Monday, July 18, 2022
HomeParis TravelThe Lifetime of Hélène Berr ⋆ SECRETS OF PARIS

The Lifetime of Hélène Berr ⋆ SECRETS OF PARIS

Secrets and techniques of Paris contributor Yvonne Hazelton recounts the story of the Berr household as instructed to her by historian Dr. Nigel Perrin as they walked via Paris, previous the Berr house, to the positioning of the Velodrome d’Hiver, and to the Shoah Memorial.

When a rustic is invaded, as Russia is invading Ukraine proper now, the enemy smashes in with tanks and missiles, and residents turn into refugees. The infrastructure is bombed to rubble, social providers disappear and primary requirements dry up.  

In 1940, France’s a lot swifter collapse led to 4 grinding years of occupation. The Nazis cohabited amongst these they’d conquered, consuming in eating places with the French, opening doorways for ladies, giving up their seats on the metro. Rationing and the privations of life underneath occupation could possibly be brutal, however a brand new, uneasy type of day by day life returned.

Hélène Berr was a scholar when the Germans occupied Paris, residing along with her mother and father of their rich household residence close to the Eiffel Tower, going to courses on the Sorbonne, and writing her dissertation on Shakespeare. Not like most of the immigrant Jewish households who had extra not too long ago arrived in Paris, the Berrs had lived in France for a number of generations and felt fully built-in inside French society. With a father who had served in World Battle I and now managed a prestigious French chemical firm, they noticed themselves as respectable, trustworthy law-abiding residents.

Hélène Berr’s home, 5 avenue Élisée Reclus, 7th.
Hélène Berr’s house, 5 avenue Élisée Reclus, seventh. Photograph by Yvonne Hazelton.
The plaque in remembrance of Hélène Berr on the facade.
The plaque in remembrance of Hélène Berr on the facade. Photograph by Yvonne Hazelton.

She started holding a diary in April 1942, on the age of 21. She wrote about her courses on the Sorbonne, the place she was a grade-A scholar, about her associates, her slacker boyfriend Gerard, and the attention-grabbing younger man who stored displaying up within the library, Jean. She visited her grandmother, performed violin in chamber teams, learn poetry, and listened to recordings along with her associates. 

Though the French Vichy authorities exercised some independence underneath the Nazis, it additionally blamed Jews for beginning the conflict. It started passing its personal antisemitic legal guidelines in October 1940, and the primary roundups of Jews started in 1941. Nonetheless, Paris was nonetheless calm, and for the Berr household, life went on.

For almost two years, Helene would stay remarkably untouched by these darkish forces. However on the finish of Might 1942, the Nazis’ Eighth Ordinance declared that Jews needed to put on a yellow star. Paris was shocked. Jewish persecution had largely been ignored, however it was now an unavoidable actuality. Helene wrote in regards to the appears she acquired sporting the star, some sympathetic, some avoidant. As humiliating as this model was, she was decided to carry her head excessive: 

…I wish to keep very elegant and dignified always so that folks can see what meaning. I wish to do no matter is most brave. This night I consider meaning sporting the star.

June 4, 1942

Then her father was arrested for having his star improperly connected (Hélène’s mom had sewn snaps on her husband’s coats to connect his star, in order that he might transfer it to totally different coats with out re-sewing it every time). He discovered himself residing in appalling situations inside the internment camp at Drancy, on the outskirts of the town. He was extraordinarily lucky to be launched three months later. However neither he nor the opposite prisoners discovered of Drancy’s darkest secret. Ultimately, these introduced right here could be packed aboard cattle vans and deported to Auschwitz the place they’d be murdered.

In line with Dr. Perrin, throughout this time Hélène’s life slowly cut up into two overlapping spheres: the seemingly regular and the unreal. Whereas she continued her regular routine of attending courses and spending time along with her new flame, Jean, the peculiar might nonetheless be joyous.’Life is extraordinary’, she would write, ‘as if I’m residing within the environment of a novel’ [entry July 26, 1942]. However these dreamlike moments would more and more turn into nightmarish as a darker, extra oppressive world started to emerge. Only a fifteen-minute stroll from Hélène’s residence, instantly throughout the Champs de Mars, was the Vélodrome d’Hiver, a biking enviornment and leisure venue well-known to Parisians.

In July 1942, Helene’s household was warned of an imminent roundup, prompting her to file that ‘one thing is brewing, one thing that can be a tragedy’ [entry July 16, 1042]. Her premonition quickly materialized. On July 16-17, 1942, greater than eight thousand Jews, together with 4,000 youngsters, have been rounded up and held there in squalid situations for a number of days earlier than being deported to internment camps and Auschwitz. Most of them have been overseas Jews, lots of whom lived in Paris’s poorer northern and jap arrondissements. Many Parisians have been shocked to see that the roundup was not undertaken by Nazi troopers, however French police, working underneath the orders of the SS.

