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Tribute to Hélène Berr, a Young Diarist and Holocaust Victim

Tribute to Hélène Berr, a Young Diarist and Holocaust Victim

Published on March 1, 2012
Embassy Commemorates Hélène Berr, French Diarist of the Holocaust

Beginning Thursday, March 1, the French Embassy will host an exhibition on the well-known diary of Hélène Berr, a Parisian college student and Jew who perished during the Holocaust of the 1940s.

The event is organized by the Paris-based Mémorial de la Shoah (Holocaust Memorial Institute), which has organized the event as a traveling exhibition. It has been installed at the UN Headquarters in New York City. Plans are under way to show the exhibit in major U.S. cities.

The embassy’s exhibit will bring Ms. Berr’s niece, Mariette Job, to Washington, to speak on her family’s behalf during the March 1 opening ceremony. The evening’s visitors will be able to meet Ms. Job and view facsimiles of Ms. Berr’s work, including parts of her diary’s original manuscript.

A student of English at the Sorbonne, Ms. Berr documented in detail and with literary skill the gradual rise of persecution against Jews in Paris and greater France. In particular, she describes the enactment of the Vichy Laws discriminating against Jewish persons, beginning in 1942.

Until March 1944, when she and her family were arrested, Ms. Berr journaled daily on the increasing hardships of France’s Jews. Following arrest, her family was deported to Auschwitz. She eventually died in Bergen-Belsen some days before the camp’s liberation.

A talented storyteller in her own right, Ms. Berr’s diary provides compelling details of what life in occupied France entailed for the country’s Jews. When she describes having to wear the yellow star on her clothing, she writes, "The most painful part is meeting other people who wear it."

The diary’s poignant conclusion ends with the simple line, "Horror! Horror! Horror!," a quotation from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, and a reference to her university studies. It was a shared feeling for the Holocaust’s victims throughout Europe.

The exhibit also seeks to describe the historical specificities of Holocaust-related persecution in France. Jews confined to ghettos in Poland, Germany and elsewhere saw death as imminent. Their need to record their experience was therefore pressing, and many such narratives exist. Fewer written records of this kind have surfaced from France, however. Ms. Berr’s diary is thus a rare and valuable testimony of the unique hardships imposed upon Jews in France.

It serves as a "strong indication of the ways in which the Jews in France perceived the persecution," according to a communiqué from the Mémorial.

"Among the Jews living in France, three quarters would be saved, notably due to the multiple forms of solidarity surging from the French society," the Mémorial said.

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