- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 22, 2009

By Helene Berr
Translated from the French by David Bellos
Weinstein Books, $24.95, 307 pages, illus.

By Simone de Beauvoir
University of Illinois Press, $40, 320 pages

What with all the fanfare about the bicentenaries of Lincoln and Darwin, Tennyson and Gladstone, it’s easy to forget other anniversaries in 2009. It is painful, sobering and just plain terrible to realize that Anne Frank would only be turning 80 this year: who knows what she might have given the world had not that great spirit have been so untimely snuffed out? But we have always known that she was but one among many, and even now, when the last survivors of the Holocaust are being thinned out by the ordinary gleanings of the grim reaper, along comes another diary kept by a young Jewish woman hiding out in Hitler’s Europe — only to be betrayed within months of its liberation and deported to a cruel death.

The picture of the Frenchwoman Helene Berr on the cover of her “Journal” evokes, probably deliberately, the iconic image of her infinitely more famous comrade in suffering that has haunted the world for more than half a century. Eight years older than Frank, Berr looks uncannily like a cross between her and Britain’s Princess Margaret: She looks at the camera and at posterity with a calm mixture of hope, resignation and irony that matches the tone of her diary:

“Why?,” she asks herself (about the deportation of French Jews) in an entry from a Monday morning in October 1943, less than six months before she was to begin her own journey to its infernal destinations. “It’s all so pointless: what use is it to arrest women and children? Isn’t it a monstrous stupidity for a country at war to have to do that sort of thing? But everyone has such scales before their eyes that they cannot even see the simple point of asking such a question. It’s a frightful machine, even now all we can see are its results. On one side, a rational, organized, considered evil — and on the other side, frightful suffering. No one can see the monstrous pointlessness of it, no one can see where it all began. …”

More fortunate than Frank in living long enough to benefit from a first-rate education, Berr shows in her writing the imprint of the writers and thinkers she has studied and assimilated. But for all the learning and feeling for literature that permeate her “Journals,” what in the end impresses most is the sterling character of her mind, the humanistic values that are her lodestar. And if a woman in her mid-twenties is necessarily more jaded by life than the teenage Frank, they still share an amazingly buoyant spirit that lives on in their daily journal entries. Who can know for how long it was able still to flicker on the terrible path they both trod first to Auschwitz and then on the forced winter march to Bergen-Belsen, where typhus finally extinguished their young, oh so promising lives?

Berr was fortunate not to be as restricted in her hiding place as was her Dutch contemporary: she was able to move around Paris and visit other people and places, albeit with the fear of being stopped and captured ever present. But she did not feel secure enough to keep her entries after she had written them, giving them to Andree Bardiau, a trusted family retainer, for safekeeping. Unable to refine and revise, she ended up leaving them as she had written them, which gives them an immediacy and a freshness terribly still so haunting all these decades later. But of course, she was keenly aware that they were her legacy, her bequest to posterity when her life hung so precariously in the balance:

“It makes me happy to think that if I am taken, Andree will have kept these pages, which are a piece of me, the most precious part, because no other material thing matters to me anymore; what must be rescued is the soul and the memory it contains.”

“The Journal of Helene Berr” truly contains the memory and the soul of the woman who wrote it and it is of some comfort that it was indeed rescued as she had hoped, even if she was not. But only a cold comfort, for one cannot help thinking of what she and all the others who perished so needlessly might otherwise have accomplished? The exterminated came from a gene pool that produced Soutine and Modigliani, Freud and Einstein, to say nothing of Nobel laureates too many to enumerate — who can calculate the benefits of all kinds lost to mankind when the 6 million were slaughtered? Berr’s phrase penetrates right to the heart of the matter: “monstrous pointlessness” indeed.

Fundamentally, Berr’s destruction was an accident of birth, as we can see when we turn to the diaries of someone with a different heritage who went on to fulfill her potential for many decades after World War II had ended. This “Wartime Diary” of the celebrated French femme savante, Simone de Beauvoir, covers the conflict’s first couple of years: first the calm of what the British called the “phony war” and the French “la drole de guerre” (the joke war), then rapidly succeeded by France’s precipitate collapse and the occupation of Paris by the Germans. Berr and de Beauvoir inhabit the same city, but what a difference the absence of a yellow star makes. Simone can eat and drink in cafes, walk around, visit friends and family, go to work — all without skating on the ever-present thin ice of peril where Helene finds herself whenever she moves around.

Reading the diaries side by side makes the similarities between their authors apparent: their cultivated minds and refined sensibilities, their passion for life and for love, their lack of parochialism and engagement with the wider worlds of ideas. Helene is so steeped in English literature that her “Journal” is peppered with references to Keats and Simone ponders the enlightened splendors of Hegel as his countrymen of a very different stripe are a hostile presence around her. Both were brilliant students who continue to use and expand their intellect in their subsequent lives. But the “Journal of Helene Berr” demonstrates a lovely sense of humor and lightness that is absent from the ponderous “Wartime Diary” of de Beauvoir: “L’Allegro” to her “Il Penseroso” — a Miltonic contrast both would have appreciated. But it is definitely Berr who manages, in the word of the great Charlie Chaplin, to “smile though your heart is breaking.”

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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