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Hélène Berr's "Journal": the descent to hell of a young Jewish woman in occupied Paris

She felt something for Gérard but was not quite sure what it was. Then she met Jean and discovered love at once. Lancelot, Sparkenbroke, Charlotte Brontë: her friends wore strange nicknames borrowed from their favourite books and authors. She studied English literature at the Sorbonne, played Mozart on the violin and, as so many romantic young girls of her age, kept a passionate diary that was never intended for publication – would she not have been a Jew in German ruled Paris and perished on a death march between Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. Now available at Dibuka, Hélène Berr's “Journal” is a heartbreaking account of crushed innocence, a poignant testimony on the question of deportation.

Yellow Star

To grasp Hélène Berr's story, one has to understand the particular situation of French Jews before World War II. Emancipated by laws dating back to the Revolution of 1789, they enjoyed a status of equality to any other citizen. This model of integration made it difficult for an established family such as Hélène's to understand that “Jewishness” had become a quality making any other irrelevant to the Nazis and their French collaborators. Hélène abruptly realised this in 1942. "I suffered there, in the sunlit Sorbonne courtyard, among my comrades. I suddenly felt I was no longer myself, that everything had changed, that I had become a foreigner, as if I was in the grip of a nightmare" she wrote on the 9th of June. A few days earlier, German and French authorities had prompted the obligation on all Jews to wear the infamous yellow star. Suddenly declared different from her friends, Hélène perceived for the first time the trap she was pushed into.

A poignant combination

From that moment on, her diary mixes the most innocent passages – tea-time with friends, the romance with Jean... – with a clear-headed description of her slow descent into hell. “On Monday morning, twenty-five families were arrested (…) without the slightest reason. Their apartments were sealed straight away” she wrote on the 27th of October, 1943. “If that happens here, I would want to save my violin, the red folder into which I put Jean's letters and the few books I've not been able to part with” she pursued with disarming candour. This combination of joyful futilities with the direst tragedies makes Hélène Berr's diary a suffocating insight in absurdness and horror. Written with genuine literary qualities, this tale of an enviable appetite for life and beauty turned into despair and death will stay with its reader for long.

Hadrien Diez

You can have here a virtual tour in French of the exhibition dedicated to Hélène Berr by the Shoah Memorial in Paris.

You can also listen here to excerpts of Helene Berr's Journal read in French by the actress Elsa Zylberstein.

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