Servant of the Secret Fire

Random thoughts on books and life in the reality-based community

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Location: New York, United States

The name I've chosen comes from "Lord of the Rings," when Gandalf faces down the Balrog in the Mines of Moria. My Hebrew name is Esther (which is related to the word for "hidden" or "secret") Serafina (which means "burning"). This seems appropriate because although I don't usually put myself forward, I do care very passionately about a lot of things. Maybe through these blogs I can share some of these passions, as well as less weighty ideas and opinions, with others.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Book Review: The Journal of Hélène Berr ****1/2

A graduate of the Sorbonne, student of English literature, and talented musician, Hélène Berr began her journal in April 1942 at the age of twenty-one. At that time it was still relatively easy to ignore the increasing restrictions being placed on the Jews by the Nazis, and the first part of the book is taken up with her own personal concerns, her studies, and her love life. Soon enough, however, she is directly touched by the decree that the yellow star must be worn by all Jews, and records her conflicted feelings, humiliation and determination to hold her head up high, as well as the small kindnesses she receives from strangers, which give her comfort and strength.

As things become worse for the city's Jews, deportations, suicides and arrests (including the temporary detention of her own father) become a litany interwoven with Hélène's determination to live as normal a life as she can while maintaining her own humanity and dignity. She becomes engaged but her fiancé flees to Free France to work against the Nazis from there, while she feels bound to remain with her family and continue her work saving Jewish children from deportation and resettling them when their parents have been arrested. After abandoning the journal for a year, she returns to it as a changed, more serious person. The entries become longer and more introspective as this courageous young woman is forced to face the likelihood of her early death and finds comfort in friends, family and the literature that she loves so much.

Hélène Berr was arrested in 1944 and died in Bergen-Belsen only a few days before its liberation, but her journal, which was kept by a friend and given to her fiancé after her death, ensures that her vital, intensely humane spirit lives on.