Friday, 11 January 2008

The diary that could explain Vichy to the French

French newspapers have praised as exceptional and “literary event of the new year” the diary of Helene Berr, which was published last week, 62 years after her death in the Bergen-Belsen death camp.

Life appeared very promising for Helene Berr at 21. From a wealthy Parisian family, she was an excellent student, a talented violinist, and engaged to be married to a man she loved.

Then came the Nazi occupation of Paris. The resulting destruction of Jewish life, suffering and discrimination was meticulously recorded in a diary Berr kept from 1942 until her deportation to — and eventual death at — Bergen-Belsen in 1944.

The publication of this diary, which the media have compared to that of Dutch teenager Anne Frank, has stunned the French public.

“With this diary, we seem to understand for the first time the horror and absurdity Jews had to face every day in occupied Paris,” wrote the Liberation newspaper.

Berr, whose father was a successful businessman, was a bright English student whose ambition was to teach, until the law banned Jews from becoming professors.

Berr lucidly describes the chain of downfalls and discrimination she experienced, the yellow star of David she was forced to wear, the stares of the “non-Jewish” French, those who felt sorry for her and those who blocked her from entering the underground trains or the garden she wanted to linger in with her fiancé Jean Morawiercki.

Six months after they met, Morawiercki enrolled in the Free French Forces, leaving Berr in Paris, where she devoted herself to helping other victims. Working with orphan children who had no chance of survival, Berr described the toddlers’ pathetic situation, their sickness and lonely lives.

She recounted how one boy, Bernard, whose mother and sister were deported, told her: “I’m certain they won’t come back alive.”

Berr’s last words in the journal, before her deportation, were: “Horror, horror, horror!” She died in Bergen-Belsen, beaten to death, according to some witnesses, or from typhus, according to others. Only days later, the US Army liberated the camp.

Berr wrote she needed to transcribe her feelings and thoughts so that her fiancé Jean Morawiercki would know everything she went through, and the document was kept in her family until her niece, Mariette Job, decided it was too important to remain private.

She launched steady efforts to get her family’s approval and have the diary exhibited. Her efforts lead to a fist exhibit of Berr’s story at the Shoah memorial in 2002 and to the publication of Berr’s diary today, at last.