The introduction of latest legal guidelines that summer time additional restricted Jewish freedoms: they have been allowed to make use of solely the final carriage on the metro and have been banned from public areas comparable to swimming swimming pools and theaters. Proudly owning a bicycle, radio, phone and even utilizing a name field have been all forbidden. Although she was prevented from taking the agrégation, the aggressive examination that may have led to a instructing profession, Helene continued to work on her dissertation. However the web was closing. 

As deportations accelerated, extra Jews started to flee the town or go into hiding. Hélène started volunteering with the UGIF, the Basic Union of French Jews, whose membership was obligatory for all Jews in France. Although it enabled Vichy and the Nazis to maintain management of the inhabitants, Hélène cared for youngsters whose mother and father had been deported to Auschwitz and covertly labored to cover Jewish orphans. The traumatic scenes she witnessed on the UGIF’s workplace grew to become nearly insufferable: 

All day lengthy there’s a steady line of girls who’ve misplaced their youngsters, males who’ve misplaced their wives, youngsters who’ve misplaced their mother and father, folks coming to ask for information of youngsters and girls, and others providing to take them in. Girls weep. Yesterday considered one of them fainted.

July 23, 1942

Memorial at the Vélodrome d’Hiver, 8 blvd de Grenelle, 15th.
Memorial on the Vélodrome d’Hiver, 8 blvd de Grenelle, fifteenth. Photograph by Yvonne Hazelton.

The Youngsters’s Backyard of the Vélodrome d’Hiver, with an inventory of names and images of a few of the youngsters.

Memorial at the Vélodrome d’Hiver, 8 blvd de Grenelle, 15th.
Memorial on the Vélodrome d’Hiver, 8 blvd de Grenelle, fifteenth. Photograph by Yvonne Hazelton.

I requested Dr. Perrin why Helene determined to remain. There’s no easy reply, he instructed me. Her work with the UGIF was harmful however she was dedicated to the kids she cared for. Although her siblings had left the capital, she felt a necessity to stick with her mother and father. And whereas the worry of arrest lingered, so did her sense of belonging: this was her metropolis, in any case. From studying her journal, with such lovely particulars of Paris in all its superb seasons, we see that she felt ‘the deep attachment, the important affinity, the understanding and reciprocal affection that tie me to the stones, the sky and the historical past of Paris’ [entry 30 October 1943]. However even on the most harmful moments, inertia can prevail.

As extra Jews went underground, the dangers of being caught elevated. French Jews might count on to be picked up simply as simply as foreigners. Helene’s journal had turn into probably the most valuable possession, a testomony to what she had witnessed. She gave the unfastened pages to their trusted household maid as she wrote them, with the path that they in the end be given to Jean, who had left France to go combat with Charles de Gaulle’s Free French forces. If she have been to be taken, she wrote, ‘what have to be rescued is the soul and the reminiscence it comprises’ [October 27, 1943].

By early 1944, Helene and her mother and father had taken to sleeping at associates’ homes. However the night time of March 7, feeling homesick, they slept in their very own beds. Early the subsequent morning, the knock on the door lastly got here. After three weeks in Drancy, all three have been deported, on Helene’s birthday. Her mom died quickly after arrival at Auschwitz; her father adopted in September. Two months later, Helene was transferred to Bergen-Belsen focus camp, the place she grew to become sick with typhus. In line with one supply, being too sick to maneuver, Helene was overwhelmed to demise by a guard. Simply 5 days later, on 15 April 1945, British forces arrived to liberate the camp’s survivors.

The Shoah Memorial, 17 rue Geoffroy l’Asnier, 4th.
The Shoah Memorial, 17 rue Geoffroy l’Asnier, 4th. Photograph by Dr Nigel Perrin.

As Hélène had wished, her brother gave the pages to Jean Morawiecki, her fiance. In 1992, her niece requested him for the journal, and he gave it to her. In 2002, she donated it to the Mémorial de la Shoah in Paris, and it was revealed in 2008. 

The diary of Hélène Berr is a haunting reminder of how simply prejudice and repugnant ideologies can rework probably the most civilized and exquisite of locations, and the way the unthinkable can turn into a terrifying actuality. Strolling via Paris, with its plaques and memorials to the Berr household and 1000’s of others, offers us an opportunity to attraction to our higher angels. Lord is aware of we’d like it.

Yvonne Hazelton is an American (Texan-Californian) author residing in Paris. You’ll find her work at Secrets and techniques of Paris, HIP Paris, and Inspirelle, amongst different locations. When she isn’t writing, she’s studying, cooking, or flaneuse-ing about Paris.

Dr Nigel Perrin is a author, historian and docent specializing within the Nazi occupation of Paris. He presents excursions to non-public shoppers. For extra info, e-mail

Supply hyperlink



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

Most Popular

Recent Comments