Book review: Helga’s Diary by Helga Weiss

Helga Weiss is a remarkable woman... she was also a remarkable child. She endured the privations of Terezín concentration camp, narrowly escaped the clutches of evil Nazi doctor Josef Mengele, survived the horrors of Auschwitz and recorded it all in her diaries.

By Pam Norfolk
Wednesday, 6th March 2013, 9:00 am

Through one of the most vivid and comprehensive Holocaust testimonies ever to have been recovered, we can now read her story in all its raw, youthful and harrowing reality.

Helga’s Diary – predictably painful but ultimately inspirational – takes us beyond the life of Anne Frank and into a moving and shocking account of a young girl’s life in the camps where suffering and death were only ever a heartbeat away.

Weiss, an 83-year-old Czech artist who still lives in the Prague flat where she was born and from where the Nazis removed her and her Jewish parents in 1941, rediscovered her childhood diaries in a forgotten drawer several years ago.

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The journal included a stack of yellowed paper, written in pencil and barely legible in parts but, page by page, Weiss typed every word into her computer, painstakingly editing it as she went along.

Young Helga began her diary in 1938 when she was just eight years old. She kept up her illustrated diary entries during her three years at Terezín and then handed them to her uncle for safe keeping when she and her parents were deported to Auschwitz in 1944.

He bricked the diaries and paintings into a wall at Magdeburg barracks and when the conflict ended, he returned them to Helga who added to them her experiences of life in the other camps she had passed through and where writing journals had been impossible.

From her first early bewildered observations on the rise of anti-Semitism in Prague – ‘The worst of it has landed on us Jews. They heap everything on our backs... everything is our fault’ – to the deportations, disease and sufferings of camp life, Helga brings us a child’s eye view of four years of living hell.

About 45,000 Jews lived in Prague at the beginning of the war and when the Nazis invaded, Helga’s father was denied work, state schools were closed to her and she and her parents were confined to their flat.

But then the dreaded ‘transports’ began and gradually Helga’s friends and family started to disappear until in December 1941, Helga and her parents were sent to Terezín, a military fortress used as a transit hub where Czech Jews were put to work before being sent on to extermination camps.

Of the 15,000 children taken to Terezín and later deported to Auschwitz, only 100 survived the Holocaust. Helga was one of them.

Helga notes in her diary the terrible noises of the place which still haunt her, the ‘thunderous steps, the roar of the ghetto guards, the banging of doors and hysterical weeping’ which ‘always sound – and foretell – the same.’

The suffering was mitigated by moments of friendship, creativity and hope – a concert in which a simple song and dance show freed thoughts from death and woe to dwell instead on ‘beautiful, unforgettable’ images of home – and Helga met her first love and boyfriend Ota.

But in 1944, Helga and her parents were sent to Auschwitz and her bank worker father was never heard of again...

Helga and her mother miraculously survived and the gruelling transports of the last days of the war, returning to Prague where Helga completed her diary aged just fifteen and a half.

Reconstructed from her original notebooks and from the loose-leaf pages on which Weiss wrote after the war, Helga’s Diary is accompanied by an interview with the author and illustrated with the vivid paintings she made during her time at Terezín.

The young Helga’s ‘half-childish’ account has been greatly rewritten and revised by the more worldly wise adult but the accessibility and expressiveness of what is an essentially youthful narration still speak powerfully and shockingly of man’s inhumanity to man.

(Viking, hardback, £16.99)