Occupied Paris: The Sweet and the Cruel

The Journal of Hélène Berr

translated from the French and with an introduction and an essay by David Bellos, and an afterword by Mariette Job
Weinstein, 307 pp., $15.95 (paper)

Journal, 1940–1950

by Philippe Jullian
Paris: Grasset, 387 pp., 22.00 (paper)

Jean Cocteau

by Claude Arnaud
Paris: Gallimard, 864 pp., 35.00 (paper)

1940–1945 Années érotiques: De la Grande Prostituée à la revanche des mâles

by Patrick Buisson
Paris: Albin Michel, 521 pp., 24.00 (paper)

Les Parisiens sous l'Occupation: Photographies en couleurs d'André Zucca

by Jean Baronnet, with a preface by Jean-Pierre Azéma
Paris: Gallimard, 175 pp., 35.00
Mémorial de la Shoah, Paris, Collection Job
Hélène Berr and her fiancé Jean Morawiecki, Aubergenville, France, summer 1942; from The Journal of Hélène Berr


Hélène Berr, twenty-one, student of English literature at the Sorbonne:

This is the first day I feel I’m really on holiday. The weather is glorious, yesterday’s storm has brought fresher air. The birds are twittering, it’s a morning as in Paul Valéry. It’s also the first day I’m going to wear the yellow star. Those are the two sides of how life is now: youth, beauty, and freshness, all contained in this limpid morning; barbarity and evil, represented by this yellow star.

Philippe Jullian, twenty-three, artist, and aspiring man of letters:

Read The Poor Folk, and felt like a character out of Dostoevsky, just as I felt extremely Proustian three years ago. I always see myself through the colored windows of my admiration. I’m afraid of having no more great works to immerse myself in. After Balzac, Proust, Dostoevsky and the English, what is left for me?…

How ugly they are, those poor Jews, who wear, stuck to their clothes, that mean yellow star.

Same date, June 8, 1942; same place, Paris; two different journals. Although both were solidly bourgeois, Berr’s background was grander than Jullian’s. She was Parisian; he came from provincial Bordeaux. Her father, Raymond Berr, was a famous scientist who ran a major chemical company. His was an impoverished war veteran named Simounet, of whom Philippe felt so ashamed that he took the name of his maternal grandfather, Camille Jullian, a noted historian of the Gauls. Philippe was a socially ambitious homosexual whose diary proudly dwells on dinners in the company of Jean Cocteau and his circle.1 Hélène’s idea of a perfect evening was listening to a Beethoven trio or discussing the poetry of Keats with her friends from the Sorbonne. But the main difference between them was one imposed by the German occupiers: she was Jewish, and he was not.

This was not an identity that Hélène had sought. Quite to the contrary, the Berrs were secular, assimilated, and felt more French than Jewish. In a journal entry on December 31, 1943, she notes:

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 don’t understand it at all.

The suffering that she refers to, the daily humiliations, the terror of deportation, torture, and probable death, the experience of seeing her father dragged off to a concentration camp (for just having pinned, not sewn, the yellow star onto his suit), mothers being torn from their children, relatives…

This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $99.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.

One-Week Access — $4.99

Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.

If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.