Hélène Berr, the Computer Age

I am currently reading Hélène Berr’s diary. Hélène Berr was a young French student, she was reading English, when the war started. In 1942, she began writing her own diary. It deals mainly with her daily life in occupied Paris, the friends she met, the lectures she attended, the relationship with her relatives. Obviously she also chronicles her life as a French Jew. For instance, she relates her first reaction when she heard about the yellow star the Jews were obliged to wear on their clothes. She then evokes people’s reactions when she wore the star: the compassionate ones as well as the not so well-intentioned.

The book falls into two parts. Thus, after some months, Hélène gave up her diary before going back to it. This time, things were different. Her fiancé, Jean, had left Paris to fight with the Resistance and now she was writing to him rather than to herself. She had decided that in case she was arrested the family cook was to give Jean the diary. From then on, her writing seems more mature and reflective.

Unfortunately this is precisely what happened to Hélène. She was arrested with her parents, deported and the three of them died in concentration camp. The diary was then turned over to the fiancé who only returned it to Hélène’s family a few years ago. At that point, one of her nieces decided to have it published; that’s why it has only just been released.

You can find more thorough reviews in The Gardian or The New York Times.

As a French Jew I have obviously many reasons to be interested in this diary and to find it compelling. Yet I also find it difficult to deal with my emotions while reading it. Furthermore, since it is a diary, and not a work of fiction, you get an insight into a young person’s mind which is fascinating.

However I am also a teacher and as such admire Hélène’s writing style, its fluency, her choice of words and her maturity. My students are barely younger than her and reading this book has lead me to wonder about their capacity to write. I sometimes come across their blogs and am appalled by their spelling mistakes, the paucity of their vocabulary, their lack of reflection and so many other flaws I could go on and on.

We tend to marvel at the computer age and the numerous new opportunities it provides. Nevertheless I can’t help feeling that something is being lost at the same time. Teenagers spend so much time on the net with their peers, mostly chatting through msn, that I fear they are also missing out. They no longer know what it means to be bored, to talk to adults, to read books, to walk to school in silence while being confronted with their inner thoughts. In the end I am afraid very few have Hélène’s accute capacity to reflect on their life and feelings.

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