Diary of French Student Killed in Concentration Camp Published

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 German occupation — published for the first time this month — portrays the slow shattering of her life under the Nazis, ending with her deportation on her 24th birthday and death in a concentration camp.

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

The diary describes the small joys, the pervasive angst and the growing horror under the Nazis. But hate is a word that Berr, an advanced student of English at the Sorbonne University, seemed not to know.

"There is something in the soul of Helene that is very luminous, despite the darkness ... Never hate but indignation," Mariette Job, her niece, said in an interview. Job worked for years to obtain the diary and eventually had 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 Jan. 3 as "Helene Berr Journal" — now in bookstores.

The French media are calling Helene Berr "France's Anne Frank," although Job and others say this is off the mark even though both died of typhus a month apart at Germany's Bergen-Belsen camp.

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.

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

Berr, who was born into the Jewish bourgeoisie and led a life of privilege, was a clearly 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. Helene even gave her friends the names of heroes in her favorite books. Jean Morawiecki, her fiance, was "Lancelot of the Lake."

When we meet Helene, she 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, Helene notes the "notice of spoliation" that her father, industrialist Raymond Berr, received — part of the Nazi process of "economic Aryanization" by which goods are confiscated.

When her mother first announced the Nazi ordinance directing Jews to wear a yellow star, Helene 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, Helene 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 at Drancy, the transfer depot for concentration camps, outside Paris, then released.

Helene began caring for young Jewish children and, by November 1943, she writes "I want to be cradled like a child."

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

With the diary, "We have a historic document written as a tragic novel," said Antoine Sabbagh, a historian who pressed Job, Helene Berr's niece, to publish the diary.

The diary has had a tortuous life, going from Andree Bardiau, the family cook, who had kept it for Helene, to an uncle who then turned it over to the fiance. He in turn gave it to Job in 1992, making her full owner. She gave it to the Memorial of the Shoah in 2002 so it would be preserved and shared.

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

Accounts of life at the Drancy camp that Sabbagh collected in "Lettres de Drancy" (Letters from Drancy) are "full of hope," he said, whereas "Helene Berr knew, said in her journal, that there was a large dark passage awaiting her."

Indeed, Helene's final entry, on Feb. 15, 1944, closes with "Horror! Horror! Horror!"