Not Since The Diary Of Anne Frank Has There Been Such A Book As This The Joyful But Ultimately Heartbreaking Journal Of A Young Jewish Woman In Occupied Paris, Now Being Published For The First Time, Years After Her Death In A Nazi Concentration CampOn April , , H L Ne Berr, A Year Old Jewish Student Of English Literature At The Sorbonne, Took Up Her Pen And Started To Keep A Journal, Writing With Verve And Style About Her Everyday Life In Paris About Her Studies, Her Friends, Her Growing Affection For The Boy With The Grey Eyes, About The Sun In The Dewdrops, And About The Effect Of The Growing Restrictions Imposed By France S Nazi Occupiers Berr Brought A Keen Literary Sensibility To Her Writing, A Talent That Renders The Story It Relates All The Rich, All The Heartbreaking The First Day Berr Has To Wear The Yellow Star On Her Coat, She Writes, I Held My Head High And Looked People So Straight In The Eye They Turned Away But It S Hard More, Many , Humiliations Were To Follow, Which She Records, Now With A View To Posterity She Wants The Journal To Go To Her Fianc , Who Has Enrolled With The Free French Forces, As She Knows She May Not Live Much Longer She Was Right The Final Entry Is Dated February , , And Ends With The Chilling Words Horror Horror Horror Berr And Her Family Were Arrested Three Weeks Later She Went As Was Discovered Later On The Death March From Auschwitz To Bergen Belsen, Where She Died Of Typhus In April , Within A Month Of Anne Frank And Just Days Before The Liberation Of The CampThe Journal Did Eventually Reach Her Fianc , And For Over Fifty Years It Was Kept Private In , It Was Donated To The Memorial Of The Shoah In Paris Before It Was First Published In France In January , Translation Rights Had Already Been Sold For Twelve Languages This book hurt to read In part because Berr s writing even in translation tho not entirely, since apparently much of the journal was written in English, in which she was fluent is beautiful and lucid But even because of the sickening and inescapable knowledge which haunts the reader throughout the duration of this book, of what was to come, and what would ultimately befall her The book itself is not long, but the sense of awful waiting and knowing seemed to slow the process of reading down so that, at times, it almost felt as tho I was experiencing Berr s life in real time I think this effect was pronounced because I tended to read it in small sections I needed time to digest process much of what she recounted, I simply couldn t devour this book like a novel I was grateful for some of the explanatory material that accompanied Berr s writing footnotes, forward and afterword which elucidated a lot of potentially obscure details which otherwise would have escaped me entirely Needless to say, this is an important book, a rare first hand account of what happened under Nazi rule, written by a young woman who, surrounded by injustice and inhumanity, wrote I still believe that good is superior to evil. Helene Berr s journal begins in April 1942 She s an incredibly gifted student studying English literature at the Sorbonne in Paris Apparently much of her journal was written in English She s also a very gifted musician Her family is Jewish, wealthy and long settled in France For the first eighty pages there s barely a mention of the war or of the Nazis occupying her country Helene is caught up in the excitements of her student life She had a boyfriend who has left France to fight for the Free French but is increasingly unsure of her feelings for him Her journal concentrates on these doubts, on beautiful descriptions of Paris and her second home in the country, her university life, her studies Shakespeare, Shelley and Keats all very prominent and her love of playing the violin in music groups It s a beautiful unfiltered vivid account of her life Thus we get to know Helene as a young girl we can all recognise Then she meets the tremendously handsome Jean Morawiecki, a fellow student at the Sorbonne and gradually falls in love Probably the most poignant aspect of this journal is the coincidence of her falling in love just at the moment when the horror of Nazi policy towards the Jews could no longer be ignored On the one hand she couldn t feel lucky, on the other she couldn t feel unfairly persecuted This culminates with the first day she has to wear the yellow star Never has anyone made me feel keenly what an absolute humiliation that must have felt like Eventually Jean too leaves France to fight for the Free French Helene doesn t write a word for almost a year afterwards When she returns to her journal her voice has changed Now she is writing for Jean and her writing loses a lot of its freshness and immediacy Her vibrant personality no longer informs her writing The journal becomes a bit stiff and self conscious It s as if she now knows she is writing for posterity Now she s working for a Jewish organisation, supported by the Nazis, which also has a clandestine branch devoted to finding orphan Jewish children safe homes Helene and her parents now sleep with friends but it s like a stubborn fatalism has taken hold of her Perhaps she feels guilty that she is still safe while most of her friends have been deported It s at this point that one can t help wanting to shout at her For god s sake save yourself Instead, despite all the warnings, she and her parents sleep in their own home one night in March 1944 and are arrested Contrary to the narrative in many Holocaust novels when so often characters seem to know all about Auschwitz as early as 1943 Helene, despite being very well connected in Jewish resistance circles, still knows nothing about the death camps She survived eight months in Auschwitz and five months in Bergen Belsen, before being beaten to death for being too weak to attend rollcall only five days before the liberation of the camp When Jean read her journal after the war he wrote, if it made her present, it only emphasised the cruelty of her irremediable absence a pale and frozen hand stretched out towards me so I could bring it back to life This journal brings Helene back to life with a force that absolutely wrings your heart It s one of the most powerful pleas against racism