Culture

A Tale of Two Parises: The Life of Hélène Berr

Secrets of Paris contributor Yvonne Hazelton recounts the story of the Berr family as told to her by historian Dr. Nigel Perrin as they walked through Paris, past the Berr home, to the site of the Velodrome d’Hiver, and to the Shoah Memorial.

When a country is invaded, as Russia is invading Ukraine right now, the enemy smashes in with tanks and missiles, and citizens become refugees. The infrastructure is bombed to rubble, social services disappear and basic necessities dry up.  

In 1940, France’s much swifter collapse led to four grinding years of occupation. The Nazis cohabited among those they had conquered, eating in restaurants with the French, opening doors for women, giving up their seats on the metro. Rationing and the privations of life under occupation could be brutal, but a new, uneasy form of daily life returned.

Hélène Berr was a student when the Germans occupied Paris, living with her parents in their wealthy family apartment near the Eiffel Tower, going to classes at the Sorbonne, and writing her dissertation on Shakespeare. Unlike many of the immigrant Jewish families who had more recently arrived in Paris, the Berrs had lived in France for several generations and felt completely integrated within French society. With a father who had served in World War I and now managed a prestigious French chemical company, they saw themselves as decent, honest law-abiding citizens.

Hélène Berr’s home, 5 avenue Élisée Reclus, 7th.
Hélène Berr’s home, 5 avenue Élisée Reclus, 7th.
The plaque in remembrance of Hélène Berr on the facade.
The plaque in remembrance of Hélène Berr on the facade.

She began keeping a diary in April 1942, at the age of 21. She wrote about her classes at the Sorbonne, where she was a grade-A student, about her friends, her slacker boyfriend Gerard, and the interesting young man who kept showing up in the library, Jean. She visited her grandmother, played violin in chamber groups, read poetry, and listened to recordings with her friends. 

Although the French Vichy government exercised some independence under the Nazis, it also blamed Jews for starting the war. It began passing its own antisemitic laws in October 1940, and the first roundups of Jews began in 1941. However, Paris was still calm, and for the Berr family, life went on.

For nearly two years, Helene would remain remarkably untouched by these dark forces. But at the end of May 1942, the Nazis’ Eighth Ordinance declared that Jews had to wear a yellow star. Paris was shocked. Jewish persecution had largely been ignored, but it was now an unavoidable reality. Helene wrote about the looks she got wearing the star, some sympathetic, some avoidant. As humiliating as this brand was, she was determined to hold her head high: 

…I want to stay very elegant and dignified at all times so that people can see what that means. I want to do whatever is most courageous. This evening I believe that means wearing the star.

June 4, 1942

Then her father was arrested for having his star improperly attached (Hélène’s mother had sewn snaps on her husband’s coats to attach his star, so that he could move it to different coats without re-sewing it each time). He found himself living in appalling conditions within the internment camp at Drancy, on the outskirts of the city. He was extremely fortunate to be released three months later. But neither he nor the other prisoners learned of Drancy’s darkest secret. Sooner or later, those brought here would be packed aboard cattle trucks and deported to Auschwitz where they would be murdered.

According to Dr. Perrin, during this time Hélène’s life slowly split into two overlapping spheres: the seemingly normal and the unreal. While she continued her normal routine of attending classes and spending time with her new flame, Jean, the ordinary could still be joyous.’Life is extraordinary’, she would write, ‘as if I am living in the atmosphere of a novel’ [entry July 26, 1942]. But these dreamlike moments would increasingly become nightmarish as a darker, more oppressive world began to emerge. Just a fifteen-minute walk from Hélène’s apartment, directly across the Champs de Mars, was the Vélodrome d’Hiver, a cycling arena and entertainment venue well known to Parisians.

In July 1942, Helene’s family was warned of an imminent roundup, prompting her to record that ‘something is brewing, something that will be a tragedy’ [entry July 16, 1042]. Her premonition soon materialized. On July 16-17, 1942, more than eight thousand Jews, including 4,000 children, were rounded up and held there in squalid conditions for several days before being deported to internment camps and Auschwitz. Most of them were foreign Jews, many of whom lived in Paris’s poorer northern and eastern arrondissements. Many Parisians were shocked to see that the roundup was not undertaken by Nazi soldiers, but French police, working under the orders of the SS.

