Title: The Journal of Helene Berr
Author: Helene Berr
Date Finished: 27 July 2009
My Rating: 4 Stars
Challenges: NF-5, WWII, Library, New Author, 100+
"It makes me happy to think that if I am taken, Andree will have kept these pages, which are a piece of me, the most precious part, because no other material thing matters to me anymore; what must be rescued is the soul and the memory it contains."
Helene Berr was an intelligent, caring, and highly talented young woman living in Paris during WWII. She graduated from the Sorbonne with a degree in English Language and literature and would have earned further degrees and distinctions if not for anti-semitic laws that prevented her from doing so. She was a highly accomplished violinist and in 1941 she became involved with a clandestine group established to save Jewish children from deportation.
Helene began keeping her journal in 1942 and kept writing in it, with a few breaks along the way, until she and her parents were deported in 1944. After spending time at Auschwitz Helene was transferred to Bergan-Belsen where she died, just 5 days before the camp was liberated, after being brutally beaten. Her journal is a vivid eyewitness account detailing many of the acts of persecution perpetrated against the Jews living in France under Nazi rule.
Jean Morawiecki, the man Helene probably would have married had she survived the war, said this of Helene, "Beings like Helene-and I'm not sure there are any like her-are not only strong and beautiful in themselves. They spread a sense of strength to others who are able to understand them. For me, Helene was the symbol of strength-a radiant strength composed of attraction, beauty, harmony, persuasion, confidence, and loyalty. It has all vanished. Her death takes away the woman I loved and, even more, a soul that was close to my own. She has taken with her all that I could give her-my confidence, my love, my energy."
I believe Helene's words express who she was better than I could ever attempt to do. Here are a few samples of her writing from her journal.
A friend of Helene's made the comment "I can't stand seeing people with that on" referring to Helene's yellow star of David that the Jews had recently been required to wear. Helene wrote in her journal, "I realize that: it offends other people. But if they only knew what a crucifixion it is for me. 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 were in the grip of a nightmare. I could see familiar faces all around me, but I could feel their awkwardness and bafflement. It was as if my forehead had been seared with a branding iron."
On why she continued to write even though it was difficult for her at times Helene wrote, "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. Because it is a duty, it is maybe the only one I can fulfill...So I must write to show people later on what these times are like. I know that many others will have more important lessons to teach, and more terrible facts to reveal. I am thinking of all the deportees, all those in prison, all those who set off on t he great adventure of escape. But that should not make me a coward; each of us in our own small sphere can do something. And we can, we must."
"On the metro today I wondered: Will anybody ever be able to understand what it was like to live through this appalling tempest at the age of twenty, at the age when you are ready to grasp life's beauty, when you are completely ready to trust in humanity?"
I would have preferred some additional foot notes to help me know what some of the events and incidents that Helene referred to were. A couple of times I found myself googling the date to find out what was going on in Paris at that time. I also think it would have helped to read the two sections at the end of the journal about Helene and Paris during the war before I read the journal. Having that background information would probably have enhanced my reading.
The Journal of Helene Berr is well worth a read through by just about everyone.