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by Hélène Berr and translated by David Bellos

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 2008
ISBN: 978-1-60286-064-3
Publisher: Weinstein Books

The journal of a bright young woman who was among the many French Jews funneled through Drancy, the Parisian collection camp, to Nazi death camps.

The book opens on April 7, 1942, when the author was 21. She was reading Shakespeare, Hemingway and Keats. She had a warm circle of friends and family. She wrote of her Sorbonne graduate studies in English literature, of chamber music, picnics and the opposite sex. She received regular postcards from an absent boyfriend (en route to join the Free French), but her new sweetheart was handsome Jean Morawiecki, whom she met at the Sorbonne. Berr wrote of belles-lettres, Beethoven and the bewilderment of young love in that summer of ’42. Then came the decree that all Jews must wear a yellow badge with a six-pointed star. (Her father was arrested for wearing his improperly affixed.) Jews could not attend theaters or restaurants or cross the Champs-Elysées. The edicts brought increasing isolation; Berr worked in a clandestine group that placed Jewish children with families in unoccupied France. Gradually quotidian life succumbed to the inescapable. In her diary, Berr to turned to philosophy and thoughts of mortality, as in the entry that commented, “I am leading a posthumous life.” Such big thoughts combine with small daily concerns in the journal, and it’s the small things that give her account its considerable power. The reader, not the writer, is always aware of the impending end: Berr died at Bergen-Belsen five days before the British liberated the camp. Her diary was passed along several pages at a time and eventually reached its intended reader, Morawiecki, who had escaped to fight the Nazis. “I’ll come back, you know,” she wrote. “Jean, I will come back.” And, in a way, she has; the journal recently became a bestseller in France. Useful additional material is provided by translator Bellos.

A worthy addition to Holocaust literature, evoking the sweetness of one life lost and reminding us with urgent clarity how inexorably it was swept under those tragic times.