● Helga’s Diary: A Young Girl’s Account of Life in a Concentration Camp
By Helga Weiss, translated by Neil Bermel
W.W. Norton, 240 pages, $24.95
Seven decades after the Holocaust, survivor stories are still trickling out, adding nuance to a familiar and gruesome narrative. It is sometimes hard for these latecomers to get the attention they deserve amid the collective exhaustion, the sighs of “enough already!”
In her introduction to “Helga’s Diary: A Young Girl’s Account of Life in a Concentration Camp,” the author Francine Prose offers a salutary counter-reaction. “The further these horrors recede into history,” she writes, “the fewer the living witnesses who remain to provide us with firsthand accounts, the more important — the more essential — it is for those amazing stories to continue to be told.”
Why, one might ask? These last witnesses surely will not suffice to still the irrational doubters, nor will they deter future genocidal regimes. One answer is that they have an inherent moral value as testimony. They reveal truths about human nature pushed to the extreme. The diary of Helga Weiss attests to a resilience and strength that Prose argues “must have in some way contributed to her survival,” though it is also true that personal moral qualities mattered less for most European Jews than luck, timing and geography.
Weiss was imprisoned in Terezin, Auschwitz and Mauthausen, among other grim places. She was, we are told, 11 years old when she began writing the diary, an age that immediately invites comparisons to Anne Frank. The adolescent Frank, as we know, did not live to see her diary’s publication; in the popular imagination, she remains forever young, forever doomed, an ineradicable symbol of the six million. By contrast, Weiss, now in her 80s, is a professionally trained artist who still resides in her native Prague.
Little of the diary is actually a quotidian record of her experiences, although much of it reads that way. It begins with the 1938 Czech mobilization before the Nazi invasion. A siren signals an air raid, and Weiss’s family squeezes into a cellar: a false alarm, but also a foreshadowing of the confinements to come.
As we learn from a footnote, Weiss began keeping her journal only just before or during her incarceration at Terezin, outside Prague, in late 1941. She wrote the early entries, describing the impact of Nazi rule on the Jews of Prague, retrospectively. Much of the diary was later rewritten, eliminating some of the naiveté of Helga’s preteen voice.
Weiss left the initial manuscript with her uncle in the records department of Terezin. “We knew it would be worse” at the next camp, she tells her translator, Neil Bermer, in a 2011 interview included in the book. The uncle hid her diary and drawings in a brick wall, where she reclaimed them after the war.
The rest of “Helga’s Diary” details Weiss’s experiences at Auschwitz and other Nazi camps, where any writing would have been all but impossible. These entries were composed from 1945-6 shortly after her return to Prague. “I recorded these events as they occurred to me in my memories, writing spontaneously, quickly, under the pressure of the experiences that filled me,” she writes in an author’s note.
Despite the patchwork manner of its composition, the diary reads with refreshing immediacy, describing how a smart, spirited young girl negotiated increasingly desperate circumstances.