Hélène Berr and the Dilemma of ‘Human Understanding’

            I have been interested in humanitarian emergencies and events that create major migration flows and population displacement for more than a decade. The former are often the product of natural disasters, as with the 2010 Haitian earthquake, but these may be caused by wars and international and national conflicts as well. While natural events create many refugee situations, others are the direct consequence of internal national strife or war, such as is now occurring in Syria and South Sudan. This interest in turn has led me to explore instances in which peoples have visited horror on others in their populations, typically on the basis of some alleged difference coupled with a claim of superiority and often during, or as a rationale for, war. Genocidal actions are often the product of zealous ideology and crazed, if often charismatic, leadership. Examples include the Killing Fields of Cambodia, the Rwandan massacre, many actions in the Balkan war of the 1990s, including the mass killings at Srebrenica, and most infamously, the Holocaust.

            I have explored each of the examples highlighted here and perhaps have read more deeply about the Shoah than the others, though I hardly count myself a scholar of genocide or of that horrific period. Rather, I have delved into these events to try to come to grips with how people can behave in such deeply cruel and heinous ways, and often act with pride as they do so. It is useful to remember that Stalin and Hitler systematically, and with careful forethought and supremely efficient logistics, slaughtered millions, including children as well as adults. Death came to those individuals targeted with impunity and without remorse or even a modicum of reflection on the incalculable evil and suffering the actions represented. The same likewise proved true in Rwanda, Cambodia and elsewhere. These examples and many more that might be cited suggest that the infamy of World War II hardly ended humanity’s capacity for unmitigated savagery.

            So it was with this thinking in mind that I recently read The Journal of Hélène Berr. This book, published for the first time in 2008, is not as famous as the Diary of Anne Frank, but it, too, tells the story of the life of a remarkable young woman during the Nazi occupation of her nation in World War II. As with Frank’s work, The Journal is the often engrossing and always powerful story of one young woman’s effort to come to grips with mass insanity and depravity and also the heart-rending saga of the deeply personal consequences of that inhumanity.

            Hélène Berr was a member of a leading Jewish family in Paris where her ancestors had lived for some generations. Her father was a prominent scientist and chemical company executive and the family was deeply cultured. Berr studied at the Sorbonne and won high honors for her work there and for her thesis on John Keats. Indeed, she was enrolled at university during the period in which she wrote her journal. These details do not begin to convey the rich tapestry of her life and friendships, nor the clarity and honesty with which she recorded them in her diary from April 7, 1942 until March 8, 1944. Berr was smart, sensitive, deeply kind and an already widely read, sophisticated and accomplished writer at 22. During this period she also fell in love with and became engaged to be married to a fellow student, Jean Morawiecki, who left Paris to fight with the Free French in North Africa and eventually joined in the Allied landing on the south coast of France in 1944 and in the campaign to reach Berlin and end the war in Europe.

            Berr’s family was persecuted from the time the Nazis embraced the Final Solution in late 1941 or early 1942 and her journal records her growing realization of what arrest, internment (in increasingly squalid conditions) and dispatch to camps of thousands around her almost certainly implied for her and her family. Berr nonetheless worked tirelessly and successfully for an organization that sought to assist orphaned Jewish children to prevent their deportation and murder. As matters evolved, the Berr family, which had not been sleeping in their own home as a precaution against arrest, elected to stay there the night of March 7, 1944. The decision was ill fated and police arrived on the morning of March 8 to take the group to Drancy, the local internment camp north of Paris. From there, the Vichy authorities deported the family on March 27, Berr’s 23rd birthday, to Auschwitz, where her mother, Antoinette, was gassed on April 30. Her father, Raymond, was murdered at the concentration camp in late September. Berr was transferred to Bergen-Belsen in early November 1944 and there contracted typhus as a result of the terrible sanitary conditions and overcrowding. On April 10, 1945 just five days prior to British liberation of the camp, Berr was too ill to rise for reveille and when her fellow inmates returned they found her on the floor near her bunk, apparently beaten to death by a prison guard for that infraction. Coincidentally, Anne Frank and her sister Margo had died at Bergen-Belsen a month earlier, in March 1945.

            If these are the facts of Berr’s life, they do not capture the vitality, energy, grace and intelligence she represented. Nor do they account for the thousands more like her who were slain on the basis of the same hatred and cruel calculation. These realities raise the very difficult questions of why this horror occurred and how it might be prevented in the future. Others have written memorably concerning why genocides happen, although I sometimes wonder if those authors (and I) are not, in their purported explanations and theorizing, simply offering a tautology concerning the omnipresent potential of humankind for unfathomable depravity. In any case, I am sure I cannot add here to the searing canon of work on this topic.

            Coincidentally, I had lunch this week with a colleague who, during our conversation, asked what peoples and nations might do to prevent these terrible events, given the reality that they continue to recur and on a depressingly regular basis. In my reply, I found myself echoing Berr by contending that what is most needed is human understanding, as improbably idealistic as that may sound. Here is how Hélène Berr put the question in her Journal as she mused on the imperative she felt to write:

I have a duty to write because other people must know. 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 inflict. And I am still trying to tell the story. Because it is a duty, it is maybe the only one that I can fulfill. There are men who know and close their eyes, and I’ll never manage to convince people of that kind, because they are hard and selfish, and I have no authority. But people who do not know and who might have sufficient heart to understand—on those people I must have an effect. For how will humanity ever be healed unless its rottenness is exposed? How will the world be cleansed unless it is made to understand the full extent of the evil it is doing? Everything comes down to understanding. That truth fills me with anguish and torment. War will not avenge the suffering: blood calls for blood; men dig their heels into their own wickedness and blindness (Berr, 2008, p.157).

            I perhaps lay greater stress than Berr did in explaining people’s behavior in terms of the innate selfishness, avariciousness and lust for power, blind ambition and sheer enjoyment of power that humans evince. I would likewise warn against the overweening significance of fear among human beings as a motivator for tyrannies of various sorts, especially when that anxiety arises from disquietude about personal or familial security. As John Steinbeck once observed in his World War II dispatches, “Now for many years we have suckled on fear and fear alone, and there is no good product of fear. Its children are cruelty and deceit and suspicion germinating in our darkness” (Steinbeck, 2013, p. xxviii). The Jews were scapegoated during that war for all manner of concerns, difficulties and uncertainties, real and imagined. The Tutsis in Rwanda were similarly blamed for the major share of perceived ills afflicting that nation’s Hutus. These examples might be multiplied. As Berr noted, and at least in a free society, there is no substitute for ensuring that the population is equipped with an understanding of reality in lieu of cruelly convenient fantasy to prevent tragedy when conditions become difficult in some way for all citizens. So, if humans will be depraved, the only long-term response with any hope of sustained success that will also permit continued freedom is to furnish them with the means to regulate themselves. Human understanding is surely the strongest bulwark against ignorance, deceit, fear and mercilessness. The challenge, as Berr knew and as her life’s example indicates, is to reach individual hearts and minds and to do so in ways that move and shape them before conditions or tyrannical sirens tempt them to descend to ruthless ignominy. This task is omnipresent and deeply significant for the very possibility of continued human civilization. Remembering it and acting on it can help to ensure that Berr and millions more did not live and die in vain.


David Bellos, Trans. and Ed. The Journal of Hélène Berr. New York: Weinstein Books, 2008.

John Steinbeck. Once There was a War. London: The Folio Society, 2013.