How France discovered its own Anne Frank

Hélène Berr was just 24 when she was murdered by the Nazis. Sixty-three years on, her moving diary of life in occupied Paris is a bestseller. We talk to the niece who brought her forgotten manuscript to light

By Gerald Jacobs, November 13, 2008
Hélène Berr (left) relaxes with her family and lover, Jean Morawiecki, outside Paris in the summer of 1942

Hélène Berr (left) relaxes with her family and lover, Jean Morawiecki, outside Paris in the summer of 1942

At the wedding of François Job to Denise Berr in Paris on August 12 1943, the guests walked in procession from the town hall, along the elegant streets of the seventh arrondissement to the bride's parents' apartment. It was a remarkable sight, not least because every member of the party was wearing a yellow star - the badge of shame imposed upon Jews by the city's Nazi occupiers.

At the Berrs' home, the religious ceremony was performed by the Chief Rabbi of Paris, even though, as Mariette Job, daughter of François and Denise, born in 1950, now puts it: "We didn't think of ourselves first and foremost as Jewish. We would say we were French, of Israelite origin." This was how most French Jews had seen themselves for 150 years. But being an integral part of the fabric of French citizenry was of no consequence in the face of the Nazis' vicious Jew-hatred.

Nowhere has this simple fact been made more plain than in the diary kept during those years by Denise Berr's sister Hélène, a literature student at the Sorbonne. Today, thanks to the efforts of Mariette, Hélène's niece, her diary can be read well beyond the family circle. In fact, it already has been by thousands of readers in France, where Hélène Berr has become known as the "French Anne Frank".

Certainly there are similarities between the two young women. Like Anne Frank, Hélène Berr died in Bergen-Belsen shortly before it was liberated in 1945. She was 24. And, as with Anne Frank, her literary gifts have come to be posthumously appreciated throughout the world - publishing rights for Berr's Journal have so far been negotiated in 20 countries.

Mariette Job first saw the original, handwritten version of her aunt's diary in 1992, 50 years after it was written. "When I took hold of the diary," she recalls, "it was very moving. When you see actual handwriting, that really is life. She had precise, beautiful handwriting - and crossed out very little." The diary develops from the impulsive jottings of an emotional young woman - albeit one who is exceptionally articulate - into a mature and poignant account of an increasingly horrific situation. But Journal is far from being a litany of terror. The sense of suffocating fear that gripped the Jews of Paris following the German occupation is relieved by Berr's reflections on Keats and other English writers, and her intense involvement with music - both as player and listener.

And by romance - as Job says, Journal is essentially "a long letter" to the man Hélène loves, and contains a subtle description of their deepening affection for each other.

For Job, a Paris-based therapist and former bookseller, the publication of her aunt's diary has been a compelling mission. "Hélène had passed it bit by bit to Andrée Bardiau, the family cook," Job explains. "Andrée had saved all the separate sheets and given them to Hélène's brother, my uncle Jacques, and he gave the manuscript to Jean Morawiecki."

It was Morawiecki, now aged 87, who was the intended recipient of Hélène's "long letter of love", a non-Jew to whom she became attached while simultaneously growing apart from Gérard Lyon-Caen, the young Jewish man she was expected to marry. Both men left Paris to join the Free French Army. When Morawiecki returned after the war and learned of Hélène's death, says Job, "he was completely overwhelmed. He couldn't eat, couldn't cope. For many years, he remained on his own, then he married in 1957, and had a daughter. He took up a career as a diplomat.

"An employee of the firm of which Hélène's father - my grandfather - was the managing director had typed up the diary and I read it when I was 15. But it took me 30 years to take it all in and digest it. My desire grew to read the original manuscript. To touch it, see what it looked like. That is why I went to find Jean Morawiecki.

"I didn't have his details. Apart from one or two visits to Paris just after the war, he had made no attempt to make contact with our family. It was too much for him. It would have been, for him, coming back to a life he wasn't able to have. I traced him through the Foreign Office and phoned him in November 1992. We met a month later. I remember so clearly the moment when he reached up to the top of a cupboard and produced an envelope from which he produced the diary. We had a lot of literary exchanges - after all, I worked as a bookseller and he was a very cultured man. He often said: ‘Hélène and I were the two most cultured people in France'. Bit by bit we built up a friendship. He told me I was the only person linked to the past whom he felt able to see.

"I asked him lots of questions about my aunt. Then one day when I was visiting him he told me he had decided to give me the diary. He wanted me to inherit it spiritually. "

Job had the manuscript microfilmed - a process that took six years - and then made into a disc. "I made up my own little book with a cover and photo," she says, "and gave a copy to each member of the family - and one to the Shoah Memorial Library in Paris."

This last copy was placed in an exhibition and created a huge amount of interest. "Lots of people who had known Hélène wrote to me," says Job. "The library's education director told me that more than 20,000 students had visited the exhibition and most of them had asked: ‘How come you haven't published that diary?' "

Job was also approached by Tallandier, the publishers. "They said: ‘Whenever you want and however you want!'"

Journal was duly published in France earlier this year, causing a sensation, and is now available in an English translation. "Hélène had so many reasons for living and was so talented," Job reflects. "They killed her body but not her soul. She lives on in this book."


Journal is published by MacLehose Press at £16.99

Last updated: 3:38pm, September 23 2009