The final journal entry reads “Horror! Horror! Horror!” Soon thereafter, the young woman would die in a concentration camp.
In 1942 at the age of 21, Hélène Berr, who’s often called France’s version of Anne Frank, began keeping a diary. Berr, a typical young Jewish woman living in Nazi-tinged France during World War II, continued to keep a daily journal until she and her family were arrested on March 27, 1944, which happened to be Berr’s 23rd birthday.
She would later die in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. The traveling exhibition “Hélène Berr: A Stolen Life,” which opens soon at Holocaust Museum Houston, depicts the horrors of her life and death that were largely untold until recently.
“Viewers walk away with two very powerful insights from this exhibition,” says Carol Manley, Holocaust Museum Houston’s chief curator of collections and exhibitions. “First is the realization of how this could happen to anyone, to any of us. One day, a young woman is leading a normal life, going to school, having fun with friends [and] thinking of her future. Then, circumstances beyond her control take place, brought on by the Nazi occupation of France and the persecution of the Jewish people, shattering her hopes and dreams.
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“Second, visitors are very interested in how Berr’s journal vividly describes the atmosphere in France during Nazi occupation, and how the Jews perceived the persecution. It’s a rare and very important eyewitness account.”
Her diary, held in safekeeping by her fiancé, remained unseen for approximately 50 years. Eventually, in 2008, Berr’s diary was published for the first time under the title The Journal of Hélène Berr. Soon thereafter, Mémorial de la Shoah of Paris, France, under the guidance of Berr’s niece Mariette Job, organized the exhibition, which has traveled all over the world.
“One very important aspect, for me, is the strength and humanity this young woman displayed during her last days in the concentration camps,” says Manley. “In spite of everything her family and friends were experiencing, Berr remained a bright light for those around her, helping young girls with words of encouragement, even when she herself knew the end was coming.”
“Hélène Berr: A Stolen Life” opens with a reception from 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday, August 25 and remains on daily display through November 13 at Holocaust Museum Houston, 5401 Caroline. Admission is free for members, $12 for general admission. Call 713-942-8000 or go to hmh.org.