● 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.
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.