The introduction of new laws that summer further restricted Jewish freedoms: they were allowed to use only the last carriage on the metro and were banned from public spaces such as swimming pools and theaters. Owning a bicycle, radio, telephone or even using a call box were all forbidden. Though she was prevented from taking the agrégation, the competitive exam that would have led to a teaching career, Helene continued to work on her dissertation. But the net was closing. 

As deportations accelerated, more Jews began to escape the city or go into hiding. Hélène began volunteering with the UGIF, the General Union of French Jews, whose membership was compulsory for all Jews in France. Though it enabled Vichy and the Nazis to keep control of the population, Hélène cared for children whose parents had been deported to Auschwitz and covertly worked to hide Jewish orphans. The traumatic scenes she witnessed at the UGIF’s office became almost unbearable: 

All day long there’s a continuous line of women who have lost their children, men who have lost their wives, children who have lost their parents, people coming to ask for news of children and women, and others offering to take them in. Women weep. Yesterday one of them fainted.

July 23, 1942

Memorial at the Vélodrome d’Hiver, 8 blvd de Grenelle, 15th.
Memorial at the Vélodrome d’Hiver, 8 blvd de Grenelle, 15th.

The Children’s Garden of the Vélodrome d’Hiver, with a list of names and photographs of some of the children.

Memorial at the Vélodrome d’Hiver, 8 blvd de Grenelle, 15th.
Memorial at the Vélodrome d’Hiver, 8 blvd de Grenelle, 15th.

I asked Dr. Perrin why Helene decided to stay. There’s no simple answer, he told me. Her work with the UGIF was dangerous but she was devoted to the children she cared for. Though her siblings had left the capital, she felt a need to stay with her parents. And while the fear of arrest lingered, so did her sense of belonging: this was her city, after all. From reading her journal, with such beautiful details of Paris in all its glorious seasons, we see that she felt ‘the deep attachment, the essential affinity, the understanding and reciprocal affection that tie me to the stones, the sky and the history of Paris’ [entry 30 October 1943]. But even at the most dangerous moments, inertia.

As more Jews went underground, the risks of being caught increased. French Jews could expect to be picked up just as easily as foreigners. Helene’s journal had become the most precious possession, a testament to what she had witnessed. She gave the loose pages to their trusted family maid as she wrote them, with the direction that they ultimately be given to Jean, who had left France to go fight with Charles de Gaulle’s Free French forces. If she were to be taken, she wrote, ‘what must be rescued is the soul and the memory it contains’ [October 27, 1943].

By early 1944, Helene and her parents had taken to sleeping at friends’ houses. But the night of March 7, feeling homesick, they slept in their own beds. Early the next morning, the knock on the door finally came. After three weeks in Drancy, all three were deported, on Helene’s birthday. Her mother died soon after arrival at Auschwitz; her father followed in September. Two months later, Helene was transferred to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, where she became ill with typhus. According to one source, being too sick to move, Helene was beaten to death by a guard. Just five days later, on 15 April 1945, British forces arrived to liberate the camp’s survivors.

The Shoah Memorial, 17 rue Geoffroy l’Asnier, 4th.
The Shoah Memorial, 17 rue Geoffroy l’Asnier, 4th. 

As Hélène had wished, her brother gave the pages to Jean Morawiecki, her fiance. In 1992, her niece asked him for the journal, and he gave it to her. In 2002, she donated it to the Mémorial de la Shoah in Paris, and it was published in 2008. 

The diary of Hélène Berr is a haunting reminder of how easily prejudice and repugnant ideologies can transform the most civilized and beautiful of places, and how the unthinkable can become a terrifying reality. Walking through Paris, with its plaques and memorials to the Berr family and thousands of others, gives us a chance to appeal to our better angels. Lord knows we need it.

Yvonne Hazelton is an American (Texan-Californian) writer living in Paris. You can find her work at Secrets of Paris, HIP Paris, and Inspirelle, among other places. When she isn’t writing, she’s reading, cooking, or flaneuse-ing about Paris.

Dr Nigel Perrin is a writer, historian and docent specializing in the Nazi occupation of Paris. He offers tours to private clients. For more information, email tours@parisoccupied.com.