It has been described as a publishing sensation. Helene Berr was a young French student murdered in a Nazi concentration camp. Her recently discovered journal has now hit French bookstores — and become an immediate bestseller.
“I sense that a great dark path awaits me.” The words were written over six decades ago by a young Jewish student named Helene Berr not long before she lost her life in a German concentration camp. But they are only just now coming to light.
The “Helene Berr Journal” was published on Jan. 3 and hit the bookshops in France this week. It is a moving portrayal of how a young woman’s carefree life in Paris is slowly shattered as she becomes increasingly certain of her eventual terrible fate. Described as the publishing sensation of 2008 by the French daily Liberation, the book has likewise been called a “testimonial of rare power” by Le Figaro. And with 26,000 copies sold in just three days, it has been flying off the shelves.
“She is incredibly literary,” Antoine Sabbagh, the editor of Berr’s journal, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. He said he was certain from reading the first page that this was the work of an intellectual. “This is a literary description of life in occupied Paris.”
Perhaps inevitably, Berr has already been described as France’s Anne Frank. But although the two young women both died of typhus only a month apart in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1945, their diaries are very different. While much of the Anne Frank journal deals with life in hiding in Amsterdam, Helen Berr’s account describes her experiences of everyday life in Paris under the German occupation.
Privileged Existence Shattered
Berr grew up in a privileged household. Her father was a wealthy businessman and, as the diary opens on April 8, 1942, the 22-year-old student describes how she is enjoying her life at the Sorbonne, her walks in the Parisian sunshine and her new romance with her future fiancée Jean Morawiecki. But slowly the dark realities of life for Jews in Nazi-occupied France impinge on her happiness. The pivotal moment comes when she wears a yellow star for the first time on June 8, 1942.
“I held my head high and looked people so straight in the eye they turned away,” she wrote. “But it’s hard.”
Her previously untroubled existence becomes tougher and she starts to feel like an outsider amongst her groups of friends at the Sorbonne. Her father is arrested and, though he is eventually released, she starts to realize that even wealth and influence won’t save them.
The diary eventually became a way of describing her experiences to Morawiecki who had left France to join up with de Gaulle’s Free French. “I know why I am writing this journal,” she writes. “I know that I want it to be given to Jean if I am not here when he comes back. I don’t want to disappear without him knowing everything that I have been thinking about while he has been away.”
‘Horror! Horror! Horror!’
She begins to work for an organization that takes care of Jewish children and at one stage many of her colleagues there are rounded up. In the last entry in her diary on Feb. 15, 1944, Helene has a conversation with a deportee who describes how Jews are taken across France. “The Germans have one aim, to exterminate,” she writes. A student of English literature her final words in the diary are a quote in English from Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness:” “Horror! Horror! Horror!”
According to Sabbagh, the family could have escaped Paris in 1940, when the father was encouraged to go to the United States, and again in 1943 after his arrest. “He didn’t think he could be touched by the persecution,” he says. “He thought it would only affect foreigners. They were the social elite.”
But that turned out not to make a difference. Helene and her parents were arrested on March 8, 1944. They and other members of their family perished in the concentration camps. Helene died of typhus at Bergen-Belsen in April 1945 just a few days before the camp was liberated.
The quality of Helene’s testimony makes it all the more startling that it is only now being published for the first time. The diary spent half a century in the private possession of those closest to Berr. She passed it onto the family cook before her arrest. The cook then gave it to an uncle, who eventually handed it over to her fiancée Morawiecki. A copy of the diary was also kept by the family and eventually in 1992 Berr’s niece Mariette Job contacted him and he agreed to make her the owner of the original. She gave it to the Memorial of the Shoah in Paris in 2002 so that it could be shown to the public.
Brutally Discovering War
It was here that editor Sabbagh first came across the manuscript while researching a book on France’s deported Jews. He asked the family for permission to publish it, “but they were not ready yet.” However, they slowly warmed to the idea. Job told Liberation that she went to the Memorial one day and spotted a group of young girls crowded around the manuscript trying to read it. A museum staffer told her that thousands of visitors had shown great interest in the diary. When Sabbagh wrote to her again at the beginning of 2007, Job said she was ready.
According the publishers, Editions Tallandier, the book will soon be available around the world. Rights had already been sold in 15 countries before it was even published in France. It will be available in English in September and a German edition will hit the shelves in 2009.
Sabbagh puts its popularity down to its exceptional literary quality and the fact that it describes how one young woman brutally discovers war. “She was a very open person, who was sensitive to the pain and suffering in the world,” he says. The diary, he says, shows the astonishing way that in the same city there were people living well, making music and strolling in the park, “and just a few streets away there was persecution.” He adds, “Helene Berr lived both of these lives.”
In his preface to the diary, French writer Patrick Modiano describes how the book inspired him to retrace Helene’s footsteps through the streets of Paris. “On the threshold of this book, one should remain silent and listen to the voice of Helene and walk by her side,” he writes. “A voice and presence that will accompany us for the rest of our lives.”
Originally published on SPIEGEL ONLINE International: