The journal of Hélène Berr begins with the musings of a seemingly normal 20-year-old college student.
The French native writes about her daily life, her love interests and her favorite passages from famous literature.
But by the final entry the diary takes a horrifying turn as Berr becomes one of the millions of victims of the Holocaust.
The last three words of her final entry, “Horror, horror, horror!” borrowed from Shakespeare’s “Macbeth,” encapsulate a moment in history that undoubtedly impacts every member of the Jewish community, and the world, to this day.
Now, locals will have a chance to view this important account of the Holocaust in a free exhibit at The Clark Humanities Museum of Scripps College: “Hélène Berr: A Stolen Life.”
The exhibit is on loan from the Mémorial de la Shoah in Paris and is being put on in partnership with Hillel, the Clarmont Colleges and the Jewish Federation of the Greater San Gabriel and Pomona Valleys. It features entries from Berr’s journal as well as artifacts from her life and from France under the anti-Jewish laws of the Vichy regime.
Berr’s account of the 1940s German occupation of Paris is a unique gem, providing a rare first-person account of Jewish persecution in Western Europe.
Berr wrote every day in her journal from 1942 until 1944 when she and her parents were taken to Auschwitz. Berr ultimately died in Bergen-Belsen in 1945, days before the liberation of the camp.
Deborah Sinclair, head of traveling exhibits in North America for the Mémorial de la Shoah, said accounts like Berr’s are a rare find, making the exhibit all the more unique and interesting.
“The journal itself is beautifully written, and is an exceptional testimony both by its literary quality and its historical rarity,” Sinclair said. “While many journals were found in the ghettos of Eastern Europe, very few journals were found in France and Western Europe, which make this document very precious for informing us on how the persecutions were perceived by the Jews of France themselves.”
Exhibit organizer Emilie Garrigou-Kempton, visiting associate professor of French studies at Scripps, said Berr’s journal could not be on display at a better time. With a recent upsurge in anti-Semitic acts across the nation, she said it is more important than ever for all of us to be reminded of the horrors of the Holocaust.
“Sadly the timing is perfect. It responds to a need to educate people about the Holocaust,” Garrigou-Kempton said.
She added that with studies showing that knowledge of the Holocaust among millennials is declining, she hopes the exhibit will also attract local high school teachers and classes.
Garrigou-Kempton, whose academic work focuses on storytelling and written memory, said Berr’s first-person account is a unique and effective way to convey that time in history.
“It really ties the history of the Holocaust to also discovering the fate of one person,” she said. “I think it is powerful to learn of one story in particular because you can identify with one person, so to learn about it through that lens is very effective.”
In addition to the journal and related artifacts, exhibit visitors can also view documents detailing anti-Semitic legislation and the Jewish resistance, and the documentary film “History of the Manuscript” and interactive touchscreen displays.
“There are levels of engagement for everyone, from high school students to community members to scholars,” Garrigou-Kempton said. “It’s a unique opportunity to see material curated by one of the most well-respected Holocaust museums in the world.”
Sinclair said she hopes visitors not only find Berr’s words interesting and informative, but also that they walk away from the exhibit inspired.
“We hope that this exhibit is not just cause for sadness and reflection. It must also be a driving force for a fight that is unfortunately necessary, a constant fight against what is the most vile in man: intolerance, anti-Semitism and racism,” Sinclair said. “We hope this exhibit contributes to this fight.”
“Hélène Berr: A Stolen Life” is on view at The Clark Humanities Museum of Scripps College Jan. 22 to Feb. 28.
There will also be several community events, film screenings and lectures during the exhibit.
For more information please visit Scripps.edu.
LAUREN GOLD IS A CONTRIBUTING WRITER TO JLIFE MAGAZINE.