Tag Archives: Paris

The Journal of Helene Berr, Translated from French by David Bellos

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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. 

The Paris Bookseller by Kerri Maher

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I received this book from the publisher and NetGalley in exchange for a fair review.

This fictionalized version of the true story of the founder of Shakespeare and Company in Paris (Sylvia Beach) was very well-researched and it was clear the author knew her subject well. The bibliography at the end of the book was extensive and I admire the author for all the hard work she did to familiarize herself with Paris in the early part of the 20th Century as well as her subject and the literati of the time. Her writing showed she had great affection for the era and all the inhabitants of the tale.

The friendships of Ms. Beach with Ezra Pound, Earnest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, as well as James Joyce added luster to her life and life to the bookstore. Sylvia battled mightily for James Joyce’s book Ulysses to be published—eventually becoming the publisher herself. The ins and outs of their relationship were explored well by the author of this book. Quite frankly, I didn’t have any idea what kind of person Joyce really was. We’ve all heard about him, of course, but the way he was portrayed in this book made me quite dislike him.  As the book was well-researched (including letters between Beach and Joyce), I don’t doubt the author’s portrayal as accurate.

The face that Ms. Beach and her partner were living openly in a same-sex relationship in the 1920s was remarkable to me. Paris and France were always more liberal than most places—and I was glad to see these relationships (like Gertrude Stein’s as well) were accepted and not looked at askance. There may have been a bit too much behind closed doors scenes for this reader, but it wasn’t too jarring.

I also enjoyed learning more about Ezra Pound and the kind of person he was—a great friend to Ms. Beach. The parts of the book dealing with the publication, banning and legal fights over Ulysses were especially intriguing. The journey to the publication of the book was fascinating and, as a lawyer, I was intrigued by the court battles over obscenity and the banning of the book in the United States.  

This book was a pleasure to read—while based on real people and true events, the author made the history come alive by creating a heroine of Sylvia Beach that showed her as a kind, fascinating individual who stood up for what and who she believed in even if one of those people treated her abominably. I enjoyed the journey of the story and the way the characters were made real and fresh.

The Tartan Pimpernel by Donald Caskie

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I learned about this book on Twitter when a lady I’ve met there, Pauline, from Scotland, tweeted about it. I’d never heard of this Scottish priest and her tweet piqued my curiosity. I found the book online and ordered it. I didn’t have a chance to read it right away, and now that I have, I wish I’d made time earlier as it’s truly a lovely, well-written book by an absolutely brave, caring and gentle man who did extraordinary things during WWII to aid allies, soldiers, sailors and private individuals to escape from the Nazis in France.

The Reverend Caskie was from Scotland—Islay—but was the priest of the Scottish church in Paris before and at the time of the German invasion. On the eve of the invasion in 1940, he led his flock in the last Sunday service, packed a bag and left the city on foot. He prayed along the way for the safety of his fellow evacuees as well as the people who had no choice but to stay behind as the enemy closed in.

He made his way to Marseille with some harrowing moments such as being strafed by German pilots along with thousands of other refugees. Many fell dead as they ran. He was also suspected of being a spy and surrounded by angry villagers in one town as he bought a bicycle and didn’t realize it had an iron cross on the back of it.

Once he made it to Marseille, with the aid of a friend, he found a place to stay. In that home, he prayed about what he needed to do. A Voice came to him that clearly called him to give assistance to the people who were in need. He made his way to the American consulate as it was still open and was told about the abandoned sailors’ mission building. He then went to the local police station to get permission to use the building to help stranded British civilians. He was given permission, but told if he helped one soldier or enemy combatant, he would be shut down.

What ensued was a tale of how this gentle man followed his special calling and helped anyone who needed it. How he raised funds to feed these people and how he was approached by the secret services to assist airmen and escaping soldiers into neutral Spain. He had to get civilian clothing for the escapees as well as false papers. He found places to hide them. He risked his life every day and saved quite a large number of men and women. Many of the townspeople of Marseille also aided in hiding these men and in getting supplies and clothing. It was a secret, yet community effort.

I read a book a while back about Nancy Wake, the famous Resistance fighter who was also in Marseille at the time and I was pleased to see some of the same people she worked with in this book. Ian Garrow and the Pat O’Leary group. Pat was actually a Belgian doctor, but during the war, he was an agent who posed as Irish. It was like finding old friends in the pages of this book. I like to think Donald and Nancy knew each other and supported each other’s missions.

Donald Caskie eventually ended up being betrayed and imprisoned. This part of the book was particularly moving. No matter what the Nazis put him through, he kept his faith, even carving Bible verses on the wall with his fingernail—which, he found out a few months later from a cellmate in a different prison, saved that man’s life when he was about to commit suicide.

This is a beautiful book and such bravery from one man is amazing. His faith pulled him through a difficult period of time and he is a true hero. Quiet, unassuming, and just getting on with the task. I highly, highly, recommend this one. It’s a tale of love, compassion in the face of unbearable cruelty, and how even one man (with divine guidance and some friends) can make a world of difference.

Drunk Bee in Paree!

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I’ve recently returned from Paris and one day as I was eating my jambon and fromage omelette with fries (that’s ham and cheese for you English speakers) and sipping a beer for medicinal purposes, this little bee decided to keep me company. If you’ve ever walked on cobblestone streets for days you’ll know what I mean when I say you need a beer for medicinal purposes. It numbs your poor ole feet pretty well. Keep that in mind if  you travel to Europe. It works.

Anyway, this bee was really jonesing for some of my beer so when there was a smidge left, I let him in the glass. He had a grand time sucking up the suds. In fact, he couldn’t seem to stop and he needed some assistance in getting himself out of the glass. Of course, once he was out, he lolled around on my plate in a stupor. Do you think he was drinking for medicinal purposes, too? Were his little feet aching like my big ones? I think I found a soul- or is that sole- mate? 2014-08-20 13.55.10 2014-08-20 13.59.39 2014-08-20 13.57.45