The Journal of Helene Berr

The Journal of Helene Berr

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by Hélène Berr

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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, 63 years after her death in a Nazi concentration camp.

On April 7, 1942, Hélène Berr, a 21-year-old Jewish student of English literature at

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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, 63 years after her death in a Nazi concentration camp.

On April 7, 1942, Hélène Berr, a 21-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 more rich, all the more 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 more, humiliations were to follow, which she records, now with a view to posterity. She wants the journal to go to her fiancé, 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 15, 1944, 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 1945, within a month of Anne Frank and just days before the liberation of the camp.

The journal did eventually reach her fiancé, and for over fifty years it was kept private. In 2002, it was donated to the Memorial of the Shoah in Paris. Before it was first published in France in January 2008, translation rights had already been sold for twelve languages.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal

The diary of a young Sorbonne graduate who died at Bergen-Belsen, this important new addition to the literature on the Holocaust and the French Occupation is sure to be welcomed by general readers and scholars alike. Already a publishing sensation in France, it survived in obscurity as a family heirloom until relatively recently, when the original was first displayed at the Memorial of the Shoah in Paris. The diary recounts the experiences and private thoughts of the 21-year-old daughter of a prominent Jewish family as she and those she loved suffered the indignities of life under the Occupation prior to their arrest and ultimate deportation and death. A student of English literature with a decidedly intellectual bent, Berr sought respite in reading, writing, and music to escape the tragedy unraveling around her. While surprisingly devoid of straightforward political commentary, the diary reveals that the "sinister meaning of it all" was not immediately apparent to Berr and those around her, itself a significant commentary on the mood and insecurities of the time. Translated by Bellos (French & comparative literature, Princeton Univ.; Georges Perec: A Life in Words), the volume includes useful annotations as well as a postscript that places the plight of French Jewry within historical context. Highly recommended.
—Marie Marmo Mullaney

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Friday, 10 July

At the library I had nothing to do. I almost finished Eyeless in Gaza. Remarkable.

Nicole S. came to collect me.

Mlle Detraux for lunch.

A new order’s been issued today, about the métro. In fact, this morning, at École Militaire, I was about to get into the front carriage when I suddenly realized that the harsh words of the inspector were addressed to me: “You there, in the other carriage.” I ran like a hare not to miss the train, and when I got into the last-but-one carriage, tears were pouring from my eyes, tears of rage, and of protest against this brutality.

In addition, Jews are no longer entitled to cross the Champs-Elysées. Theatres and restaurants are off limits. The news has been couched in normal and hypocritical terms, as if it was an established fact that Jews are persecuted in France, as if it was a given, accepted as a necessity and a right.

When I thought about it, I boiled with such rage that I had to come into this bedroom to calm myself down.

Went to the Charpentier gallery with Nicole and Bernard, who took us back to his place for tea.

Saturday, 11 July

Music practice. Afterwards, the Pineaus and Françoise Masse as well as Legrand were here. Played the “Trout” Quintet. I wasn’t the hostess I wanted to be. Around 6.30 . . . the corset-maker and Mlle Monsaingeon called. When I returned to the lounge, it was too late. Everyone was leaving. The Simons came after dinner.

Sunday, 12 July

Aubergenville with Mme Lévy.

Monday, 13 July

Jean Morawiecki at the library. He walked back here with me without waiting for his exam results. . . .

Wednesday, 15 July, 11.00 p.m.

Something is brewing, something that will be a tragedy, maybe the tragedy.

M. Simon came round this evening at 10.00 to warn us that he’d been told about a round-up for the day after tomorrow, twenty thousand people. I’ve learned to associate the man with disasters.

Day began by reading the new order at the shoe shop, also ended the same way.

A wave of terror has been gripping everybody else as well these past few days. It appears that the S.S. have taken command in France and that terror must follow.

Without saying so, everybody disapproves of our staying. But when we broach the subject ourselves, disapproval is expressed in no uncertain terms: yesterday, it was Mme Lyon-Caen; today, Margot, Robert, M. Simon.

Saturday, 18 July

I am resuming this diary today. On Thursday I thought life might have ground to a halt. But it has gone on. It has resumed. Yesterday evening, after my day at the library, it had returned to such normality that I could hardly believe what had happened the previous day. Since yesterday it has turned again. When I got home just now, Maman announced that there was a great deal of hope for Papa. On the one hand, there’s Papa’s return. On the other, this departure for the Free Zone. Each of these things brings its own trial. The departure gave me a feeling almost of despair, I can’t work out why. I came home geared up for the struggle, united with the good against the bad; I had been to see Mme Biéder, that poor mother of eight whose husband has been deported; she lives in Faubourg Saint-Denis. Denise and I stayed with her for a quarter of an hour; as we left, I felt almost glad to have plunged myself into real suffering. I definitely felt that I was guilty, that there was something I hadn’t been seeing, and that this was reality. This woman’s sister who has four children has been taken away. On the evening of the round-up she had gone into hiding, but fate had her come back down to see the concierge just when the policeman was coming to get her. Mme Biéder is like a hunted animal. She’s not afraid for herself. But she’s afraid they’ll take her children away. Some of the children they took had to be dragged along the floor. In Montmartre there were so many arrests that the streets were jammed. Faubourg Saint-Denis has nearly been emptied. Mothers have been separated from their children.

I’m noting the facts, in haste, so as not to forget them, because we must not forget.

In Mlle Monsaingeon’s neighbourhood, a whole family, the father, the mother and five children, gassed themselves to escape the round-up.

One woman threw herself out of a window.

Apparently several policeman have been shot for warning people so they could escape. They were threatened with the concentration camp if they failed to obey. Who is going to feed the internees at Drancy now their wives have been arrested? The kids will never find their parents again. What are the longer-term consequences of what happened at dawn the day before yesterday?

Margot’s cousin, who left last week, and we knew she hadn’t succeeded in her attempt, was caught at the demarcation line and thrown into jail after they’d interrogated her eleven-year-old son for hours to get him to confess that she was Jewish; she has diabetes, and four days later she was dead. It’s over. The prison matron had her moved to a hospital when she went into a coma, but it was too late.

On the métro I met Mme Baur, looking as gorgeous as ever. But she was worn out. She did not recognize me straight away. She seemed amazed that we were still there. I always want to be proud when responding to that. She told me we would have lots to do at the U.G.I.F. She didn’t hide the fact that it would soon be the turn of women who were French citizens. When she mentioned Odile, it seemed like something very far away.

But if we have to leave, to leave and abandon struggle and heroism in exchange for dullness and despondency — no, I’ll do something. The common people are admirable. Apparently quite a lot of factory girls lived with Jews. They are all coming forward to request permission to marry to save their men from deportation.

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