Saturday, November 1, 2008

Raining death on earth

‘It is raining Death on earth,’ Hélène Berr, a French literary student, wrote in her journal 65 years ago today. Like Anne Frank, Berr was deported by the Nazis, suffered from typhus, and died in spring 1945 at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. However, the two girls’ diaries bear little similarity.

Hélène Berr, born in 1921, was the daughter of a prominent Jewish family, and was an English student at the Sorbonne. She began writing a journal in 1942 while Paris was occupied by the Nazis, and continued to fill its pages for two years until she and her parents were arrested and deported to Auschwitz. Her parents died within six months, but Hélène was then forced to march to Bergen-Belsen, where she contracted typhus and died in April 1945 (only weeks after the death of the more famous war-time diarist, Anne Frank, and just days before the camp would be liberated).

Before being deported from Paris, Hélène entrusted the diary to the family’s cook, who then passed it on to an uncle, who gave it to her fiancé. Subsequently, it was kept as a family keepsake for more than half a century. Only in 2002 was the diary first shown to the public. And, earlier this year, it was published in France by Éditions Tallandier - to great acclaim. An English version has just been brought out in the UK by Quercus Publishing, and is about to be released in the US by Weinstein Books which says Berr was ‘a stunningly talented writer’, and her account of war-time Paris is ‘profoundly affecting and devastatingly lucid’.

Various reviews of Berr’s journal - such as that at or Spiegel Online - have pointed out the differences between it and the one written by Anne Frank. While Frank’s diary deals with life in hiding in Amsterdam, Berr’s account describes her enjoyment of life at the Sorbonne, walking in the Parisian sunshine, and the romance with her boyfriend. But the journal does get darker. On 8 June 1942, for example, the first time she has to wear a yellow star, she writes: ‘I held my head high and looked people so straight in the eye they turned away. . . But it’s hard.’

There are a few, though not many, extracts from Berr’s journal available online. The first few pages of the book can be read at has a few quotes, such as this one, from a few weeks before the Gestapo took her away: ‘To think that if I am arrested this evening (which I have been expecting for ages now), in a week’s time I’ll be in Upper Silesia, maybe dead, and my whole life, with the infinity I sense within me, will be snuffed out . . .’ It also quotes an entry from 1 November 1943 - exactly 65 years ago today - ‘It is raining Death on earth’. Weinstein Books quotes her very last entry, ‘Horror, Horror, Horror’, which, it adds, is ‘a poignant but heartbreaking echo of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness’.

Slightly more substantial extracts are available thanks to the International Herald Tribune which published, last January, several quotes translated by Associated Press from the French edition. Here are two of them.

10 October 1943

‘I have a duty to accomplish by writing because people must know. Each hour of the day the painful experience is repeated, that of noticing that others don’t know, that they don’t even imagine the suffering of others and the evil that some inflict on others.’

30 October 1943
‘Place de la Concorde, I passed so many Germans! with women, and despite my wish for impartiality, despite my ideal . . . I was swept by a wave not of hate, because I don’t know hate, but of revolt, nausea, disdain. These men, without knowing it, took the joie de vivre from all Europe . . . And in this moment of disgust there was no consideration of my special case, I didn’t think of persecutions.’

See also Civilisation no longer exists about Abel J Herzberg author of Between Two Streams - A Diary from Bergen-Belsen; and The Diary Junction’s data pages for both Herzberg and Anne Frank.

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