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Hélène Berr’s official portrait, 1942 © Mémorial de la Shoah – Coll. Mariette Job

“This is going to make me cry,” my younger sister whispered as we walked through the entrance of the Holocaust Museum in Houston. It was our first visit to the acclaimed institution, and we didn’t know what to expect. We were looking forward to their newest exhibit, Hélène Berr: A Stolen Life, but also understood it would not be for the faint of heart.

A Stolen Life follows French woman Hélène Berr who, similar to Anne Frank, was Jewish and kept a journal during the Nazi occupation of her country. Berr first started writing in April 1942, when she was 21 years old, and the exhibit explores the journal entries that followed over the next two years. Earlier excerpts detailed happy times with family and friends, and museum-goers can tell that Berr was well-read, as later entries contain raves about her love for Shakespeare and other accomplished writers. But what began as an expression of a student's normal life with her parents and siblings changed course as the German occupation of France began in November 1942.

What’s significant about Berr’s journal is that it interweaves her personal life with the escalation of anti-Semitic Nazi policy. Her anger is palpable through her writing as she witnessed barbaric acts against Jews. As the pages flip forward, there’s a sense of impending doom in her writing. Then, in February 1944, Berr and her family were arrested and deported to concentration camps. The final entry in her diary simply reads: "Horror! Horror! Horror!"

Berr’s resolute and well-informed writing offers a rare eyewitness account of the Nazi occupation in France and the devastating hardships endured by the Jewish community. Even during her final days in the infamous Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, “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,” says Robin Cavanaugh, chief marketing officer of the Holocaust Museum Houston. 

Cavanaugh believes that viewers will walk away from the exhibit with a powerful, new insight about the Holocaust. “People will realize how this could happen to anyone; to any of us."

Thru Nov 13. Free. Holocaust Museum Houston, 5401 Caroline St. 713-527-1616. hmh.org

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