115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

“My Soul and My Memory, That’s What I Need to Save"; Hélène Berr’s Voice: Unheard in 1943, Visible Since 2008

Katherine Roseau, Purdue University

Through a study of Hélène Berr’s Journal, I argue that the diary can be studied as an object of memory created by the diarist and the reader. I will trace Berr’s changing goals for her diary as it transforms from a private, individual diary of comfort into an intentional collective vehicle of memory. 

Proposal: 

“It makes me happy to think that if I am taken, Andrée will have kept these pages, something of me, the thing that is most precious to me, for now I no longer hold on to anything material; my soul and my memory, that’s what I need to save” (213). Hélène Berr, a young Parisian Jewish woman, wrote these words on October 27, 1943 as she planned for the safekeeping of her diary in the probable event of her arrest and deportation.

Berr’s wartime diary commences in 1942, just before the beginning of the obligatory star-wearing. The apparition of stars on the chests of Jewish men and women on the streets of Paris caused a sudden, heightened visibility of previously anonymous (comparatively) city-dwellers. The body was seen, but the voice remained unheard. On October 10, 1943, Berr laments the impossibility of communicating the injustice, even to her friends. “Each hour of the day, the painful experience repeats. The experience of perceiving that the others do not know, that they don’t even imagine the suffering of other people […]” (185). She writes that her duty is to speak—or rather to write—so that those who have been arrested, deported, and killed will receive a morsel of justice. Yet, her voice cannot be heard by all, for the blind cannot hear. “There are people who know and close their eyes, and I will never be able to convince them […]. But the others, those who do not know, and who have enough heart to understand, I must act on them” (ibid).

Berr made the conscious decision to become a witness for future readers. She turned her private, individual diary of comfort into an intentional collective object of memory. She wanted to communicate to future generations the truth that her contemporaries refused to see. Writing a diary, like all communication, is an act and a process. Philippe Lejeune asserts that this is the essence of the diary: it is first and foremost an act, and not a product. Rebecca Steinitz, however, has studied the diary genre from a different angle and shows the importance of considering the diary as an object. In the passage from October 27, we see that Berr considers her diary as a vehicle (which must be a tangible object in this case), but as primarily spiritual and not material. However, it is of course through the material nature of the diary that her “memory” and perhaps in a sense her “soul” will survive. Berr has a very specific message to deliver to us, her readers of the twenty-first century. It is a message, but according to Steinitz, it is also an experience that all diarists give to their readers (44). What attracts us to diaries, she argues, is not only the revelation of a private life, but principally “the ways in which diaries create and recreate experience” (47). Through the nature of the genre, she continues, a “diary creates an experience in its reader which […] structurally resembles memory” (ibid). Following this hypothesis, we can say that Berr created and transmitted not only an aide-mémoire and a testimony, but also a place where any sincere reader can—to a certain point—relive the memories of the author in a way not possible in other genres. 

In autumn 1943, a frustrated and heartbroken Berr realizes that many of her non-Jewish friends will never really hear her, so she decides to write for others. In doing so, she provides for a collective memory, a visible place where readers can experience, in part, Occupied Paris as a young, Jewish woman. In this paper, I argue that the diary can be studied as an object of memory created by the diarist and the reader, and that the tangibility of Berr’s diary allows for the salvation of the intangible.

Topic Area: