Monday, December 14, 2009

a silence that rustles with memories

Sunday, October 10, 1943

I am resuming this diary tonight, after a year's interruption. Why?

Today, on my way home from Georges and Robert's apartment, I was abruptly assailed by the feeling that I had to describe reality. Just the walk back from rue Margueritte was a whole world of facts and thoughts, images and reflections. Enough for a book. And suddenly I understood how banal a book is, basically. I mean: what else is there in a book but reality? What people need in order to write is an observant spirit and a broad mind. Otherwise everyone could write books; I recall, or rather, I looked up this evening a quotation from the beginning of Keats's Fall of Hyperion:
Since every man whose soul is not a clod
Hath visions, and would speak, if he had loved
And been well nurtured in his mother tongue
Yet there are a thousand reasons stopping me from writing and which tear me apart even now, and will trip me up again tomorrow and thereafter.

First, a kind of laziness that will be hard to overcome. Writing, writing the way I want to — that's to say with complete sincerity and never thinking that others will read me, so as not to affect my attitude — to write all the reality and the tragic things we are living through, giving them all their naked gravity without letting words distort them, is a very difficult task and requires constant effort.

Then there is the considerable repugnance I feel at thinking of myself as "someone who writes," because for me, perhaps mistakenly, writing implies a split personality, probably a loss of spontaneity, and an abdication (but maybe these are prejudices).

And then there is pride. I do not want any part of it. The idea that you can write for other people, so as to be praised by them. horrifies me.

Maybe there is also the feeling that "other people" won't understand you completely, that they make you dirty and mutilate you, and that you let yourself be cheapened like mere merchandise.


At times too the sense of the uselessness of it all paralyzes me. Sometimes I have doubts and tell myself that this feeling of uselessness is just a form of inertia and laziness, because set against it is a significant reason that, if I convince myself that it is valid, will prove decisive: I have a duty to write because other people must know. Every hour of every day there is another painful realization that other folk do not know, do not even imagine, the suffering of other men, the evil that some of them inflict. And I am still trying to make the painful effort to tell the story. Because it is a duty, it is maybe the only one I can fulfill. There are men who know and who close their eyes, and I'll never manage to convince people of that kind, because they are hard and selfish, and I have no authority. But people who do not know and who might have sufficient heart to understand — on those people I must have an effect.

For how will humanity ever be healed unless all its rottenness is exposed? How will the world be cleansed unless it is made to understand the full extent of the evil it is doing? Everything comes down to understanding. That truth fills me with anguish and torment. War will not avenge the suffering: blood calls for blood, men dig their heels into their own wickedness and blindness. If only you could manage to make bad men understand the evil they are doing, if only you could give them that total and impartial vision which ought to be the glory of humankind! I've argued with people too often about this, with my parents, who certainly have more experience than I do.
-- The Journal of Hélène Berr translated by David Bellos (Random House, Inc., 2008) pp 156-57

{Hélène Berr; source: Mémorial de la Shoah}

{First page of the Journal; source: Mémorial de la Shoah}

Hélène Berr was a young Jewish victim of Nazism who documented her Parisian life in a diary during the early 1940s within occupied France. She began her journal in April 1942 when she was 20, a student of English literature at Sorbonne and a gifted classical violinist, and she was able to carry it on for less than two years.

Often compared with Anne Frank and sometimes also Rutka Laskier, she shared more with intellectuals such as the German Jewish diarist Victor Klemperer and the political philosopher Hannah Arendt.

Like both, she was and educated, talented member of the cultural elite of her time. On October 25, 1943, she described her contemporaries as "the educated type, whose minds are shaped to a great extent by books and heart-to-heart conversations with intelligent companions of their own age."

Like Klemperer she wrote the journal as a private venture, wholly for herself, as a means of bearing witness to the events of her time with the greatest degree of honesty she could muster. On May 27, 1942, he wrote: "I shall go on writing. That is my heroism. I will bear witness, precise witness!" On Saturday, July 18, 1942, she wrote of the suffering she saw all around her: arrests, suicides, deportations, separations of men from their wives, children from their parents, and, like Klemperer, she wrote: "I'm noting the facts, in haste, so as not to forget them, because we must not forget." And on October 10, 1943, thinking of her intention to use the journal as a source for writing a book, she wrote: "I know that many others will have more important lessons to teach, and more terrible facts to reveal. I am thinking of all the deportees, all those in prison, all those who set off on the great adventure of escape. But that should not make me a coward; each of us in our own small sphere can do something. And we can, we must." She, like Klemperer, wrote and preserved her writing at great risk. This was his heroism and hers.

Like Hannah Arendt she was intellectually, culturally, and emotionally alive to the events of her time and like Arendt she tried to tease meaning from the coincidence of ordinary and everyday occurrences amidst the passage of world-changing ones. Like Arendt she would fall into and out of love. She would embrace the emotional turmoil of her relationships with lovers, family, and friends and she would seek to understand herself better by exploring the interface of emotion and observation, aiming to be true to herself and lovingly honest in her dealings with others.

