“Reading … [The Journal of Helene Berr] was not unlike reading Anne Frank’s diary: you feel you are in the presence of an author who would have become a major literary figure had she survived.” From an interview with Simon Mawer in the New York Times January, 2010.
The Berrs felt themselves French citizens who happened to be Jewish. Raymond Berr, Helene’s father, was a prominent citizen, the director of a large chemical company, and a veteran of the French army. For the first few years of the war they went about living their lives as best they could; the stated targets of the Nazis were foreign-born Jews, many of whom had recently crossed the borders into France on the run from the Nazis.
The early part of the journal is taken up with Helene’s love life, the normal preoccupations of a 21 year-old. She’s in the process of dropping one boyfriend and becoming involved with another, but as the journal progresses, as her family and those around her became more directly threatened, her entries became more focused on facts, rumors, observations, and anxieties about the war and the future. She even considered what she’d take with her if she were arrested: her violin and some books. She became well aware that she might not survive and that she was serving as a witness who was recording what was happening all around her.
June 1, 1942 was the date when the Nazis decreed that French Jews had to start wearing a yellow star affixed to their coats. After some hesitation, Helene decided she would wear it proudly. She describes in brilliant detail being out in public, looking directly into the eyes of people who stared at her. She had many non-Jewish friends and she writes about how most went out of their way to be supportive as did some strangers on the street who deliberately smiled at her. Most interestingly, she describes how wearing the yellow star changed her sense of self. For the first time in her life she felt like a foreigner. She also writes about how wearing it was exhausting.
Being from an established French family was not enough. Helene Berr records with horror when toward the end of June of 1942 her father was picked up and sent to Drancy where he was held for three months. Less than a month after he was arrested, she records what she’s heard about the mass round-up of Jews who were sent to the Veledrome d’Hiver before they were transported to Drancy. Then on July 30, 1942 all of Helene’s co-workers in the office she worked at at the I.G.U.F, the Jewish governing body where Helene worked with young children, were arrested on a day she hadn’t been in the office.
When he father was released in September of 1942 they debated leaving Paris, but they never did. Little by little their circle of friends either escaped to France’s free zone, went into hiding, or stayed at home and, like them, lived one day at a time in great despair, waiting for the allies to make inroads and chase the Germans out. Helene wrote her last entry on February 15, 1944. Tragically, Helene and her parents were arrested and sent to Drancy on March 8, 1944. We learn about their arrest from a letter included in this volume that Helene wrote to her sister from Drancy on the morning they were arrested.
In addition to the memoir the English edition includes:
An introduction by the translator, David Bellos
Two maps: one of Helene Berr’s Paris and the second of The Latin Quarter in 1942
A letter from Helene Berr to her sister Denise written on the day she was arrested
An essay by Helene’s niece Mariette Job called “A Stolen Life”
An essay by David Bellos, called “France and the Jews”
A short bibliography for further reading
Four indexes: Acronyms and Special Terms; Books Mentioned by Helene Berr; Street Names and Places; Personal Names
To learn more about the Drancy transit camp, click here.
Antoinette Rodrigues-Ely – daughter of Berthe; married to Raymond Berr
Jacqueline – daughter of Raymond and Antoinette
Yvonne – daughter of Raymond and Antoinette; married to Daniel Schwartz
Maxime and Yves Schwartz– sons of Yvonne and Daniel
Denise – daughter of Raymond and Antoinette; married Francois Job
Nadine, Didier, and Mariette Job – children of Denise and Francois
Helene- daughter of Raymond and Antoinette; author
Jacques – son of Raymond and Antoinette
Laure Nathan – cousin of Antoinette Berr
“Auntie” Germaine, “Uncle” Jules, and Nicole – exact relationships not clear
Friends and Acquaintances
Andre Baur – married to Odette; nephew of Julian Weill
Armand and Lea Katz
Leon Lyon-Caen; brother-in-law of Pierre Masse
Claude, Georges, and Gerard Lyon-Caen – sons of Leon
Pierre and Francoise Masse
Roger Nordmann – engaged to Francoise Blum
Danielle and Pierre Schwartz – children of Therese
Maurice Weill-Raynal – married to Suzanne?
Francois Weill-Raynal – son of Maurice; married to Edith
Jacque Weill- Reynal
Emmaline and Marianne Weill-Raynal – twin sisters
Pithiviers Transit Camp, France
Les Tourelles – Concentration Camp, France
Drancy Transit Camp, France