There is no shortage of books on the Holocaust. We have, of course, the diary of Anne Frank, which appears to be the definitive nonfiction work recording World War II. It always seems more difficult, though, to find out what the war was like in France, as most accounts by or about Jews seem to focus on eastern Europe.
Hélène Berr was a French university student at the time of the war. A violin player and student of English literature, she wrote a journal that by any account would be considered an accomplishment in style, literary analysis and flow. Her prose is beautiful, and you almost forget that you are reading about the Holocaust, as it is just as interesting to read her thoughts on music and literature.
Again, a comparison with Anne Frank seems the best way to illustrate Berr's own journal. Frank lived in the Secret Annex and had nothing else to do but write for long hours in her diary. Once she heard that diaries were going to be collected after the war, she even went back and began to edit it with the intent of publication. It was written because she was a regular girl who kept a journal whenever she had the free time. Not everyone knows what it feels like to live in Nazi-occupied Paris, but more of us do know what it feels like to be in love with two people at once or to be frustrated with your family, friends or schoolwork. In that basic humanity, we can insert ourselves immediately into Berr's world, and then we follow her into the darker times, as the Gestapo gain more and more control over it.
Berr's family struggles to hold on when her father is taken to a prison. The man she loves is forced to flee France for his safety, and she watches as friends and neighbors are taken by the Gestapo to various prisons and camps. She herself seems lucky enough, but even her education and life are deeply affected by the presence of Hitler's police in her city.
I struggle in my own reading of Holocaust literature because I don't want to seem morbid or as if I enjoy descriptions of death and inhumane treatment. Anyone who has read a book or seen a movie probably has had to take in more than enough descriptions of Nazi treatment of Jews and others. But we continue to read so that we don't forget, and because each account gives us a little something different. THE JOURNAL OF HELENE BERR seems more hopeful, partly because of its unique narrator. Berr, who was Jewish, was able to go on with her daily life for much longer than others, and because of that, we see a more realistic, young girl reaction to the ways her life was changed. How horrible it is to wear an ugly yellow star on all of your fashionable clothing. How terrible it is when you can't be mean to your mother, because she is the one who is keeping the family together while your father is in prison. Berr's thoughts seem more within reach than others, if just because it is easier not to have to fathom so many horrific experiences at death and concentration camps.
THE JOURNAL OF HELENE BERR is illustrated further with a glossary, an epilogue detailing Berr's death in Bergen-Belsen just days before its liberation, an index and more. It would be an illuminating addition to any personal library or school curriculum.
Reviewed by Sarah Hannah Gómez on November 11, 2008
The Journal of Helene Berr