying with all my might to make you understand that I think about you all the time. I’m bothered by the fact that I can’t help you with anything. Despite all my efforts, at work I’m always with you in my thoughts. I always see you in front of my eyes. Listen, my dear daughter. I need to see you at my table before I die. I’m sure of that.” A final postcard was sent by Rotblat on May 27, 1941, after a long break in contact. “My dearest Reginka, For a few months, there has been no word from you. I know this doesn’t mean you’ve forgotten me, just as I haven’t forgotten you. My dear, hang on. Be brave. I constantly live with the hope that I will see you. I am always think of you, talking and remembering non-stop. We must see each other again. Do you understand, Reginka? We must.”
Rotblat’s wish did not come true. In August of 1942, in the course of the Nazi’s mass roundup operation known as the Grossaktion, she and the orphans under her care were led to the ghetto square from which the deportations were carried out. Through the intervention of one of her colleagues, all of them were released. The children were sent to other institutions affiliated with the Central Agency for the Care of Orphans.
Maria and her son, Leib, who was active in the Akiva movement, part of the Jewish Fighting Organization, found a hiding place. With the outbreak of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising in April 1943, Maria Rotblat was smuggled into the famed bunker at 18 Mila Street, where Jewish Fighting Organization members, under the leadership of Mordechai Anielewicz, were hiding.
When the bunker was attacked by the Germans, Maria Rotblat’s son shot and killed her at her request. He then committed suicide along with dozens of other fighters who refused to surrender to the Nazis. Rotblat and her son were buried in a mass grave along with the other fighters.
Bergman, Rotblat’s former ward, survived the war with her husband, Zvi. They immigrated to Israel in 1950 along with their two daughters, Miriam and Sarah. Bergman worked in Israel as a psychiatric nurse.