Like Arendt she refused to be overmastered by the brutality of the German occupiers and their French collaborators. She did her best to retain her sense of honor in resisting the overwhelming force with which they imposed their will on French Jews. She sought to observe and report the unfolding horrors of the holocaust. Though she hated Nazis for treating all Jews as one single people, she wore her yellow Star of David with pride, a mark of solidarity rather than one of defeat. She taught herself to self-identify as Jew despite a belief she shared with Arendt that Judaism was simply a religion and the Jewish people not one nationality but many, not a "nation" apart. She hated to be made conspicuous by the Star, to be confronted by non-Jews who (rarely) showed sympathy and (much more often) showed themselves to be ignorant of Jewish sufferings.*

Like Arendt, she had misgivings about Jews with sepratist ideals. She didn't want Jews to see themselves as "the other" but wanted rather to uphold the ideals of the Enlightenment and the principles of the French Revolution in which Jews were citizens in the same way as were members of other religions.

Nonetheless, also like Arendt, she worked with an organization that helped Jewish children, orphaned by the deportation of their parents. Neither woman was a Zionist but both provided direct or indirect support for the work Zionists performed in rescuing children.

Berr's religious beliefs resembled Klemperer's and Arendt's. Her Judaism was part of her family tradition; it was a cultural orientation. She upheld the ethical values of this faith tradition. She believed in the teachings of Christ and criticized French Catholics for going along with the German occupation and the persecution of Jews. On October 11, 1943, she wrote: "it seemed to me [on reading Matthew's gospel] that Christ belongs much more to me than he does to some good Catholics." Although she did not have a strong adherence to Judaism, she was observant. On Friday, September 11, 1942, she wrote: "Went to synagogue for Rosh Hashanah. The service was held in the oratory and the community hall, since the synagogue itself has been destroyed by Doriotistes. It was depressing. Not a single young person. Only old folk." [Deoiotists were French followers of French fascist, Jacques Doriot. A note in the text says that the following year all the participants at Rosh Hashanah observances were rounded up and interned.]

Despite the many similarities with Klemperer's Diaries and Arendt's writings, Berr's Journal is unique.

Berr differed mostly from Klemperer and Arendt in her lyricism. Alongside the Journal's descriptions of monstrous injustices are its abundant expressions of joy. For example, on June 8, 1942, she wrote: "These are the two aspects of contemporary life: the freshness, beauty, la jeunesse de la vie, embodied by the clear morning — the cruelty and evil represented by the yellow star."**

Even in times when she feared most for herself and those she loved and even while mourning the loss of many who had died or been sent off to the concentration camps, she gave herself time to appreciate fully the sensuous joys of life. Just as it was important to her to wear the Star with dignity, she saw it as both honorable and socially valuable to experience and report times of joy. In the early pages of the Journal she wrote of joy sweeping over her, "a joy that confirmed my self-confidence, in complete harmony with the joyful sunlight and the pastel blue of the sky above the puffball clouds." Later in this passage she wrote of pleasure that is "not an outpouring but a kind of underlying joy that got forgotten now and again and then gently resurfaced." And later in this entry she declared herself "so sated with fresh air, bright sunshine, wind, showers, fatigue, and pleasure that I'm not sure where I am." On returning from an outing in the country, she wrote of "the wet grass in the garden, in the rain, and the sudden appearance of a sunny blue sky over the little meadow.... The walk along the plateau road, in full sun, the short, sharp shower.... All that now seems strangely close and strangely distant. I know it's over, that I'm here in my bedroom, and at the same time I can hear the voices, see the faces and the shapes, as if I were surrounded by living ghosts. It's because the day is no longer entirely Present but not yet quite Past. The silence rustles with memories and images."

She had a great love for English literature and particularly the poetry of John Keats. In October 1943, she considered of her own likely death at the hands of the Nazis, saying that if she should be killed, "and if these lines are read, it will be clear that I expected my fate; not that I had accepted it but, because I do not know how my physical and moral resistance will hold up under the weight of reality, that I was expecting it." In this context she quotes these lines from Keats:
This living hand, now warm and capable
Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold
And in the icy silence of the tomb,
So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights
That thou wouldst wish thine own heart dry of blood
So in my veins red life might stream again,
And thou be conscience — calm’d — see here it is —
I hold it towards you.
-- This Living Hand

{From left: Hélène, her mother Antoinette, sister Denise, boyfriend Jean Morawiecki and brother-in-law's sister, Jacqueline Job, in the summer of 1942 at the Berrs' country home in Aubergenville on the Seine; source: book review in Daily Mail}

{Hélène nursing a scraped knee at Aubergenville, 1942; same source}

I've written this on reading about half the book. It's not the first time I've written about a book before I'm done with it.



* On October 28, 1943, Berr encountered a working-class woman who told her Jews "don't bother French people, do they, and anyway they only arrest people who have done something." Berr wrote that encounters such as this caused her much pain, but "on the other hand, I can't hold it against the woman; she did not know."

**"Il fait un temps radieux, très frais – un matin comme celui de Paul Valéry. Le premier jour aussi où je vais porter l’étoile jaune. Ce sont les deux aspects de la vie actuelle: la fraîcheur, la beauté, la jeunesse de la vie, incarnée par cette matinée limpide — la barbarie et le mal représentés par cette étoile jaune."

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