Friday, December 18, 2009

who takes the life

"It is raining Death on earth." Hélène Berr wrote this in her Journal on November 1, 1943.

And she wrote more than a year later: "The wheels of horror are turning and turning and grinding away without stopping. Some turns of the wheel crush strangers, others crush your own folk, leaving nothing behind but an inextricable mess of suffering and cares." (Written on Saturday, 22 January 1944)

For her the particular was more important than the collective. Each individual instance of brutality affected her deeply:
The pianist who played with us was arrested on Monday evening with his sister and has surely been deported. Denounced. Mme Jourdan [her violin teacher] and Nadine [a pianist friend] played a Beethoven sonata. Suddenly, during the Adagio, the cruelty and lunatic injustice of this new arrest — after a thousand, ten thousand others — seared my heart. A boy of such talent, a boy able to offer the world such pure joy through an art oblivious to human malice — up against brutality, matter devoid of spirit. How many souls of infinite worth, repositories of gifts others should have treated with humility and respect, have been similarly crushed and broken by Germanic brutality? Just as a precious violin, full of dormant capacities to awaken the deepest and purest emotions, may be broken by brutal, sacrilegious force. All these people the Krauts have arrested, deported, or shot were worth a thousand times more than they are! What a waste! What a triumph of evil over good, of the ugly over the beautiful, of strength over harmony, of matter over mind! Souls like Francoise's,* entire worlds of purity filled with marvelous abilities, have also been swallowed up by this machinery of evil.
-- Friday, 4 February 1944, evening
Throughout, although she no longer experienced moments of ecstatic joy, Berr struggled to maintain her sense of balance. She struggled and usually succeeded in staving off the despair of impotent fatalism or equally impotent anger and passion for ultimate revenge. She also tried hard to keep the Journal free of rhetoric and emotional venting. Working daily with the children of deported parents, she attempted to bring many of them to health and rescue at least a few from the same disaster.

Her sources of information were better than most and she consequently had a better knowledge of arrests, internments, deportations; of reprisals taken against innocent hostages; of the Germans' inhuman treatment of Eastern Jews and captive Russians; and of the risks borne by French people who helped Jews.

Still, though she advocated escape to her family, she refused to cease her own work and go into hiding.

There are few photos of the evil events of which Berr wrote. Here are a few that are related to the experience she recorded in the Journal:

In 1942 her father spent three months in the Drancy internment camp. Although most of the camp's occupants were deported to concentration camps in Poland and later exterminated, he was released after payment of a ransom by the chemical manufacturing company of which he was a director.

{The internment camp at Drancy, outside Paris, where Jews were confined until they were deported to the death camps; source: wikipedia}

{Jewish women detained at the Drancy holding facility; source: holocaustresearchproject}

{Aerial view of Drancy 1944; same source}

Of the Rafle du Vélodrome d'Hiver on 16 July 1942, Berr wrote:
Monsieur Boucher gives us news of the Vélodrome d’Hiver [an indoor cycle track near the Eiffel Tower where Jews were held before being sent to concentration camps]. Twelve thousand people are incarcerated, it’s hell. Many deaths already. (Sunday 19 July 1942, evening)

Details from Isabelle: 15,000 men, women and children at the Vélodrome d’Hiver, so crowded together they can only squat. Not a drop of water, the Germans have cut off the water and gas mains. Among them are sick people hauled out of hospital, people with tuberculosis wearing ‘contagious’ signs round their necks. Women are giving birth right there. No medical help. (Tuesday 21 July, evening)

{Une des rares photographies de l’intérieur du Vel’ d’hiv’; source: Olivier Beuvelet}

Of deportations, Berr wrote:
Little Bernard told me his story, stammering, in his child’s voice. His mother and his sister were deported, and he made a statement that seemed so old on the lips of a mere babe: ‘I am certain that they will not come back alive.’ (Saturday 5 September 1942)

Suddenly I realise that there is nothing to hope for and everything to fear. Monsieur R described to Denise [Hélène’s sister] what goes on prior to a deportation. Everyone is shaved, they are parked behind barbed wire, and then they are piled into cattle wagons without any straw, and the doors are sealed. (Sunday 20 September, 6pm)

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! (Sunday, 10 October 1943)

{Roundup of Jews. Paris, France, ca. 1942; source: YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, New York}

{French police round up Jews. Paris, France, August 20, 1941; source: Bibliotheque Historique de la Ville de Paris}

{Jews being deported from France; source: holocaustresearchproject}

The last entries of the diary are largely given over to meditations on death. On Wednesday, 17 November 1943, Berr learned about the horrible deaths suffered by Russians in Poland. When, a few days later her grandmother died in her own bed, she wrote:
I was born in the bed in which Grandma died, and so was Maman. Manam told me that this afternoon. I found it comforting to know that life and death were thus entangled.

