14 January 2008

Helene Berr: France's Anne Frank

Holocaust experiences impact Jewish family history around the world. The diaries and journals of those who lived through that tragedy - or more often, perished - are essential to our understanding of how those experiences ultimately impacted European Jewish life and, indeed, all Jewish life.

We all read The Diary of Anne Frank in school. In 2006, an account of Irene Nemirovsky's experience sold hundreds of thousands of copies. The newest entry, The Journal of Helene Berr, was published January 3 in Paris, and is already an instant best-seller.

Berr is described as France's Anne Frank; indeed, the two young women died of typhus a month apart in 1945 in Bergen-Belsen. Their diaries are different. Frank describes a hidden life in Amsterdam, while Berr, in Nazi-occupied Paris, deals with everyday life.

She began keeping the journal for her fiancée Jean Morawiecki, who had escaped (and survived). The family cook kept her writing and gave it to him after the war.

It begins April 8, 1942, as Berr, 22, describes her life at the Sorbonne as an English literature student and her fiancée. It ends Feb. 15, 1944 with Berr's conversation with a deportee describing how Jews are deported in cattle cars. The final words are an English quote from Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad: "Horror! Horror! Horror!"

Helene and her family were among 70,000 Jews deported from France. They died in Belsen a few days before it was liberated by the British Army, and her journal was undiscovered for 50 years in France's Holocaust Museum.

The personal account is already an instant bestseller in France, according to a Der Spiegel Online story. It will be published in English and at least a dozen other languages, says the book's French publisher (Tallandier) in an Associated Press story.

Says reviewer Jason Burke in the UK's Observer:

Cultivated, steeped in Russian and English literature, from a wealthy old French family and a keen violinist who attended the Sorbonne University, Berr starts her diary with an account of picking up a signed copy of the works of poet Paul Valery from his home.

The early pages of the diary are full of descriptions of the countryside around Paris - "I went to gather fruit in the upper orchard ... the blue sky and the sun made the dew drops sparkle and joy flooded through me like a spell", she writes.

Editor Antoine Sabbagh says she is hardly aware of a Jewish identity, the war has barely touched her and she is unaware of what is happening in Europe, but things then begin to change.

"We are living hour by hour, not even week by week," she writes. Instead of fleeing she works as a volunteer at a holding camp for children whose parents have already been deported. "They play in the yard ... repugnant, covered in sores and lice. Poor little kids," Berr confides to her diary, recounting how her co-workers beseech her to flee France while there is still time.

The nightmare gets closer and she realises that her life might end "somewhere in Upper Silesia" and in "just a few weeks." "People are speaking about suffocating gas that they use on the convoys which arrive at the Polish frontier. They are rumours but there must be some truth in them," she writes.

Her fiancé escaped France to fight with the Free French from England and survived.

"I know why I am keeping this journal,' she writes. 'I know that I want it to be given to Jean if I am not here when he comes back. I don't want to disappear without him knowing everything I have been thinking about while he has been away - or at least a part of it."

According to the review, Berr talks about experiences wearing the yellow star, of being chased from a park and of arrested relatives.

After the war, her fiancé received the manuscript as Berr had wanted, and her niece decided to publish the journal.

Read more here.

The AP story appeared following a January 7 interview with Berr's niece in Paris. Excerpts from the book are here.


  1. Do you or anyone else reading this know when the Helene Berr Journal will be published in English? Thanks, Rick

  2. Anonymous8:21 AM

    That is what I am trying to find out too! There isn't hardly anything on the internet about Helen Berr's Journal. I will keep looking....and for sure nothing about where to buy and when.