The Journal of Helene Berr, by Helene Berr, and translated by David Bellos is a compelling look at the events of WWII and the German occupation of Paris, that lead up to the deportation of Helene and her parents. It is the personal diary of Helene Berr, beginning April 7, 1942, and ending with the last entry on February 15, 1944. There is also a letter that Helene wrote to her sister, Denise, dated on the day of her (Helene’s) arrest, March 8, 1944.
What makes this a compelling diary is how 21-year old Helene presents the months and years to us, never truly expecting her diary to be published. She begins her diary with entries relating to her friends and their involvements with her, entries regarding her boyfriend Gerard. She also describes Paris as spring is approaching. All this is written down during the German occupation, when Helene apparently felt she had the freedom to wander Paris and its surroundings, seemingly unaffected by what was happening around her. Her family was quite well off, and very respected.
Helene was extremely intelligent, talented and gifted, and sensitive. She studied Russian and English Literature at Sorbonne University. She met and fell in love with Jean Morawiecki, and he returned her love. He eventually left to join the “Forces francaises libres, the armed forces of the Free French”. After he left, she stopped writing for almost one year, and began writing diary entries, again. From that point forward, she begins to slowly comprehend the forces that surround her.
Helene’s diary is dramatic in the sense that the first two months or so, deal with her inability to accept the fact that the persecution of Jews was occurring within her very world. She did not want to see the truth before her eyes, even when some of her friends were fleeing or escaping to the unoccupied zones of the south. The harshness and reality began to slowly settle in when she was forced to wear the yellow star.
Her friends and even family members tried to convince Helene and her parents to escape, but to no avail. They wanted to remain behind because they felt it was the courageous and moral thing to do. They were involved with the “Union Generale des Israelites de France (U.G.I.F.)”, and in helping to save Jewish children, and the thought of leaving behind the children that so depended on them was unacceptable in their minds. They had strong ethical beliefs. They were firm in their conviction to remain in Paris. Helene begins to write about the realities and actualities of events, without sugar-coating them. She wants to document what is happening all around her, and what she has learned.
And, document she does, and then gives the pages of her diary to the family cook, Andre Bardiau, to save for her, in case she survives. In the event she doesn’t, she wanted him to give the diary to Jean Morawiecki. Helene’s wishes were followed, and her diary was given to Jean Morawiecki, after she died in April 1945, in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp five days before its liberation. Jean Morawiecki eventually gave the diary to Mariette Job, Helen’s niece. From there, Mariette Job decided the journal should be printed in book form.
That one young woman was able to pen the unfolding events of the German occupation of Paris, while she was literally within its stronghold is overwhelming to me. In my opinion, it is a story not to be missed. The Journal of Helene Berr belongs in every educational library, and in my opinion, all personal libraries.
I personally own and have read this book.
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