We never stop being afraid for our loved ones; we can never plan for the future, not even for tomorrow. This isn't just rhetoric — the beauty of these lines [of Shelley's] Adonais struck me deeply, and I was tempted to memorize them:
He has outsoared the shadow of our night;
Envy and calumny and hate and pain,
And that unrest which men miscall delight,
Can touch him not and torture not again;
From the contagion of the world's slow stain
He is secure, and now can never mourn
A heart grown cold, a head grown gray in vain...
At one point today I really did make those lines my own. ... The only immortality of which we can have certain knowledge is the immortality that consists in the continuing memory of the dead among the living. ... Human beings out to treat life and death as ineludtable. What you understand you can accept. what we do not accept is the criminal lunacy of people who spread death by artificial means, who slaughter each other. Death belongs to God.
-- (Sunday 28 November 1943)

{Percy Bysshe Shelley }

If only death could be as it is in Prometheus Unbound; that is what it would be if men were not evil:
And death shall be the last embrace of her
Who takes the life she gave, even as a mother,
Folding her child, says, 'Leave me not again.'
Astonishingly, that's what I was trying to express just now. I've just found it, like a light in the darkness, as I was reading Shelley's Prometheus. It's about the resurrection of the world after the death of Prometheus. The Earth is speaking.
-- (30 November 1943)

Here is the end of the Journal, written just before her arrest:
The monstrous incomprehensibility and illogical horror of the whole thing boggle the mind. But there's probably nothing to work out, because the Germans aren't even trying to give a reason or a purpose. They have one aim, which is extermination.

So why do German soldiers I pass on the street not slap or insult me? Why do they quite often hold the metro door open for me and say: "Excuse me, miss" when they pass in front? Why? Be­ cause those people do not know, or rather, they have stopped thinking; they just want to obey orders. So they do not even see the incomprehensible illogicality of opening a door for me one day and perhaps deporting me the next day: yet I would still be the same person. They have forgotten the principle of causality.

There's also the probability that they do not know everything.

The atrocious characteristic of this regime is its hypocrisy. They do not know all the horrible details of these persecutions, because there is only a small group of torturers involved, alongside the Gestapo. ... They have stopped thinking, I keep coming back to that, I think it's the root of the evil; it's the solidest prop of this regime. The destruction of personal thought and of the response of individual consciences is Nazism's first step. ... The only truthful report worthy of being written down would be one that included the full stories of every individual deportee. ... It must never be forgotten that while it was happening, the human beings who suffered all these tortures were completely separated from people who did not know about them, that the great law of Christ saying that all men are brothers and all should share and relieve the suffering of their fellow men was ignored. Horror! Horror! Horror!
-- (Tuesday, 15 February 15 1944)


* Hélène's friend Francoise Bernheim had been arrested and then deported in 1943; she later died at Auschwitz.


Anonymous said...

It never stops does it?? It never stops..the horror that man visits on man..thinking that their way is the only way or the right way or the correct way. It just sickens me to know that there is so much that people deny and don't want to face..we have to remember and not let it good good to each and every fucking person you meet! STOP judging each other..enough of this..just enough..

Unknown said...

I went looking for this while reading Sarah's Key. Sigh. I didn't learn about this in school and don't ever recall hearing about this in any history class since. Why not? Stunning. Sad with giant capital letters. If we don't know, we will we will never learn to stop the hatred.


Unknown said...

I went looking for this while reading Sarah's Key. Sigh. I didn't learn about this in school and don't ever recall hearing about this in any history class since. Why not? Stunning. Sad with giant capital letters. If we don't know, we will we will never learn to stop the hatred.


Elaine said...

No matter how many years have passed, the reality of the holocaust is unbearable to fathom. This part of our history continues to be one of the most heinous acts human beings can inflict on another...I had no knowledge of this "roundup" occuring in France. Our history books do NOT tell the story. Thank you Tatiana De Rosnay for telling the story.

Anonymous said...

I also started searching for this after reading "Sarahs Key" and although I was taught about the holocaust in school I never actually knew anything about the French's participation in it. Sarahs Key touched my heart in ways i never expect a novel to and therefore has given me the yearning to push forward and to continue learning so that I too will never forget.