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Paris under the dark shadow of the Nazis

A young Jewish woman describes life during the occupation in her newly published diary. She died in a German concentration camp.

January 13, 2008|Elaine Ganley | Associated Press

PARIS — On some days her world was awash in light. On others, dark shadows enveloped her and all of Paris.

The secret diary of a young Jewish woman recounting two years under the Nazi occupation portrays the slow shattering of her life, ending with her deportation on her 24th birthday. She died about a year later in a concentration camp.

Helene Berr's account of life under occupation was written for her fiance, Jean Morawiecki, who had left Paris to join the Resistance. She hid the loose pages with the family cook. The diary was turned over to Morawiecki after Berr's death in April 1945.

The diary -- published for the first time this month -- describes the small joys, the pervasive strain and the growing horror under the Nazis. But hate is a word that Berr, an advanced student of English at the Sorbonne, seemed not to know.

"There is something in the soul of Helene that is very luminous, despite the darkness. . . . Never hate, but indignation," her niece, Mariette Job, said in an interview. Job worked for years to obtain the diary and have it published.

The original diary is part of the permanent exhibition of the Memorial of the Shoah, France's Holocaust museum. It was put into book form, complete with photographs and footnotes, and published as "Helene Berr Journal."

The French media are calling Berr "France's Anne Frank." Both died of typhus a month apart at Germany's Bergen-Belsen camp.

Still, Job and others point to the differences in age and circumstances between the two. The teenage Anne wrote while in hiding in Amsterdam, while Berr, whose diary begins when she was 21, was able to attend class and move about Paris, despite growing Nazi restrictions.

Still, Berr's diary is "an exceptional case," said Karen Taieb, head of archives at the Holocaust museum. It is the first account of life under the occupation in France by a student, Taieb said.

Berr's diary is set to be published in English and at least a dozen other languages, said Marie Lannurien, head of foreign rights at Tallandier, the French publisher. Requests were coming in from the United States even before the book was released in France on Jan. 3, she said.

"What surprises me is the extreme maturity of her perceptions. She is not at all naive," Lannurien said. She "had no illusion about what happens to deportees."

Berr, who was born into a bourgeois Jewish family and led a life of privilege before the occupation, was a sensitive young woman with a literary bent and a talent for writing. She sprinkles her diaries with English words and makes numerous references to Shakespeare and Keats. Berr even gave her friends the names of heroes in her favorite books. Morawiecki, her fiance, was "Lancelot of the Lake."

When the diary begins, Berr is an idealistic and exuberant student, and Paris is flooded in sunshine.

"From the rue Soufflot to Boulevard Saint-Germain, I am in enchanted territory," she writes, referring to the Latin Quarter where she studied.

However, a dark reality is creeping inexorably into daily life. In an almost matter-of-fact way, on April 11, 1942, Berr writes of the property seizure notice imposed on her father, industrialist Raymond Berr -- part of the Nazi process of "economic Aryanization."

When her mother announced the Nazi ordinance directing Jews to wear a yellow star, Berr had other things on her mind and brushed the news aside. But on June 8, 1942, when she wore the emblem for the first time, she understood the gravity. "I held my head high and looked people so straight in the eyes they turned away. But it's hard."

Throughout the diary, Berr tries to find sense in the terrible duality that was her life: the beauty and purity of nature and the yellow star of "barbarity and evil."

Friends' fathers died. Her own father was held outside Paris at Drancy, the transfer depot for concentration camps, then released.

Berr began caring for young Jewish children, some of whose parents had been deported, and, by November 1943, she writes: "I want to be cradled like a child."

Gradually the Nazi noose tightened around Paris, and Berr and her family scattered at night, sleeping at acquaintances' homes.

She and her parents were arrested March 8, 1944, at their home, on a night when they had not gone into hiding. The three died in concentration camps, as did other family members.

The diary survived, kept by the family cook, Andree Bardiau, who eventually gave it to an uncle of Berr's. The uncle turned it over to Berr's fiance, who gave it to Job in 1992. She gave it to the Memorial of the Shoah in 2002 so it would be preserved and shared.

With the diary, "we have a historic document written as a tragic novel," said Antoine Sabbagh, a historian who pressed Job to publish it.

"The force of this document is that it shows the double aspect of occupied Paris, a life that could be beautiful, with promenades, while just streets away, there was persecution," said Sabbagh. The "lucidity and maturity" are haunting, he said.

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