Saturday, February 2, 2013

Book Review: The Journal of Helene Berr . . . stunning . . .




As I finished the final pages of this book I was struck by the hidden courage of this young woman. Helene Berr was a young Jewish woman living in Paris with her family, a graduate of the Sorbonne. Her family was well-to-do and her father was in an industry that offered his family some protection from the Final Solution, at least for a while. She begins to write her journal about day-to-day life in Nazi-occupied France when she began noticing her friends disappearing, never to be seen again. Stories began to trickle into Paris about the concentration camps and she feared that without her journal there would soon be nothing left to show she had ever been alive. She gave the pages to the family's non-Jewish cook for safe keeping.

Her writing seems very superficial as she talks about the university, visiting friends and doing volunteer work. Although she is speaking about the restrictions and fears and brutality of the times it is easy sometimes to overlook and I actually found myself a little irritated with her, thinking she was not taking things seriously enough or she didn't seem afraid enough. Of course, I have the fortune (?) of knowing how the war and the Final Solution went. She couldn't possibly know a fact which I believe is why her concerns are tempered with the day-to-day of life. And something that I wouldn't be able to understand perhaps is that even in the worst of times one still needs to eat, sleep and keep occupied. Life continues.

And then she stops writing for almost a year:

I am resuming this diary tonight, after a year's interruption. Why?

Today, on my way home from the Georges and Robert's apartment, I was abruptly assailed by the feeling that I had to describe reality. Just the walk back from rue Margueritte was a whole world of facts and thoughts, images and reflections. Enough for a book.



The chatty writing of the young girl has been replaced by a woman afraid of the unknown, of all the rumours, of dying, of not really mattering. But still her words are educated and beautiful even as they try to grasp and understand the ugliness that is Paris under Hitler's heel.

Her final entry on February 15, 1944 ended with Horror! Horror! Horror! Three weeks later, the Gestapo came during the night. They were arrested and deported to Auschwitz on Helene's 23rd birthday, March 27. Her mother, Antoinette, was gassed and her father, Raymond, was poisoned.  Hélène survived the death march from Auschwitz to Bergen-Belsen where, sick with typhus, she was beaten to death because she was too weak to get up from her bunk for reveille.

Five days later, the camp was liberated by the British Army.

This book is a must read for the prose, for the history and for the chance to learn about a very young woman who made a difference. She was always very vague about her volunteer work, probably to protect the other volunteers, but I discovered that Helene and her mother worked for a group that rescued 600 Jewish children and found them homes outside the occupied zone.