The Journal of Hélène Berr

Written by David Bellos (trans.) Hélène Berr
Review by Mary Seeley

Hélène Berr was born into a prosperous Franco-Jewish family in Paris in 1921. At the time of the Nazi occupation, she was a high-flying student at the Sorbonne. Her diary begins in 1942, its pages brimful of tea parties, musical afternoons, visits to the family’s country house and agonising over her feelings for two young men, Gérard (already fighting with the Free French) and handsome fellow student, Jean Morawiecki – although, as the moving Afterword reveals, Hélène was already involved with a clandestine network to save Jewish children from deportation. Hélène did not seem to fear, initially, for the safety of her own social “set” – with hindsight, a shocking naivety. The diary records her growing horror as anti-Jewish legislation, round-ups and deportations become an almost daily occurrence. Its pages become darker, more fragmented and more introspective as she realises, in part, the nature of the persecutions and the ghastly betrayals of many of her fellow Frenchmen, although her love of Paris shines though even at the darkest of times. She knew it would only be a matter of time before she, too, was arrested, and intended the Journal to stand as a testament to both posterity and to her beloved Jean.

The diary shows a confident literary stylist and gives a portrait of a vivid young woman growing with courage and resolve against a background of persecution and terror. Her tragic end is a reflection of the millions of others across Europe who suffered under the Nazis’ genocide.