This journal is hard to read because we know the outcome at the outset. A young woman cheated of a life of happiness at a young age due to hatred and evil. I believe it’s a must-read though since we can’t allow such evil to rise again. Being reminded of the awful things done in the name of hatred and irrational hostility must never be forgotten or swept under the rug.
Helene Berr was a French Jewish woman living in Paris during WWII. She was a student at the Sorbonne and kept a journal of her everyday life before and during the war. Her father was an engineer and had friends in high places who helped protect him and his family for a while during the Nazi persecution of the Jewish population.
While under the impression he and his family were safe, her father continued to work in his business and his daughter, along with the rest of the Berrs, lived as if things were normal. Going to classes and cafes and even traveling by train to and from their home in the countryside.
Helene was emotionally torn between a man she had always thought she might marry and a new young man she met at the Sorbonne. She eventually realized she was in love with the new man. His name was Jean Morawiecki and he loved her as well. They planned to marry. Eventually, he left to join the free French and work with the resistance, believing her to be safe in Paris.
The journal starts out with regular days and how she and her friends filled their lives. She was a musician and many entries focus on playing her violin and listening to music. The journal moves into sadder territory when all the Jewish people were ordered to wear the yellow star. Helene’s journal entries relating to her shame and embarrassment in wearing the star are heartbreaking.
As time goes on, her father is arrested and sent to the Drancy internment camp. After several weeks, his employer was able to get him released as he was an essential employee. In our 20/20 vision of looking at the past through the lens we now have, as a reader of this journal, one can’t help but wish they’d taken this event as a hint that they should have left immediately to get to a country of safety. It really wouldn’t be fair to judge them for their inaction as they had no way of knowing exactly what happened to the people who were deported. In fact, her journal makes one think Helene thought the deportation was not permanent and that people would return after the war if the Nazi’s lost. And who could blame them? Of course, they weren’t told they were being deported to be murdered. The Nazis wanted the deportees to be compliant and non-combative so as to ease their task of getting them on the train cars to send them to the camps.
As the journal goes on, it gets more and more heartrending. The family did eventually go into hiding but they were betrayed. On a night they chose to sleep at their own home, they were taken and sent to Auschwitz. They were sent from Drancy in March of 1944- on Helene’s 23rd birthday of all things—which just makes in worse to this reader. Her mother died in April 1944 in the gas chamber, and her father was poisoned by an anti-Semite doctor in the infirmary in September, 1944, both at Auschwitz. Helene survived to be moved to Bergen-Belson in November, 1944. She died of typhus after being unable to rise for reveille and being brutally beaten by a guard in April, 1945—just 5 days before the camp was liberated by the British Army. How absolutely tragic. 5 days. Just 5 days….
Upon her death and the end of the war, her brother sent the pages of her journal to the man she loved, Jean Morawiecki. She had entrusted the pages as she wrote them to the family cook in case the family was taken. Jean held on to the pages for almost fifty years. Helene’s sister wrote an afterward to this translation of this journal and the words of Jean regarding his love of Helene were truly poignant and so sad. A Stolen Life is what the afterward is called and it is surely right. So many stolen lives. Senselessly stolen lives.