Michael Dirda on 'The Journal of Helene Berr'

By Michael Dirda
Sunday, November 23, 2008


Translated from the French by David Bellos

Weinstein. 307 pp. $24.95

The Journal of Hélène Berr is a relatively late addition to that most sorrowful of genres, one that should never have come to exist: Holocaust literature. Its title subtly recalls the most famous testimony to the horror of life under Nazi domination, The Diary of Anne Frank. As it happens, these two vital and deeply appealing diarists described precisely the same period -- 1942 to 1944 -- but with a significant difference: While the adolescent Frank hid in her secret rooms in Amsterdam, Berr carried on with her life as a university student in occupied Paris. At least for a while. Ultimately, though, both shared the same fate: death at Bergen-Belsen in 1945. The two young women were imprisoned there at the same time. They might have met.

As the journal begins in the spring of 1942, Hélène Berr picks up a package left with a Paris concierge. France's most distinguished poet has kindly inscribed one of his books to her: "On waking, so soft is the light and so fine this living blue, Paul Valery." The next day Berr records that she and her friends are planning a picnic to her family's country place at Aubergenville. In Paris itself life consists of English classes, evenings of chamber music (Bach, Schumann, Chopin), visits to bookshops, the reading of Russian novels or romantic poetry. Berr confesses that she might be in love with a young man named Gérard -- until she meets a fellow student named Jean Morawiecki. Her heart is suddenly torn. Full of emotional confusion, the 20-year-old finds refuge in the study of Old English. A dozen pages of the journal go by before there is any mention of the Germans.

After all, why discuss such unpleasantness? Hélène Berr belongs to a privileged family and class, her father being the eminent and valued managing director of Etablissements Kuhlmann, an important chemical company. Though Jewish, the Berrs are thoroughly French -- and haut-bourgeois -- in their outlook and culture. They certainly have almost nothing in common with the lower-class and sometimes now stateless émigré Jews occasionally being detained by the Germans. One could hardly imagine that such people and the elegant Berrs belonged to the same race -- at least not until the edict of May 29, 1942, ordering all Jews to wear a yellow star.

At first Berr hesitates, considering it "degrading," but ultimately she changes her mind out of a brave sense of solidarity. Her pages about publicly displaying this hateful insignia are both piteous and shocking:

"I was very courageous all day long. I held my head high, and I stared at other people so hard that it made them avert their eyes. But it's difficult . . . This afternoon it all started over again. I had to fetch Vivi Lafon from her English exam at 2:00. I did not want to wear the star, but I ended up doing so, thinking my reluctance was cowardly. First of all there were two girls in avenue de La Bourdonnais who pointed at me. Then at Ecole Militaire métro station . . . the ticket inspector said: 'Last carriage.' . . . I suddenly felt I was no longer myself, that everything had changed, that I had become a foreigner, as if I were in the grip of a nightmare. I could see familiar faces all around me, but I could feel their awkwardness and bafflement." It's all horrible, she knows, but then she thinks about Jean. The shy couple take walks, listen to records together, visit each other's families . . . and suddenly life is beautiful again. Berr is any young woman in love with a young man who loves her.

But one evening she arrives home to discover that her father has been arrested. Raymond Berr spends three months in Drancy, an internment camp near Paris. Berr, her mother and sister visit, and they notice the working-class Jews all around them in the visitor's room. "The four of us were so distant from those poor folk that we could hardly conceive that Papa was a prisoner too." But Papa is a prisoner too, and slowly Berr's consciousness begins to alter.

Etablissements Kuhlmann eventually pays a ransom to have Raymond Berr released, and the family continues its life in Paris. Some of their friends escape to Vichy France, and yet the Berrs decide to stay put, out of a sense of dignity, steadfastly refusing to be cowardly, believing it important to stand together with other Frenchmen. Berr herself touchingly confesses that it's "because of him [Jean] that I do not want to leave." Everyone is in denial. Nobody can quite believe that worse is yet to come.

Then it is announced that "Jews are no longer entitled to cross the Champs-Elysées. Theaters and restaurants are off-limits." Neighbors begin to warn the family about a series of roundups. Hélène Berr starts to record what she hears as well as sees:

"In Mlle Monsaingeon's neighborhood, a whole family, the father, the mother, and five children, gassed themselves to escape the roundup.

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