I ve ever read Unbelievable and unforgivable that there are still so many people in the world who scapegoat and spew hatred on ethnic minorities The worst and most dangerous form of self aggrandising ignorance.My only minor gripe is that there wasn t an afterward informing us what happened to Helene s friends I was especially interested in Francoise Bernheim who, by all accounts, was as vivacious and gifted as Helene and her best friend There s only one mention of her on Google but it would appear she died at Auschwitz I can t help wondering if they saw each other there. I have a duty to write because other people must know Every hour of every day there is another painful realization that other folkdo not know, do not even imagine, the suffering of other men, the evil that some of them inflict And I am still trying to make the painful effort to tell the story.H l ne Berr writes these words on October 10, 1943, a year and a half after the opening entry of The Journal of H l ne Berr This entry marks a profound change in the emotional and intellectual life of a compassionate, smart, sophisticated but sheltered young woman H l ne Berr is one of five children of an upper middle class Parisian family Although she is raised by an Ashkenazi Jewish father and Sephardic Jewish mother, religion plays far less a role in her life than secular education She is a graduate of the Sorbonne, seeking an advanced degree as her journal begins She is an accomplished musician, linguist and scholar of Western literature H l ne is curious, articulate and like many young women in the bloom of their early twenties, she loves the attention of men, she adores her many female friends she lives for the pleasure of weekends in the country and discussing literature in Parisian caf s But she is a Jew It is Occupied Paris, 1942 And this remarkable account by a young woman living through the nightmare of Nazi occupation and French collusion is a unique treasure rarely are we able to hold in our hands, heart and mind the real time thoughts and actions of a life in drastic transition The obvious comparison to H l ne s journal is The Diary of Anne Frank The difference is that H l ne is free as she writes, she is able to move about her beloved Paris, she has means and a degree of social freedom For the reader, this holds a particular pain we know this spirited woman is doomed, yet we rejoice with her as she gathers flowers at the family s country home in Aubergenville, as she contemplates her future with one of two men who may love her, as she practices Bach and trembles at Keats Reading, I ache to push her south to Spain, west to England I whisper Run, run, H l ne, run while there is still time H l ne s journal from April November 1942 is a slow progression from anecdotes about the impact of war on daily life in Paris to growing indignation and fear at the vulnerability of her Jewish family and friends The most unspeakable happens her father is arrested in June 1942 and sent to Drancy, a prison camp just outside the city Amazingly, he is released a few months later and shortly after that H l ne falls silent, for nearly a year It is when she resumes her journal again, in October 1943, that the pretty, flighty girl has become an analytical, hardened woman The compassion and the appreciation of beauty remain, but H l ne seems resigned to her fate I found this passage so profound Who amongst us has not asked how the German people allowed the Holocaust to happen Could the soldiers of the Occupation all have been monsters H l ne writesSo why do the German soldiers I pass on the street not slap or insult me Why do they quite often hold the metro door open for me and say Excuse me, miss when they pass in front Why Because those people do not know, or rather, they have stopped thinkingthey just want to obey orders So they do not even see the incomprehensible illogicality of opening a door for me one day and perhaps deporting me the next day yet I would still be the same person They have forgotten the principle of causality There is also the possibility that they do not know everything The atrocious characteristic of this regime is its hypocrisy They do not know all the horrible details of the persecutions, because there is only a small group of torturers involved, alongside the Gestapo.H l ne and her parents are arrested in their home in March 1944 H l ne perishes at Bergen Belsen in November 1944, five days before the camp is liberated by the British H l ne regularly gave pages of her journal to a family employee a surviving family member in turn gave the journal to H l ne s true love, Jean Morawiecki The translator, David Bellos, shepherded the work to publication in France in 2008 to enormous acclaim The original manuscript now resides at the beautiful and haunting M morial de la Shoah in Paris s Marais district H l ne is an extraordinary writer she has the soul of a poet and the vocabulary of a scholar Her words are a gift to her readers, her life a sacrifice without sense We honor her memory by honoring her wish that, by reading what she saw and experienced, we will never forget. Reading Helene Berr s journal is, quite simply, a touching, personal, and unexpectedly eye opening testimony about Paris during World War II The journal was not meant to be read by a mass audience, per se, so it doesn t read like a conventional memoir There are incomplete passages, inexplicable references, and, quite often, page after page of a young woman being well, a young woman What is so amazing about this book, though, is 1 to get a first hand narrative of daily life in Paris under the German Occupation, and 2 to see how a young person, filled with such hope and joie de vivre, was emotionally impacted by the ever increasing restrictions placed on French Jews under the Vichy Government Helene was an amazing person a musical prodigy, a passionate bibliophile, an ardent romantic, and a dedicated daughter I am so grateful for her words, and so saddened that she never got to fulfill the longevity she so deserved.
Jewish H l ne Berr kept a diary during World War II that has been published in French and translated by David Bellos into English.
- 320 pages
- Hélène Berr
- 19 February 2018 Hélène Berr