Diary of Girl's Time in Concentration Camps Invites Comparisons to Anne Frank

Helga Weiss's Memoir Pays Tribute to Endurance

The Persistence of Memories: Helga Weiss left her initial manuscript with her uncle in the records department of Terezin (pictured above).
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The Persistence of Memories: Helga Weiss left her initial manuscript with her uncle in the records department of Terezin (pictured above).

By Julia M. Klein

Published April 27, 2013, issue of May 03, 2013.
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In Prague, before the first deportation, the anti-Jewish decrees mount, and Weiss reports a numbness enveloping her family. “This won’t last forever,” she tells herself. At Terezin, men and women are separated, and Weiss obsesses over being able to see her father. With other young girls, she celebrates Christmas with song, and for that moment, she writes, “We’re free, far beyond the ramparts and gates of the ghetto that hide so much suffering.”

As Weiss’s relatives arrive from Prague, other transports leave for the East. Weiss’s schooling continues secretly, and she moves to a special dormitory with other children her age. “There’s no reason for crying,” she writes. “You can live in overcrowded hostels… on bunks with fleas and bedbugs. It’s rather worse without food, but even a bit of hunger can be tolerated…. They want to destroy us, that’s obvious, but we won’t give in.”

That remains Weiss’s credo, through considerable hardship. Typhus rages through Terezin, and friends die. Then, with the Red Cross on its way, the Germans bizarrely install a music hall, a café, a swimming pool and a carousel. Weiss, like Anne Frank, has her first tentative romance, in her case with a 25-year-old — and sees her father, about to be deported, for the last time.

In 1944, she and her mother are sent to Auschwitz. When she arrives and observes beatings, she realizes that “Terezin was an absolute paradise compared to this.” She is savvy enough to lie about her age, claiming to be 18 (she is 15).

At Auschwitz, and then at a slave labor camp at Freiberg, she escapes the gas, but is tormented by hunger, cold, thirst and lack of sleep. “We were always hungry; hope sustained us!” she declares.

Finally, a nightmarish train trip ends at the dreaded camp of Mauthausen. But by then, the war is all but over. The situation is chaotic. At the last possible moment, it seems, peace arrives, and Weiss is able to start her journey home. There she will stay, amid the anti-Semitism and oppression of the Communist years, practicing her art, having a family and assembling this record of her endurance.

Julia M. Klein is a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia and a contributing editor at Columbia Journalism Review.


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