The Diary: A Unique Document

madeleineportrait (2)The Madeleine Blaess diary is unique. It is written by a British student who, because she had been born in France and had French papers, was not interned along with other  American and British and Commonwealth subjects. Despite her British upbringing and the fact of her parents’ emigration to Britain at the end of the First World War, Madeleine was largely left alone by the authorities. It also helped that she had extended family in the Paris region and could assume an identity more ‘French’ than what it was in reality.  It is the only diarised record of life in occupied France written by a British student. Most British students had managed to get out of France in 1940 or else had not made the trip in 1939 after Britain and France’s declaration of war on Germany in September of that year. It is also unusual because it is an almost unbroken contemporaneous record of life under Occupation whereas many published diaries are composed of fragments or else glossed with testimony long after the event. The diary’s ‘completeness’ extends also to its content. It was fashionable among both male and female students to write diaries in the belle époque and the inter-war but very often the tone and content of these diaries were intended to showcase intellectual acumen and hone critical reflection and generally foregrounded introspective musings over everyday observations. Madeleine’s diary does the opposite. She declares a total disinterest for deliberating her thoughts and her feelings. To Madeleine, writing ‘all that’ down was a pointless repetition when she could be recording people and events instead. Thus, she adopts a largely descriptive purpose for the diary filling entries with the minutiae of her everyday. The densely detailed description about everyday life under the Nazi Occupation underscores the fact that reality for most citizens was mundane, repetitive and organised round the struggle to find enough food and money to survive crippling shortages and a soaring cost of living. The experience of many French people between 1940 and 1944 had little to do with their ideological stance vis à vis the political and military circumstances of the occupied territory. Madeleine’s narrative shows very clearly that the resistance dramas we’re accustomed to when we negotiate many published testimonies of the period are exceptional. Publishers are generally less interested in realistic, unabridged testimonies of grinding, repetitive struggle through weeks and months when, as Madeleine writes in her diary, the only story is the story of a struggle to find enough to eat to survive.

The focus on everyday description of events, people and happenings does not mean that there is nothing else of interest. The diary is very long – 123,000 words – and written over a long period of time. It therefore tracks the personal evolution of Madeleine and, in particular, her determination to succeed at her studies and realise her ambition to be an academic. From her record of life at the Sorbonne over 5 years (including similarly detailed notes of the first year of her doctorate between November 1939 and June 1940 contained in her letters home), we get a rare insight into the challenges facing young women who sought professional careers at a time when the expectation was still that marriage and family should be a priority for women at the expense of a career. We also gain good insight into the amenities, personalities and intellectual forums and resources supporting women in Paris during the Occupation.  Since being admitted onto university programmes in the late 19th century, women students in both Britain and the United States had created extra-curricular support groups and networks in which they were able to create and sustain intellectual synergies outside of institutions in which they were not especially welcomed by male students or staff  (even if their registration money was welcome in the years after the Great War which had emptied lecture theatres of a generation of young men.

Madeleine enjoys a close friendship with Sylvia Beach, bookseller, publisher and owner of the bookshop and lending library Shakespeare & Co which, at that time was located on the rue de l’Odéon in Paris.  Through the bookshop, where she worked part-time for a short period in 1940,  Madeleine met Françoise Bernheim who worked there permanently alongside her doctoral studies at the Sorbonne. Both Madeleine and Françoise were close friends with Hélène Berr whose own diary Journal was published in 2008. Both Françoise and Hélène Berr were arrested, deported and murdered in Nazi death camps.  There are a number of references to Hélène and Françoise in Madeleine’s diary even though she is very careful not to divulge too much about them and their whereabouts. referring to them obliquely or to Hélène by initials only in the months before her arrest. What we do see is a frequency of contact by letter and pneu and occasional surreptitious meetings in cafés and restaurants and shock and grief when  Françoise is arrested. It is unclear whether Madeleine knows, even by the end of the war in 1945, that Hélène had been arrested.

It has been a pleasure to contribute in some small measure to the preservation of the memory of both Hélène and Françoise through their living relatives and the Mémorial de la Shoah in Paris. The Mémorial has produced a fabulous on line exhibition about  Hélène Berr which is available here.