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by Bryan Davis
Bryan Davis is the Director of Holocaust Education at the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona.
What words did victims of the Holocaust use to attempt to represent their experiences during the war? They were faced with the unthinkable challenge of realizing (depending on when they wrote) that what they wrote would be used as a marker of their place individually, and the Jewish place collectively, in history, as they were being systematically annihilated and that at the same time, words were inadequate for representing the horrors they experienced.
Hélène Berr was a twenty-one year old student in the English Studies Department at the Sorbonne when, in 1942, she began keeping a diary in her home in avenue Elisee-Reclus in German occupied Paris. Hélène came from an affluent family, she was well read in British literature, especially the Romantic poets, and she was a gifted amateur violinist. Hélène's diary served shifting and overlapping purposes for her during the time she kept it from April 1942-February 1944. At times Hélène hoped the diary would provide a message to her fiancé Jean who had fled France to join the resistance, while increasingly, as the persecutions around her grew closer and more brutal, she hoped to use the diary to "tell the story." On October 10, 1943 she wrote: