Friday, November 14, 2008

The Journal of Helene Berr translated by David Bellos

Not since The Diary of Anne Frank has there been such a book as this: The joyful but ultimately heartbreaking journal of a young Jewish woman in occupied Paris, now being published for the first time, 63 years after her death in a Nazi concentration camp.

On April 7, 1942, Hélène Berr, a 21-year-old Jewish student of English literature at the Sorbonne, took up her pen and started to keep a journal, writing with verve and style about her everyday life in Paris — about her studies, her friends, her growing affection for the “boy with the grey eyes,” about the sun in the dewdrops, and about the effect of the growing restrictions imposed by France’s Nazi occupiers. Berr brought a keen literary sensibility to her writing, a talent that renders the story it relates all the more rich, all the more heartbreaking.

The first day Berr has to wear the yellow star on her coat, she writes, “I held my head high and looked people so straight in the eye they turned away. But it’s hard.” More, many more, humiliations were to follow, which she records, now with a view to posterity. She wants the journal to go to her fiancé, who has enrolled with the Free French Forces, as she knows she may not live much longer. She was right. The final entry is dated February 15, 1944, and ends with the chilling words: “Horror! Horror! Horror!” Berr and her family were arrested three weeks later. She went — as was discovered later — on the death march from Auschwitz to Bergen-Belsen, where she died of typhus in April 1945, within a month of Anne Frank and just days before the liberation of the camp.

The journal did eventually reach her fiancé, and for over fifty years it was kept private. In 2002, it was donated to the Memorial of the Shoah in Paris. Before it was first published in France in January 2008, translation rights had already been sold for twelve languages.
I hate to write this review. I actually finished this book yesterday, but I wasn't sure what to say! The truth of the matter is, I did not like this book at all! And, you know, it wasn't the subject matter, it was the translation. I imagine that if you were reading this book in the original, it would really work for you, but I found the writing so hard to read! It just didn't flow and I had to work at it so much that I would get to the end of a page and feel like I had been reading the same one over and over again. I am sure it is just the switch from one language to another, and that I am being way too picky, but there you have it, this book drove me crazy!

There was another problem, too. Frankly, Helene must know every person in Paris. That's great, it is good to have lots of friends, but she of course would write about them in her journal because she spent days with them. She didn't plan on becoming a published author. Seriously, though, I spent way too much time trying to keep everyone straight! And, the translator put the names in and then didn't do much foot-noting, so I was totally lost as to the relavance of these people. I would start to wonder if I should remember the names because they were going to become vital later, or is this just a passing reference. This was the first part of the book. By the time I sludged through all that I was just too overwhelmed with names and it probably soured me for the later parts of this book.

I had to say I didn't like it because it is about such an important aspect of history and it is normally something that I would like. I have to wonder if someone else had translated it, would I like it better? I mean, she lived a very interesting and depressing life. It is a part of our history, what happened to her and her family. I just didn't like how the story was presented! This is the problems with journals that are turned into books... too much pointless rambling! So, I hate to say it, but I don't recommend this book at all! It's a pity, really! That being said, I think that if you get a chance to read it, you still should. Like I said, it is an important part of our history, and is not the fault of Helene that her story was told so poorly... Does this make sense?

I do thank McClelland & Stewart for the chance to read this book, though!


  1. I'm sorry it was such a rough read. I love reading diaries, like this. You might want to write to the publisher to suggest that they add a "cast of characters" in a future edition. Letting them know what's helpful to readers will only help sales, in the long run.

  2. Your comments are really interesting! I thought I was going to get a review copy of the book, but for some reason things fell through. I've added it to my wish list, but will probably get it from the library eventually. Sometimes a good or bad translation can make a world of difference. And a "cast of characters" sounds handy,too, as Bookfool mentions. I generally love diaries or anything from this period. I'll give it a try, but it will be interesting now to take a look at it!


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