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The Haunting Story of Hélène Berr, The French Anne Frank

Washoe County Libraries

Hélène Berr is often referred to as the Anne Frank of France. A traveling exhibit based on her personal diary is now open at the Northwest Reno Library. There will be an opening reception Thursday night from 6-8 pm.

Deborah Farnault-Sinclair is with the Memorial de la Shoah in Paris, which curated the work. She says it's especially relevant in light of several recent anti-Semitic acts across the U.S.

Farnault-Sinclair spoke with our News Director Michelle Billman to share more about the exhibit.

KUNR: The exhibit centers around the life and death of Hélène Berr. Who was she?

Deborah Farnault-Sinclair (DFS): Hélène Berr was a young, French woman. She was Jewish, living in Paris, and studying English literature at the Sorbonne University in Paris.

KUNR: We’ve often heard about the diary of Anne Frank, but Hélène Berr also had a diary.

DFS: That document differs quite a bit from the one of Anne Frank. She was significantly older; she was 21, so she was legally an adult, so she was involved in the political life in France and she was actually very political herself and very engaged in social work. Her insight is very different from the one of Anne Frank because of a maturity standpoint but also because Anne Frank was living in hiding and Hélène Berr was living out in the open.

KUNR: That diary—what length of time does that narrative share of her life?

DFS: She started that diary in 1942, so we are already in occupied Paris. At the beginning of the diary, we don’t really feel the persecution. We feel it intensifying pretty quickly, but at the beginning, she’s very much taken by the life of a young woman as we can imagine it. She’s in love with a young man at the university and she’s passionate about the arts, music, literature, and so she really lives in this beautiful world of letters. And, so, the journal ends in 1944 right before her arrest as well as the arrest of her parents.

KUNR: And what do we know happens next?

DFS: The three of them were arrested and interned in the Drancy Camp, north of Paris, which was an internment camp from which most trains were departing to Auschwitz. She was deported to Auschwitz with her parents. Her mother was gassed upon arrival. Her father was experimented on, and she died a few days before the liberation of the camp. She was very sick with typhus and one morning she was beaten to death by one of the guards.

KUNR: Does a story like this haunt you? Do you think about this throughout your day?

DFS: Yes, very, very much. I didn’t know about Hélène Berr until I started working at the Memorial de la Shoah, so one of the first things I did was read the diary and I was very much taken by it. It’s a gorgeous piece of literature; it’s really a gem. Also, because I grew up myself in Paris and I studied in the same area where she studied. I went to the same parks where she went with her friends. I took the subway at the same subway stops as her. My life in Paris was very close to hers, and, so I very much identified with her and she did haunt me. And she keeps haunting me in my dreams sometimes.

KUNR: Deborah, Hélène’s journal is unique in comparison to other personal documents from the Holocaust era. Can you explain why?

DFS: The persecution in France was not perceived as strongly at first compared to the persecution in the East, like in Poland. A lot of journals were found buried in the ground of the ghettoes; whereas, in France, people were still living out in the open. And especially for French Jews, they felt like France was always going to protect them because it’s a land of freedom and equality. Refugees are always welcome in France, and for that reason, I think Jews of France felt very safe, and only foreign Jews were being rounded up and deported. That makes it a very interesting document because it gives us the insight into how the persecution was perceived by the Jews themselves.

KUNR: Thank you.

DFS: Thank you.

WEB EXTRA: Farnault-Sinclair discusses some of the concerns fueled by recent anti-Semitic acts across the U.S.

Michelle Billman is a former news director at KUNR Public Radio.
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