Helene Berr, Diary (1942-2008)

I read somewhere (a virtual hug to anyone who knows) that when faced with writer’s block, you could write a dialogue with yourself to untie the knot. Why not give it a try?

- Smithereens, why don’t you at last sit down and review Helene Berr’s diary? It’s been like 6 months since you’ve finished it.
– Come on, you’re exaggerating. Mmh, perhaps not so much. I remember reading it during my commute wearing my large winter scarf. I could not stop reading, even though it was so sad.
– So sad? Do you fear that readers will be put off?
– I’m afraid that people, upon learning that Helene Berr was a young Jewish French woman who died in Nazi camps in 1945, will compare her to Anne Frank and say that they’ve had enough of Holocaust books, may they be first-person accounts.
– Is it about the camps? Like Primo Levi? Unbearably gruesome?
– Not at all, the diary starts in 1941, when she was still a brilliant student in English (she was soon banned from the university) and the last entry is in 1944, three weeks before her arrest.
– So why can’t you just write what you thought about this book?
– If it’s only to recommend the book and say that it’s a great piece of literature as well as a piece of history, my post will be two sentences long. Then if I need to explain everything about Helene Berr’s family background, how come she managed to survived in Nazi-occupied Paris for that long during round-ups and growing persecutions, and how her diary reached public knowledge and a large success in 2008, it will be way too long and readers will have the feeling that they know too much about the book already. I don’t want to write a wikipedia article about her, there’s already one.
– So, what did you make of it?
– It was weird, because her voice is so extraordinary that it makes her instantly present and alive on the page. She was a gifted writer, and above all, totally honest and lucid. She records her moments of joy (amidst the tragedy, she has parties in the countryside and she eats cakes or ice creams -her family belonged to the well-to-do bourgeoisie), her frivolous concerns about boyfriends, but also the horrors she witnesses as her family, member of a Jewish organization, try to save and hide persecuted children whose parents have been already sent to death camps. She knows a lot more than I thought people knew at the time, and French (goy) people around her are way more blind about the plight of the Jewish persecutions than I thought. I knew it abstractly, but it’s another matter to be shown how people keep to themselves and avert their eyes while their neighbors, friends, colleagues or acquaintances are humiliated and then purely disappear. At one time, a fellow student commiserates with her for being unable to go out dancing at nights with her yellow star. What a selfish, careless, naive ignorance! I think I would have slapped him– it seems that she just stopped the conversation at that point.
– Is she resentful, angry, revolted?
– She’s such a nice person, her moments of anger are so few and far in between that you might think she’s an angel. In some ways she must have been, deciding to stay in Paris and help others, when she could have gone to Spain or into hiding.
– Oh, isn’t she a bit irritating then?
– Never, because of her lucidity. There’s hope and despair blended together. She contemplates the possibility of being arrested, and perhaps dying, but she still choses to act with selflessness.
– You used the word “weird”, I didn’t expect it, why?
– I read another diary from the same period during winter, that of an anonymous woman in Berlin. Reading both books in parallel, both memorable in their own way, was quite an experience. Helene’s voice was so sensitive and humane, while that of the German woman, a survivor of bombs and rape and hunger in Berlin, was so tough and cold and distanced. Sadly, I thought that the German Anonyma was probably better equipped to survive the terrible events of war than Helene Berr. Never was the gap between German and French of that time so glaring under my eyes.

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