History is not static. As years pass new information becomes available, new archives are opened and new interpretive lenses reshape our understanding of what once was. In 2008, Mariette Job’s decades-long drive to share her aunt Hélène Berr’s journal reached the English speaking world, and we were given a powerful and poignant telling of life in German-occupied Paris from a Jewish perspective.
Hélène Berr was a 21-year-old student in the English studies department at the Sorbonne when, in 1942, she began keeping a diary in her home at Avenue Elisee-Reclus in German-occupied Paris. Hélène came from an affluent family; was well read in British literature, especially the Romantic poets; and was a gifted amateur violinist. Hélène’s diary served shifting and overlapping purposes for her during the time she kept it, from April 1942-February 1944. At times Hélène hoped the diary would provide a message to her fiancé, Jean, who had fled France to join the resistance, while increasingly, as the persecutions around her grew closer and more brutal, she hoped to use the diary to “tell the story.”
On Oct. 10, 1943 she wrote, “I have a duty to write because other people must know. Every hour of every day there is another painful realization that other folk do not know, do not even imagine, the suffering of other men, the evil that some of them inflict. And I am still trying to make the effort to tell the story. Because it is a duty, it is maybe the only one I can fulfill.
Three weeks later, on Nov. 1, 1943, she wrote, “I had the stressful sensation of being the only survivor of a shipwreck, and a phrase kept jogging and banging around inside me. It took hold of me without me looking for it; it haunted me, it’s the line from the Book of Job at the end of ‘Moby Dick’: ‘And I alone am escaped to tell thee.’” Later that day she wrote, “It is raining death on earth.”
Hélène did not escape. She was arrested with her parents on March 27, 1944, her 23rd birthday, and sent to Auschwitz. She survived Auschwitz and the death march to Bergen-Belsen before she was beaten to death five days before liberation.
Hélène did not escape, but she did tell. “The Journal of Helene Berr” (Quercus, 2008) is a potent document of testimony that alters the way we understand the deportation of 76,000 Jews from France and transforms the way we view photographed piles of corpses at Bergen-Belsen.
Bryan Davis is youth and Holocaust education coordinator for the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona.