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 and friends disappearing without a trace, none of this figures in Philippe Jullian’s diaries. Not that he has any sympathy for the Nazis. But his attention is elsewhere. Thus he writes, in December 1943:

Monday, in Paris, return of [my friends] Clerisse and Grédy, beautifully dressed. Lunch at Madame Grédy, perfectly “natural.”…I go and find the Rilke poems with my prints, which, taken as a whole, disappoint me. However, their fine presentation makes me cry with joy.

From Jullian’s journals the reader might get the impression that life in wartime Paris was almost normal. Germans are barely mentioned. Food was short, to be sure, but something could always be rustled up at dinner parties attended by a young aesthete with the right connections.

Of course, Jullian was not exactly representative of the French population. But the impression that life went on, and that the horrors that afflicted the Berrs, and many others, could be safely ignored by those who were not marked with yellow stars, is not totally false. Paris, unlike other European capitals under Nazi occupation, was meant to look normal. Nominally, it was under French (Vichy) rule, and German policy was to encourage cultural life there as long as it was not unfriendly to the German cause. Francophile administrators, such as the German “ambassador,” Otto Abetz, were sent to Paris expressly to cultivate French writers and artists.

Herbert von Karajan conducted the German State Opera in Paris. Cocteau’s plays were performed all through the war. Jean-Paul Sartre published his books, as did Simone de Beauvoir, and German officers were among those who came to see Sartre’s plays. Albert Camus was patronized by the German chief of literary propaganda, Gerhard Heller. Film studios thrived under German supervision. And Sartre and Camus wrote for the resistance too. Things were even easier for French collaborators. For them, as Robert Paxton observes in Collaboration and Resistance, “life in occupied Paris was sweet.”


A tiny number of people resisted the Germans from the beginning. Some were religious, others were dedicated followers of Charles de Gaulle or committed leftists, and some just couldn’t bear to remain passive.2 The art historian Agnès Humbert was not religious, but fit the other categories. She started the first resistance group in France with colleagues from the Musée de l’Homme, including the poet Jean Cassou. Her gripping wartime memoir, a kind of reconstructed journal written just after the war, was first published in English in 2008.

Recalling a conversation with Cassou in August 1940, she writes:

Suddenly I blurt out why I have come to see him, telling him that I feel I will go mad, literally, if I don’t do something, if I don’t react somehow. Cassou confides that he feels the same, that he shares my fears. The only remedy is for us to act together, to form a group of ten like-minded comrades, no more…. I don’t harbour many illusions about the practical effects of our actions, but simply keeping our sanity will be success of a kind.

Humbert was arrested, along with most of the group, in 1941, and barely survived prison and slave labor in Germany. She was immensely brave and driven by a strong sense of left-wing idealism. At a time when there was no prospect at all of a German defeat, her actions would have seemed quixotic to most people in France, who tried to carry on as best they could. Since the Germans made this easier in Paris (as long as you weren’t Jewish) than in Warsaw, say, or Minsk, passivity was perhaps not the most honorable option, but at least it was a perfectly understandable one.

When General de Gaulle returned as a French hero in 1944 and told his compatriots that there was only one “eternal France,” and that all French patriots had stood up to the Nazi invaders, this myth was gratefully received. The more complicated reality was slow to emerge. It took an American historian, Robert Paxton, to start the flood of literature on Vichy France. But even though the murkier picture of collaboration and compromise, as well as heroic resistance, is now generally accepted in France, a confrontation with the superficial normality of wartime Paris can still come as a shock.

The French photographer André Zucca was not a Nazi. But he felt no particular hostility toward Germany either. And as the historian Jean-Pierre Azéma remarks in his preface to the riveting book of Zucca’s photographs, Les Parisiens sous l’Occupation, he “was not a shining example of philosemitism.” Zucca simply wanted to continue his pre-war life, publishing pictures in the best magazines. And the one with the glossiest pictures, in fine German Agfacolor, happened to be Signal, the German propaganda magazine. When a cache of these pictures was exhibited at the Bibliothèque Historique de la Ville de Paris last year, the press reacted with dismay. How could this “celebration of the victor,” “underlining the sweetness of life in an occupied country,” take place “without any explanation”?

Perhaps there should have been more explanation, but the pictures are only tendentious in what they do not show. You don’t see people being rounded up. There is only one blurred image of an old woman walking along the rue de Rivoli wearing a yellow star. There are no photographs of endless queues in front of half-empty food stores. There are no pictures of Drancy, where Jews were held in appalling conditions before being transported east in cattle trains. But what Zucca’s pictures do show, always in fine Agfacolor weather, is still revealing. They are disturbing to the modern viewer precisely because of their peculiar air of normality, the sense of life going on while atrocities were happening, as it were, around the corner.

We see nice old ladies doing their knitting in the gardens of the Palais-Royal. We see a café on the Champs-Elysées packed with well-dressed Parisians enjoying their aperitifs. We see young people bathing in the Seine. We see fashionable ladies in elaborate hats at the races in Longchamp (this, in August 1943, when mass deportations were in full swing). The streets, to be sure, are weirdly empty of cars, and there are German men and women in uniform popping up here and there, drinking coffee, entering the métro, playing in brass bands, paying their respects to the Unknown Soldier at the Arc de Triomphe. Still, the overall impression is one of a people engaged in what the French call se débrouiller, coping as best they can.


For some French men and women—perhaps more than we would like to know—the occupation was actually a source of new opportunities. That life was sweet for the “collabos” is clear. But a remarkable new book on the sexual aspects of foreign ocupation, 1940–1945 Années érotiques, the second in a two-volume set by Patrick Buisson, shows that the presence of large numbers of German soldiers meant liberation of a kind for large numbers of French women: young women rebelling against the authoritarian strictures of bourgeois life, middle-aged spinsters yearning for romance, widows, women alone, women in bad marriages, and so on. Buisson does not ask us to admire these tens of thousands of women engaging in “horizontal collaboration,” but to comprehend the complexity of their motives.


He is scornful of the movie stars, fashion folks, and social climbers who did better than most, thanks to their German contacts or lovers: Arletty, Coco Chanel, Suzy Solidor, et al. But he is just as hard on the men who took their revenge after the war on the army of unknown women who had strayed into German arms. Such women were stripped naked and paraded through the streets, shorn of their hair, their bodies daubed with swastikas, jeered at by the mob. Buisson writes:

When the Germans were defeated, or about to be defeated, the “Boche’s girl” served as a substitute to prolong a battle that no longer held any dangers and affirmed a manliness that had not always been employed in other circumstances….

In hindsight, especially if one was not alive in those days, it is easy to moralize about the behavior of people under occupation. It is a humbling experience to see the letters, documents, books, and photographs from wartime France, such as the ones displayed at the New York Public Library earlier this year. Since they were not always easy to read in the gloomy light, it is our good fortune that we have Collaboration and Resistance to consult. Though not quite a catalog of the exhibition, it shows much of the same material. There we find enough evidence of bravery, as well as cowardice and shabby compromises, to help us appreciate how hard it was to live under the Nazis, especially in a city where compromise was encouraged and a façade of normality imposed.

Jean Cocteau and the German sculptor Arno Breker at the opening of Breker’s exhibition at
the Galerie du Jeu de Paume, Paris, May 1942; from Claude Arnaud’s biography of Cocteau. Anticipating the exhibition, Cocteau wrote in his journal on May 6, 1942: ‘

People have to live, writers want to be published, artists wish to continue painting. In other countries under Nazi rule there was little room between collaborating and going underground. Precisely because there was more leeway in France, the moral choices were harder, or at least more complicated. As Paxton says:

We need to avoid easy assumptions that the responses of French writers, editors, and publishers to these crises fall neatly into boxes we have constructed retroactively, labeled “collaboration” and “resistance.”

Jean Cocteau, for example. Like Zucca, the photographer, he liked to think of himself as “apolitical,” and considered Germanophobia, the default French mode at least since the late nineteenth century, as a form of bigotry. Yet he was loathed by the French fascists as a decadent homosexual and corrupter of French morals. Notorious collaborators, such as Pierre Drieu La Rochelle and Robert Brasillach, called him enjuivé, “jewified.” Cocteau, for his part, despised the Vichy regime as a band of “criminal boy scouts.”3

Cocteau did, on the other hand, frequent German literary salons, dine at Maxim’s with cultivated German officers, such as the writer Ernst Jünger, and praise the marble celebrations to Aryan manhood by Hitler’s favorite sculptor, Arno Breker. Artistic friendships, he claimed, were more precious to him than vulgar shows of patriotism. Praising Breker, whom he had known before the war, was Cocteau’s way of rebelling against what he saw as narrow-minded chauvinism. And besides, Cocteau was never one to turn down an invitation to a good party. And parties at the German Institute, on the rue de Lille, were lavish, even if the company was louche.

On the other hand again, Cocteau, who was not anti-Semitic, did everything in his power to get his friend Max Jacob, the poet, released from Drancy, alas without success; Jacob died in capitivity in 1944. And there were reasons for cultivating the likes of Jünger, Breker, or Karl Epting, director of the German Institute. Their patronage kept the far more ferocious French Nazis off his back. Cocteau’s biographer Claude Arnaud writes: “When the extremist press launched its attacks on Cocteau in the spring of 1941, Breker ‘spontaneously’ offered him a way of getting in touch ‘by special line to Berlin in case something bad should happen.'”

Like Philippe Jullian, the young aesthete, Cocteau was hardly typical of most French people under Nazi occupation. But like the majority of his compatriots, he was a débrouillard, a survivor, who was neither heroic nor utterly abject, but adapted to difficult circumstances. To keep going, as a writer, a filmmaker, and a poet, might even, with some indulgence, be seen as a form of defiance. In his finely considered account of the period, Arnaud describes this as the most common—if perhaps self-serving—attitude among French artists and entertainers after the German troops arrived in Paris:

Theaters and nightclubs had to be reopened, just to show the Germans the persistence, if not the superiority, of the French way of life; poetry readings, theatrical tragedies, loud laughter to show them that nothing was over yet; to love, to write, to dance, to keep on performing, just to drown out the noise of marching boots, and affirm the forces of life over the troops of death.

If this attitude was not shared by all French artists, it surely was by Cocteau. Yet no matter how much he attempted to lead a normal artistic life in abnormal times, some aspects of wartime bohemia must have been pretty strange even by his standards. One of his favorite haunts during the war was a brothel named L’Etoile de Kléber on the rue Villejust. The madame was a colorful figure named Madame Billy. Edith Piaf lived under her roof for some time. Michel Simon, the movie actor, was a frequent guest, as were Maurice Chevalier and Mistinguett, with her entourage of gigolos. The food, acquired on the black market, was superb, and the conversation brilliant. Piaf could be relied upon to sing for her supper. For Cocteau it was a refuge in hard times.

But not just for him and his friends from the beau monde. German officers, always in impeccable civilian clothes, were loyal clients of the brothel, as were agents of the Gestapo, whose torture chambers on the rue Lauriston were conveniently nearby. If this mélange was not strange enough, Mme Billy’s establishment was frequented by members of the French resistance too. Only once in a while did unpleasantness intrude, such as when the German police decided that Jews might be among the company, and all the French guests were required to pull down their trousers. According to the writer Roger Peyrefitte, all the men protested vehemently except for Cocteau, who rather took pleasure in the exercise.

Far from the mainstream, these scenes at L’Etoile de Kléber, but like Zucca’s photos they were revealing of a certain aspect of wartime Paris that would be difficult to imagine in any other Nazi-occupied European city. One might argue that simply by publishing their books, putting on their plays, and making their movies, artists like Sartre and Cocteau were not really defying anyone, but collaborating in a way: they helped the Germans hold up the façade of normality. But there were many gray areas, described by Paxton and others, where personal loyalties trumped political principles, and compromises were mixed with acts of resistance. Camus, for example, was published by Gallimard, which was run by collaborators, but also edited Combat, the clandestine journal of resistance.


For Hélène Berr, there could be no gray areas. She may not have felt apart, as a Jew, from other people, but that made no difference to her enemies. For her too, until it became utterly impossible, striving to lead a normal life was a matter of pride. Barred by Vichy laws in 1942 from studying for her agrégation, the civil service degree, she kept working on her doctoral thesis on Keats’s Hellenism. And most fatefully, she refused to leave her beloved native city of Paris. When an offer was made to release her father from Drancy if the family agreed to emigrate, she noted in her diary on July 2, 1942, that leaving would mean “giving up a sense of dignity.” Escaping was a form of defeat. She also despised “Zionist movements” for that reason, as they “unwittingly play into the Germans’ hands.” Resistance was the only honorable course. Running away would mean “giving up the feeling of equality in resistance, if I agree to stand apart from the struggle of other Frenchmen.”

Well-meaning people urged the Berr family to flee, but in Hélène’s view they “fail to grasp that for us it is just as much of an uprooting as it would be for them, because they do not put themselves in our shoes and consider us as naturally destined for exile.” Of all humiliations, this was perhaps the one she most keenly felt, that even French compatriots who wished her no harm still talked as if her ancestry set her apart. Being compelled to suffer for being a Jew created a barrier that she regarded as not only cruel but absurd. Giving in to this absurdity, for her, would be an act of cowardice.

At the same time, enforced suffering created a different kind of solidarity too. The order to wear the yellow star in 1942 struck her as barbaric, and her first instinct was to refuse. Then, on June 4, 1942, she had another thought: “I now think it is cowardly not to wear it, vis-à-vis people who will.” She continued: “Only, if I do wear it, I want to stay very elegant and dignified 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.”

