1 June 2009

Review: JOURNAL by Helene Berr ****

"From April 1942 to March 1944, Helene Berr, a recent graduate of the Sorbonne, kept a journal that is both an intensely moving, intimate, harrowing, appalling document and a text of astonishing literary maturity. With her colleagues, she plays the violin and she seeks refuge from the everyday in what she calls the "selfish magic" of English literature and poetry. But this is Paris under the occupation and her family is Jewish. Eventually, there comes the time when all Jews are required to wear a yellow star. She tries to remain calm and rational, keeping to what routine she can: studying, reading, enjoying the beauty of Paris. Yet always there is fear for the future, and eventually, in March 1944, Helene and her family are arrested, taken to Drancy Transit Camp and soon sent to Auschwitz. She went - as is later discovered - on the death march to Bergen-Belsen and there she died in 1945, only weeks before the liberation of the camp. The last words in the journal she had left behind in Paris were "Horror, Horror, Horror...", a hideous and poignant echo of her English studies from "The Heart of Darkness". Helene Berr's story is almost too painful to read, foreshadowing horror as it does amidst an enviable appetite for life, for beauty, for literature, for all that lasts."

When I was younger, I was a big "fan" of Anne Frank's diary - I've read it so many times and for some reason I was strangely fascinated by her life story. I haven't checked Anne's diary in years, but I was still very excited when I heard that another WWII diary had surfaced, this time by a young woman in her early twenties, which made it even more interesting.

Helene Berr was was born in 1921 and lived in Paris. She kept a diary from 1942 to 1944, which she used mainly to write down the incredible horrors of war as well as for describing her daily life. Unlike Anne's family, who were hiding in the secret annexe, Helene's family decided not to run away because they thought that would be cowardly of them. Helene says she expects they will regret their decision eventually, but they still stayed.

At first, Helene talks about her friends and her life as a student of English literature at Sorbonne, but her entries eventually turn into detailed descriptions of war. Obviously, the war has changed her life completely - not only did she have to wear the yellow star and was subjected to all sorts of prohibitions as a Jew, but her father was also taken away for a while along with many of her friends and acquaintances who were deported. When the burden of war because too much to bear, she feels she cann0t write silly things about her life anymore so she uses the diary to record the horrible consequences of war - she says she chose to do this so she wouldn't forget because these things must not be forgotten. Yes, we all know that millions of Jews were brutally murdered during World War II, but that's just empty statistics - Helene, however, makes it all very real as she gives these people a face, so to speak; she writes about people she knows that were deported, children who were left alone, women giving birth on the street, families who commitied suicide so they would avoid deportation, brutal and inhumane executions she heard about etc. These entires are so powerful that I personally found them quite hard to read and they moved me to tears several times. As I said, we all know WWII was possibly one of the biggest tragedies of humanity ever, but reading about someone who actually experienced it all makes it all SO real. How was something so horrible even possible?! Helene wonders that herself but comes to the conclusion that the Nazis simply turned into beasts and machines who don't think about what they're doing, but just do what they're told without an ounce of sympathy because they were completely brainwashed.

As depressing as Helene's journal is, she also devotes a lot of time talking about her friends, the boy she was in love with and had to leave due to war, literature, music etc. In a way, it could be a diary of a normal girls in 1940s if it hadn't been for the war.

Helene sensed what her destiny would be and unfortunately it came true - her whole family was deported to the concentration camp and she passed a few days before liberation, which makes the whole story even more tragic. She instructed their cook to keep her diary if she is taken away and give it to Jean, the boy she fell in love with and who was in the army - she says she was also writing the last party of the journal for him so he would know what she was thinking about and going though while he was away. He survived the war and allowed the publication of the diary, which was published for the first time in 2008 and was an immediate bestseller.

I personally believe that everyone should read this diary in order to avoid forgetting was really happened during WWII and how horrible it was as it is really something that must never be forgotten.


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