Helene Berr kept a journal from April 1942 to February 1944. She is a recent graduate of the Sorbonne, with a love for English literature and plays the violin, she calls her ‘selfish magic’; which helps her to escape the everyday oppressiveness of living under a Nazi Vichy government.
The time covered is the same as Anne Frank’s Diary. But while Anne was hiding in rooms in Amsterdam, Helene was a student at the Sorbonne, however their fate was the same eventual incarceration at Bergen-Belsen, both being there at the same time and dying in 1945, only weeks before liberation.
Her father is a director of a chemical company and a decorated WWI veteran., her background is one of privilege. Will their fate be the same as poor Jewish refugees?
She writes of everyday things, friendships and loves, the ups and downs of youth. She thinks she loves Gerard, until she meets Jean Morawiecki, a fellow student.
Early on the petty anti-Semitic laws are upsetting and bothersome, but as time goes by the signs become more and more clear that this is a noose, becoming tighter and tighter.
She writes in reference to the wearing of the star. A friend Vivi Lafon says ‘”I can’t stand seeing people with that on.” I realize that: it offends other people. But if only they knew what a crucifixion it is for me. I suffered there, in the sunlit Sorbonne courtyard, among my comrades. I suddenly felt I was no longer myself, that everything had changed, that I had become a foreigner, as if I were in the grip of a nightmare. I could see familiar faces all around me, but I could feel their awkwardness and bafflement. It was as if my forehead had been seared with a branding iron.’
She writes of inertia and even covert duplicity of French Catholics around her. ‘And she was right Catholics no longer have the freedom to follow their conscience, they do what their priests tell them to do. And the latter are weak cowardly and often unintelligent. If there had been a mass uprising of Christians against these persecutions, would it not have won the day? I am sure it would have. But the Christians would have had to protest against the war in the first place, and they weren’t able to do that. Is the Pope worthy of God’s mandate on earth if he is an impotent bystander to the most flagrant violations of Christ’s laws?
Do Catholics deserve the name of Christians when, if they applied Christ’s teaching, religious difference, or even racial difference would not exist?’
She often quotes from Keats, reads Winnie-the-Pooh and recites Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Rikki, Tikki, Tavi.’
Helene was indeed a gifted writer. This book, I have read, has been immensely popular in Europe, and I think, stands on par with ‘The Diary of Anne Frank.’