'Oh not another Holocaust book!" some readers may exclaim. But this compelling story proves that the well of sympathy and indignation over unjust suffering is bottomless. The fate of Hélène Berr, while not new in a historical sense, moves us deeply. Deported to Auschwitz with her parents in March 1944, this young French Jewish woman died at the Bergen-Belsen camp in April 1945, shortly before liberation by British troops. (Anne Frank, a few years younger, was in the same camp and died around the same time).
Berr's journal, written in Paris from 1942 to 1944, was kept by surviving members of her family for decades. In 2002, her niece Mariette Job donated it to the archives of the Holocaust Memorial in Paris, and it was published and widely hailed in France last year. David Bellos, a professor of French at Princeton, has done a fine job of presenting it to American readers, translating it, and providing maps and a brief historical essay on Jews in France.
Born in 1921, Berr belonged to an upper middle-class Jewish family that had lived in France for generations. Her father, a chemical engineer and a decorated veteran of World War I, ran an important industrial firm; her mother, a gracious hostess, ran a household with several servants. Hélène studied English literature at the Sorbonne and was an accomplished violinist. When she started keeping her journal, in April 1942, her days consisted of going to the university, meeting friends in the Luxembourg Gardens, attending concerts or playing chamber music, and enjoying the beautiful spring weather.
In a way, the presence of German troops (they had occupied the capital in 1940) hardly touched her. Poor foreign Jews, who had been flooding into France throughout the 1930s from Eastern Europe, were aware of the dangers they faced as "stateless persons." The Berrs, however, felt protected. After all, they were valued French citizens. Hélène's father had even been allowed to keep his job when other Jews in high places lost theirs.
A few weeks later, everything changed. By a decree in May 1942, all Jews in the occupied zone (at that time, the northern half of the country - later, all of France would be occupied) were ordered to wear the Jewish star on their clothing. For Hélène, this was a humiliation difficult to bear. She describes in detail how it felt to see children in the street pointing at her, or to see her friends in the library look away.
Reading a diary like this is unsettling, because the writer obviously doesn't know, from day to day, what we know in retrospect. It is fascinating to track her growing awareness of the persecution of Jews, as her world begins to unravel. In June 1942, her father was arrested and imprisoned in the transit camp at Drancy, from which transports "to the East" were already leaving. He was ransomed by his firm after a few weeks, but from then on was essentially under house arrest. Hélène started to work as a volunteer for UGIF, the Jewish organization that had been created by the Vichy government (with the Germans) to represent the Jewish community. While some people have blamed UGIF leaders for "collaboration," it did save some Jewish children and tried to help families. Hélène Berr was particularly devoted to young children in group homes, many of whom did not survive the war.
In November 1942, she suffers a huge loss. The young man with whom she has fallen in love (she shyly reports on their growing romance) leaves Paris to join General Charles de Gaulle in London. Hélène interrupts her diary for eight months, and when she takes it up again in August 1943, we realize that her sense of her fate - and of the fate of Jews in general - has become tragic. She now writes for Jean, her absent fiancé, and has the premonition that he will read her posthumously. She feels increasingly isolated from her fellow French citizens, who have shut their eyes and minds to the suffering of Jews. She herself can think of little else: "Now tragedy has become unrelievedly dark, and tension is a permanent condition," she writes a few weeks before her arrest. The last words of her diary are in English: "Horror! Horror! Horror!"
Hélène and her parents seem to have chosen not to try to save themselves by leaving Paris. Her siblings survived, and thanks to them and to her one-time fiancé (who received her manuscript after the war), we now have another important Holocaust book.
Susan Rubin Suleiman, a professor of French and comparative literature at Harvard, is the author of "Budapest Diary: In Search of the Motherbook," among other works.