The Journal of Hélène Berr
by Hélène Berr, translated by David Bellos

Weinstein Books, 2008. ISBN 978-1-61523-181-2.
Reviewed by Susan Schoch
Posted on 08/30/2009
Review of the Month, September 2009

Nonfiction: Memoir; Nonfiction: History/Current Events

The first flavor of The Journal of Hélène Berr is a young woman's Paris in 1942. Lingering over coffee with friends at tables on the sidewalk. Browsing paintings and books in open-air stalls. Hélène was a Parisienne who loved her city. And I have loved it, too, though it's many years since I was there. Memories rose in me as I read, for Hélène's neighborhood is famous—the Latin Quarter. She studied at the Sorbonne, then walked home along the Seine. Hélène lived in the artistic and intellectual center of Paris. She was, as the translator says, "a passionate, intelligent, and musically gifted woman of twenty-one from a cultivated and prominent French family..." And she was a talented young writer. For me, Bellos' translation does a fine job of retaining Hélène's French sensibility and her youthful voice.

A still-girlish effort to remember and comprehend her own experiences, Hélène's very first entry is about going to the home of a famous writer, Paul Valery. She doesn't see the great man, merely picks up a book from the concierge, which Valery has inscribed to her with the line, "On waking, so soft is the light and so fine this living blue." Hélène receives this as a treasure and memorializes, "a joy that confirmed my self-confidence, in complete harmony with the joyful sunlight and the pastel blue of the sky above the puffball clouds. I walked home feeling gently triumphant about what my parents would say and with the impression that what is extraordinary is real, and that the real is extraordinary."

Extraordinary, indeed. The Nazis were occupying Paris, and Hélène was Jewish. Nothing would remain unchanged, nothing was ordinary. There were hard boots sounding on the cobbles.

Hélène wrote with youthful passion, tempered by gentility. She engaged with language, with big moral questions and small human pleasures, with music and her community. Her love was English literature, and she was writing a doctoral thesis on "Keats' Hellenism" when she felt compelled to begin this record. She makes me remember—the fervor of first love, the intense longing to create, the deep need to make a difference in the world—those strong feelings that fire every action when you are young. And then stuns me with the reality of annihilation, as she watches with full awareness the approach of the holocaust that will consume her.

At first, the focus is largely on Hélène's unraveling engagement to a young French partisan. Her life in Paris is still sweet, and she reveals its privileged pattern as she recounts stories of friends and family, teachers and neighbors, or explores her own ideas and aspirations. But deportations and yellow stars change her. She suffers grief and shame, degrading restriction and dark fear, and responds with courage, generosity, and creativity. She falls truly in love, at first shyly, then with conviction. And she becomes immersed in efforts with an underground group working to save Jewish children. Hélène meets danger and sorrow and exhausts herself in trying to rescue those orphaned children, and as I read along, she becomes a compassionate and purposeful woman, and a remarkable witness.

Though she was often urged to leave France and save herself, she made a conscious decision to stay with her parents, and her community, through whatever came. And she saw clearly what that was likely to be. By January of 1944, she wrote, "I returned home this evening crushed by the full awareness of what is occurring. There are moments when I see it all, and I feel as if I am flailing in the ocean in the pitch dark, without a glimmer of light. I've felt like that quite often (I remember, last February, when they rounded up children). But now it comes back all the time..."

Beyond a story of awful cruelty and loss, for those of us who aspire to write, or perhaps just like to know more about writers, Hélène's criticism and praise for what she read, her descriptions of the writing process, and her changing style as she matures through a terrible time, are all fascinating. There's much to learn from a writer who brings alive a day, with its beloved people, gray skies, wet leaves and rumbling train. Reading her memories, I felt what she felt, "All that now seems strangely close and strangely distant. I know it's over...and at the same time I can hear the voices, see the faces and the shapes, as if I were surrounded by living ghosts. It's because the day is no longer entirely Present but not yet quite Past. The silence rustles with memories and images."

Hélène wanted her journal to survive. She entrusted it to an old family retainer who was to pass the journal to her fiancé, and so leave him with some remembrance of her. But like other Jewish writers of the period (Anne Frank certainly comes to mind, but also Irene Nemirovsky, Elie Wiesel and Etty Hillesum), Hélène also wrote her personal experience so that people in the unknowable future could know its truth without the distortions of history. Hélène believed that if people knew, they would understand, and when they truly understood, it would never be able to happen again.

Nothing about Hélène's story, not even the Nazi horrors, feels like you've heard it before. It's a fresh tale of growing up, of first love and first work and becoming a moral woman. Hélène, for me, will be an enduring encouragement to be brave in helping the weak. But perhaps more important to her, by reading Hélène's journal, we fulfill her dream, and keep her alive in the world. Reading her story, we can know what she knew, we can understand, and maybe even be part of what keeps that ending from happening again.

The author grew up in Paris, and was a graduate student in English literature at the Sorbonne when the Nazi army came in and occupied the city. Her family was prominent, wealthy and Jewish. Their chances for survival waned as the war went on. Though she was also writing another book, a treatise on Keats, this volume was personal and she didn't think of publishing it. Yet she hoped it would survive as a memento, and a testament. The author died at Bergen-Belsen in 1944, just 5 days before the British army liberated the camp.

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