Hélène Berr was in fact among the few brave people who resisted very early on. In 1941, she joined a clandestine network to save Jewish children from deportation. Apart from the increasing hardships faced by her own family, she quickly became aware of the depths of human cruelty: a woman hauled off to a concentration camp because her six-year-old child wasn’t wearing a yellow star; 15,000 Jews trapped in the Paris velodrome for five days in July 1942, without water, electricity, lavatories, or food, before being sent to the death camps.4 This notorious event goes unrecorded (or at least unpublished) in Philippe Jullian’s journal.

Always fearing for the lives of her own family and friends, as well as the children under her clandestine care, Hélène longed from moments of normality, however fleeting. September 7, 1942, a visit to the university library:

It seemed to me that I was emerging from a different world. Saw André Boutelleau, Eileen Griffin, Jenny. We left together to go to rue de l’Odéon, then to Klinck-sieck’s bookshop, then to Budé’s bookshop; and when we came back here, we had tea with Denise listening to Schumann’s concerto and the Mozart symphony.

Such echoes of her old life became increasingly rare. By 1943, the gulf between the persecuted and those who remained unmarked, as it were, had become unbridgeable. But it was not the difference between collaborators and resisters that preyed on her mind. What disturbed Hélène more than anything was the indifference, obliviousness, and condescending pity of the decent folks around her. What shocked her most was the human capacity for looking the other way. Which is why she decided to keep a diary. October 10, 1943:

Every hour of every day there is another painful realization that other folk do not know, do not even imagine, the suffering of other men, the evil that some of them inflict. And I am still trying to make the painful effort to tell the story. Because it is a duty, it is maybe the only one I can fulfill.

A week later, Hélène walks to the métro with an old student friend, a gentile, who “lives in a different world from ours!” The friend, named Brey-naert, is just back from a holiday on Lake Annecy. Hélène refuses to be envious of such friends or make them aware of their insensitivity, because she doesn’t want their pity. But, she writes, “it is painful to see how distant from us they are. On pont Mirabeau, he said: ‘So, don’t you miss being able to go out in the evening?’ Good God! He thinks that’s all we’re up against!”

Reading this diary is not just disturbing because we know happened to the writer, but because she knew what was likely to happen to her even as she was writing it. On October 27, 1943, Hélène quotes (in English) the famous poem by Keats:

This living hand, now warm and capable
Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold,
And in the icy silence of the tomb,
So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights
That thou would wish thine own heart dry of blood….

She does not want her hand to go cold. No one can really imagine her own death. Hélène still hoped that she would survive to see again her beloved fiancé, a philosophy student named Jean Morawiecki, who had fled to Spain to join the Free French forces in North Africa. He was the designated custodian of her diaries in case of her deportation. Morawiecki received them after the war from the Berrs’ cook, Andrée Bardiau.

On March 8, 1944, at 7 AM, Hélène and her parents were finally arrested. On the 27th, Hélène’s twenty-third birthday, they were loaded into cattle cars to Auschwitz. Her mother was gassed in April. Her father was killed in September. People remembered Hélène for trying to keep up the morale of fellow inmates by singing bits from the Brandenburg Concertos and César Frank’s Violin and Piano Sonata.

On March 22, Philippe Jullian wrote in his diary:

The twenty days I spent in the country were quite pleasant, and I take no pleasure in returning to Paris. One is awfully tired of feeling irritated all the time. The atmosphere is tense with raids, the fear of departures to Germany. An uncertain period, cowardly for those who aren’t heroes.

Paris is liberated on August 25, 1944. Jullian is happy that the German occupation is over. But on October 2, he writes:

Paris may be freer, but uncomfortable too. On the rue de Wagram there are more maids in their Sunday best attached to the Americans than there were in the arms of the Germans. Vulgarity, sad lubricity in the métro of Etoile; stupid meetings, lost times and lives.

Hélène was still in Auschwitz then. In November, she was transported to Bergen-Belsen. On April 10, 1945, five days before British and Canadian troops liberated the camp, Hélène, ravaged by typhus, no longer had enough strength to rise from her bunk. She was then beaten to death by one of the guards.

Millions and millions of lives were lost in the war, many of them under terrible circumstances. And millions have been lost since then. But it is the destruction of one precious life, of an extraordinary young woman whom we have come to know through her most intimate thoughts, that brings out the full horror of this ghastly waste. Of all the entries in her journal, one sticks in my mind more than any other. It was written on October 25, 1943. Hélène is gripped by anxiety at the thought that she might not be there when her fiancé returns:

But it is not fear as such, because I am not afraid of what might happen to me; I think I would accept it, for I have accepted many hard things, and I’m not one to back away from a challenge. But I fear that my beautiful dream may never be brought to fruition, may never be realized. I’m not afraid for myself but for something beautiful that might have been.

This Issue

December 17, 2009