My rating: 5 of 5 stars
“…I have a duty to write because other people must know. Every hour of every day there is another painful realization that other folk do 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.
Hélène Berr writes these words on October 10, 1943, a year and a half after the opening entry of The Journal of Hélène Berr. This entry marks a profound change in the emotional and intellectual life of a compassionate, smart, sophisticated but sheltered young woman.
Hélène Berr is one of five children of an upper-middle class Parisian family. Although 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. Hélène 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 cafés.
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 Hélène’s journal is The Diary of Anne Frank. The difference is that Hélène 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, Hélène, run while there is still time.”
Hélène’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 Hélène 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 Hélène seems resigned to her fate. I found this passage so profound. Who among us has not asked how the German people allowed the Holocaust to happen? Could the soldiers of the Occupation all have been monsters? Hélène writes:
‘So 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 thinking; they 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.
Hélène and her parents are arrested in their home in March 1944. Hélène perishes at Bergen-Belsen in November 1944, five days before the camp is liberated by the British.
Hélène regularly gave pages of her journal to a family employee; a surviving family member in turn gave the journal to Hélène’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 Mémorial de la Shoah in Paris’s Marais district.
Hélène 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. By reading what Hélène saw and experienced, we honor her hope: that we will never forget
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