I read Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl when I was eight or nine years old, and at that time could not fully understand the immense tragedy that was the Holocaust. Why were Jewish people hated so much? Why did they have to be killed? I don’t know that I yet understand it but as I became older, I also began to appreciate the horrendous sense of loss of all the young people like Anne Frank who did not have the chance to grow up and become important contributors to arts and culture.
Helene Berr is another young Jewish woman who did not have the opportunity to realize her potential. Her journal, published last year in the United States, is a wonderfully written account of her life in occupied Paris. Helene is a student of English at the prestigious Sorbonne and for a time is able to maintain her regular routine. Restrictions on French Jews are imposed, but as she writes when her father is arrested for a seemingly minor infraction (improper stitching of his yellow star on his clothing), “The full meaning, the sinister meaning, of it all was not apparent because we were among French people”.
Restrictions tighten, Berr begins working with an organization in Paris to assist women and children interned at Drancy – a transit camp outside of Paris – and she realizes her own likely fate. She is at times slightly optimistic: “Even if I am deported, I shall think ceaselessly about coming back”, and also pragmatic “… if these lines are read, it will be clear that I expected my fate; not that I had accepted it but, … that I was expecting it”. (Berr had given her journal to her family’s cook to give to Jean Morawiecki, Berr’s boyfriend, in the event that she was arrested and did not return. He in turn passed it on to Berr’s niece).
This realization of what is to happen also causes her to criticize not only Nazis, but the French, the Catholic Church, and even fellow Jews. Berr sees herself and her family as French first and Jewish second (her father was a decorated officer of the French army during World War I), and the fact that it is Frenchmen – not Germans – who are making the arrests is especially disheartening: “Imagining that duty is unconnected to conscience and unrelated to justice, goodness, and charity shows just how inane our supposed civilization is … we could have hoped it might be different among us.”
Helene Berr and her parents were arrested at their home on March 8, 1944 and sent to the internment camp at Drancy. Helene was sent to Auschwitz and then to Bergen-Belsen, where she died five days before the liberation of the camp (her parents died only months after being deported to camps).
Like Anne Frank, it is so unfortunate that we only know Helene Berr because she was killed in such a senseless way along with so many others. But we should be thankful that they both left us accounts of what they endured. Had they been allowed to live, I’d like to think that their incredible writing skills would have brought them success on their own merits.
Related Reading: Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky
Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay