The Journal of Helene Berr

Published in 2014, Humanity in Action: Collected Essays and Talks is an anthology of written works by Judith S. Goldstein, the founder and executive director of Humanity in Action. "The Journal of Helene Berr" was a talk given to Humanity in Action Fellows in Paris in June 2010. Humanity in Action: Collected Essays and Talks is available for purchase as a Kindle eBook on Amazon.

 

A few months ago I read The Journal of Helene Berr that I have recommended that you all read. I wanted to make it obligatory reading for you but we didn’t have the time or resources to get the book into all of your hands. Some of you may have read it but I suspect most have not done so yet. Let me urge you to read this extraordinary work.

Helene Berr lived in Paris for most of her life. Written at home, the journal extends from 1940 to 1944 when she was arrested. She did not intend to provide a meticulous documentation of the descent into madness and violence under occupation. Her entries start sparsely, seemingly superficial and incidental, but grow to evoke the power and depth of a great orchestral work that draws from many different themes and rhythms into climax and denouement.

Its power derives from a poignant innocence, a testing of the method of communicating with herself, an ability to draw upon her resources in literature and philosophy to provide strength to face the unprecedented and unanticipated changes in her life.

Without one ounce of self-pity she described the following. What it meant to love her Parisian family, home and surroundings—friends, streets, apartments, university, stores, villages, country houses—and then see that world metastasize into zones of persecution and violence. What it was like to fall in love, to be deprived of the strength and support of someone who had joined the resistance movement and whom she would probably never see again. What it meant to lose the confidence in public spaces that once gave opportunity, education, adventure, enjoyment—to feel the security of her bourgeois existence cascade down into peril and torment. What it meant to be cast into the dire world of innocent victim based upon religious and pseudo-racial differentiation. What it meant to decide between resistance and flight. What it meant to recognize the defilement and danger that would attend deportation to the East and the certain early end to her life.

Let me read a few excerpts.

 

Wednesday, November 24, 1943

“This morning I was reading Shelley and his Defense of Poetry, yesterday  evening, one of the dialogues of Plato that he translated. How desperate to think that all this, all these magnificent fruits of refinement and humanism, all that intelligence and breadth of mind, are dead. To live in times like these and be drawn to all these works is absurd, it’s almost incompatible. What would Plato have said? What would Shelley say? They’d tell me I was a useless dreamer. But surely what is false and wrong are other people and tide of rabid evil sweeping through the world. Had I been born in another time, it would all have been able to blossom.” (1)

Monday, December 13, 1943

“Today, at the English Department, Lucie Morizet stayed behind on purpose to wait for me…to tell me that one of her friends had told her to warn all her friends of our kind that they would be taken before December 31. She was adamant I should do something. Do what? I’d have to lift a whole planet.” (2)

Friday, December 31, 1943

“When I write the word Jew, I am not saying exactly what I mean, because for me that distinction does not exist: I do not feel different from other people, I will never think of myself as a member of a separate human group, and perhaps that  is why I suffer so much, because I do not understand it at all. I suffer from the spectacle of human beastliness. I suffer from the sight of evil falling on humanity; but as I do not feel I belong to any particular racial, religious, or human group (because such a feeling always implies pride), all I have to keep me going are my inner debates and reactions, my conscience.” (3)

 

In the early 1940s, the immediate world of Helene Berr was Paris, although, in many of her later passages, the horizon spread ominously to the East. This “planet,” as she imaginatively viewed the world, was totally beyond her scope and reach. Today our concepts and knowledge are totally different. In our world the reality of the planet has become much more immediate, accessible and subject to our control. We have unprecedented scope and resources for improving and degrading— sometimes both at the same time—our existence. What responsibilities we have called upon ourselves! What challenges we confront!

Where does Humanity in Action fit into this world of global tests and trials? Our focus is on the critical and often fragile intersections of diversity and human rights. Our boundaries encompass the national and international, the individual and his or her network, the past and present. We call for engagement through collaborative efforts to sustain a world of just values and behaviors that differ radically from the destructive spirit and forces that overtook the life of Helene Berr.

On Wednesday, January 24, 1944, Helene wrote: “What a shame that one half of humanity in manufacturing evil and a tiny minority is trying to put it right.”  We hope and expect that all of you belong to that “minority.” We know that it most probably will always be a minority, but let it always be an expanding network committed to putting it “right.”

 

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About the Author

Judith S. Goldstein founded Humanity in Action in 1997 and has served as its Executive Director ever since. Under Judith’s leadership, Humanity in Action has organized educational programs on international affairs, diversity and human rights in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Poland, the Netherlands and the United States. She received her Ph.D in history from Columbia University and was a Woodrow Wilson Scholar for her MA studies. Judith has written several books and articles about European and American history, art and landscape architecture. She is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and several boards and advisory groups.

Citation

Goldstein, Judith S. "The Journal of Helene Berr." In Humanity in Action: Collected Essays and Talks, 53-55. New York: Humanity in Action Press, 2014.

References

1. Helene Berr, The Journal of Helene Berr, p. 218.

2. Ibid, p. 229.

3. Ibid. p. 236.

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