Book review: 'The Journal of Helene Berr'

By Jay Furst

The Post-Bulletin, Rochester MN

"The Journal of Helene Berr," translated by David Bellos (Weinstein Books, 304 pages, $15.95)

Helene Berr was a young French woman not so different from any other in spring 1942: Thrilled by her life, full of dreams, creative and gifted, musical, attending university, in love with a boy.

But she was Jewish. Not long after the Germans invaded and occupied France, she was wearing the yellow star that marked Jews, ultimately for the death camps. First her father, a prominent businessman, was removed to a temporary camp on the outskirts of Paris, and in the end, they all were swept away to the Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen camps. She died there in April 1945, just before British troops arrived at the war's end, and within a month of another young woman killed in the same camp, Anne Frank.


Like Frank, Berr kept a journal of her last years, but she was a few years older and lived with more freedom until early 1944, when she and her family were arrested. She was a beautiful writer and her notes on life in occupied Paris, with the awareness of her misery and death approaching, are painfully rich and alive. The journal was kept by the family and only published two years ago in France, where it became a national bestseller.

The English translation by Davis Bellos should be a bestseller in this country as well. It's the type of book, a personal testament, that can change lives.

In late 1943, Helene wrote this: "When I write the word Jew, I am not saying exactly what I mean, because for me that distinction does not exist: I do not feel different from other people, I will never think of myself as a member of a separate human group, and perhaps that is why I suffer so much, because I do not understand it at all."

The final words in the journal: "Horror, horror, horror."

"The Great Decision: Jefferson, Adams, Marshall and the Battle for the Supreme Court," Cliff Sloan and David McKean:I expected a lot more from this close look at the 1803 Marbury v. Madison case that helped establish the Supreme Court's authoritative role in the American system. Prior to the ruling, and honestly for some period after, the Court was viewed as a pack of circuit riders who didn't review matters of constitutionality or function as a court of last resort. L'Enfant didn't even design an appropriate place in the master plan of the District of Columbia for this supposed third branch of government. John Marshall, a Virginian related to Thomas Jefferson but associated with the Federalists, changed all that with his leadership of the court. Sloan, former publisher of Slate magazine, and McKean, author of two political biographies and CEO of the Kennedy Library Foundation, explain how and why that happened but without much literary skill; a good editor would have helped to keep the focus squarely on Marshall, the court and the ruling. Nonetheless, you'll learn a lot about the serendipitous way our democratic system evolved. (Public Affairs, 260 pages, $14.95)

"Frontier Chapel to Spiritual Oasis: 150 Years of Calvary Episcopal Church, Rochester":Every church should be so lucky as to have a history book as well-assembled and richly illustrated as this. Calvary Episcopal is, of course, unique in Rochester, with its historic church building just across the street from Mayo Clinic. Hats off to the Venerable Canon Benjamin Ives Scott, Barbara J. Toman and Penelope S. Duffy for this first-rate addition to local history. (Available through the church by calling 282-9429.)

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