‘French Anne Frank’s’ book a hit

Daily Telegraph - 12 January 2008

A young Jewish woman’s account of life in Nazi-occupied Paris is on the verge of becoming an international best seller.

Hélène Berr, dubbed “The French Anne Frank”, died in Bergen-Belsen in 1945 but her journal was published only this month – and is selling in France at the rate of 10,000 a day.

The highly literary work is set to be translated and sold worldwide, arriving in British bookshops in September.

What makes the book so extraordinary is the way its author juxtaposes her carefree existence as a student at the Sorbonne with the encroaching Holocaust.

In one extract Hélène, not yet 21, is enjoying the spring sunshine near Notre Dame. In the next she is being menaced by the Gestapo.

While German-born Anne Frank’s diary deals with life in hiding in Amsterdam, Hélène’s is in many ways a celebration of the city where she was born in 1921.

She describes the “enchanted quarter” of Paris where she lives with her prosperous middle class family as a place filled with “the coolness, the beauty, the youthfulness of life”. But on June 8, 1942, she was ordered to wear a yellow badge in public to mark her as a Jew.

“I held my head high and looked people so straight in the eye they turned away,” Hélène writes. “But it’s hard.”

And she notes how the military managed to combine savagery with impeccable manners: “Why does the German soldier I pass in the street not slap me, not insult me? They don’t even see the illogical incomprehension there is in holding the Metro door for me and maybe tomorrow deporting me.”

As the end of the war approaches, Hélène’s words become less refined: “The Germans have one aim, to exterminate. People are speaking about suffocating gas that they use on the convoys which arrive at the Polish frontier. They are rumours but there must be some truth in them.”

Her last entry, dated Feb 14 1944, echoed Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness: “The horror! The horror! The horror!”

Soon after, Hélène, her mother Antoinette and father Raymond were forced on to a train and taken to their deaths at Bergen-Belsen.

Hélène succumbed to typhus a month before the camp was liberated by the British Army.

The diary is dedicated to Hélène’s fiance Jean Morawiecki, who fought for the Free French during the war.

It was salvaged by the family’s cook and later passed on to surviving relatives.

Hélène’s niece Mariette Job gave the manuscript to Paris’s Holocaust museum, the Memorial of the Shoa, in 2002 but has only now agreed to have it published.

Antoine Sabbagh, the historian who persuaded her to do so, said: “We have a historic document written as a tragic novel.

“Hélène was a very open person, who was sensitive to the pain and suffering in the world.

“The diary shows the astonishing way that in the same city there were people living well, making music and strolling in the park, and just a few streets away there was persecution. Hélène Berr lived both of these lives.”

With France still coming to terms with its collaboration with the Nazis during the war the diary’s appearance after more than 60 years has been roundly welcomed.

As well as its similarities to Anne Frank’s diary – one of the most widely read books in recent history – the attraction of Hélène’s journal is how easy it is to have an affinity with it – especially those who know Paris, a city that remains remarkably unchanged since the 1940s.

Patrick Modiano, the French writer, said: “Reading this book, one should remain silent and listen to the voice of Hélène and walk by her side.”

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