Monday, April 8, 2013

Hélène Berr

On the metro today I wondered: Will anybody ever be able to understand what it was like to live through this appalling tempest at the age of twenty, at the age when you are ready to grasp life’s beauty, when you are completely ready to trust in humanity?
 --Hélène Berr

I apologize for the total lack of updates in the past few months. Life has been overwhelming and I've been neglecting traditional blogging, for the most part, because it is harder to keep up with than micro-blogging. I am currently working on a review for An Imperial Concubine's Tale: Scandal, Shipwreck, and Salvation in Seventeenth-Century Japan by G.G. Rowley.

Today, however, I'd like to deviate a little from the typical book posts on Inviting History by talking a little bit about Hélène Berr ((27 March 1921 – April 1945). Hélène Berr was a young French Jewish woman living in Nazi-occupied Paris. Her journal, published in English in 2009, documents her life in a city which becomes increasingly hostile and increasingly limited to Hélène and other Jewish people living in the city. Her journal is something of a journey:

At first, her musings and day-to-day recollections reflected relatively little of the anti-Semitic policies which were being employed with increasing frequency by the occupying Nazis. She wrote of love and boyfriends, of literature and music, of worrying about passing her examinations. But her diary changed as the world changed around her. Jewish French citizens were forced to wear the yellow star, and told they may only certain cars of the Metro stations. Little by little, their freedoms are restricted or taken away entirely. Jewish citizens were eventually banned from public parks, from the theater, from crossing certain areas of Paris, and from going out at night. Hélène recounted how her non-Jewish friends tried politely not to stare and how some strangers smiled broadly at her in the street, while others pulled their children away as she passed.

Hélène, despite the harsh conditions under which she was now living, struggled to remain normalcy--as did everyone in occupied Paris. She worked at the library, listened to music, attended lectures when she was allowed, and fell in love. She worked both officially and underground for UGIF (the General Organization of Israelites in France) - filing papers, answering phones, sorting suitcases sent back by deportees, and secretly helping to place Jewish children with Christian families to be kept safe. Although those working for UGIF are supposed to be “safe" from deportation or imprisonment, it became more and more clear that no Jewish man, woman or child in France was safe from internment, deportation, and death.

Hélène’s family was finally arrested in the spring of 1944. Hélène was first held at the Drancy interment camp, then deported to Auschwitz, and eventually to Bergen-Belsen. She contracted typhus and was beaten to death by a guard for not being able to get out of the bunk, five days before the liberation of the camp.

Her last full entry in the journal details a conversation with a former camp prisoner she encountered, who told her about the execution of Russian prisoners of war at his camp: Each morning, they were rounded up and made to stand. Those too weak to stand were shot. Healthier prisoners that held up the sicker ones had their hands beaten with rifles, and those sick prisoners were then put into the wagons with corpses and thrown alive into pits. Their bodies, alive and dead, were covered with a layer of quicklime.

The last words in the entry: Horror! Horror! Horror!

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for writing about this. Now I will go and read more about this beautiful, amazing woman.