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March 1, 2013 7:24 pm
Helga’s Diary: A Young Girl’s Account of Life in a Concentration Camp, by Helga Weiss, translated by Neil Bermel, Viking RRP£16.99, 230 pages
Helga Weiss was eight years old in 1938 when “the transports” first became a terrifying spectre for her family. Her parents, Otto, a bank clerk, and Irene, a dressmaker, lived with their daughter in a comfortable flat in Prague, but had already suffered the humiliations and deprivations common to the 45,000 Jews resident in the Czech capital after the Germans invaded on March 15 1939.
Otto was dismissed from his job and forbidden to work. A curfew was imposed. The sign Juden nicht zugänglich (not accessible to Jews) appeared in shops, barbers, cafés, cinemas, playgrounds. Jewish children were expelled from state schools, and from October 1941 all Jews were required to wear a yellow star. “At school we all boast about whose star is sewn on best ... we’ve got used to other things; we’ll get used to this,” writes Weiss, now 83, in this remarkable diary that has been translated into English by Neil Bermel.
Then the deportations started. Friends started to disappear. On December 7 1941 it was the turn of the Weiss family to be taken to a disembarkation point, where they were given the numbers “518, 519, 520” and a mess tin. With the meagre possessions they had managed to carry, they were taken to Terezin, an 18th-century fortress in Bohemia, but by then a Nazi concentration camp known as the Theresienstadt ghetto.
During the second world war, tens of thousands of Jews, including many children, were murdered there. But despite the cold, the dirt, the gnawing hunger and cramped conditions, Weiss and her mother survived. In Terezin Helga started to keep the diary that, after the war, was retrieved from her uncle who had bricked it up in a wall when the rest of the family were moved on.
It is an eerie, moving and tragic story, told intermittently, presumably when there was time and sufficient privacy to write. Although some entries have been tidied up by the mature Weiss, what is so compelling is the immediacy and unknowingness of the narrative. It is a chronicle of hunger unassuaged by the regular food ration of a quarter of a litre of soup made from potato peelings; of the ubiquitous dirt-lice; and of endemic dysentery. She writes of the bitter cold – the prisoners rarely had more than a thin blanket to cover them and often went barefoot in freezing weather – and of the petty cruelty of the guards, who often took the prisoners’ food for themselves.
Above all there was the terrible uncertainty and anxiety. Where were the men – in Helga’s case, her beloved father – since women and men were separated? Would her mother, frail, weak and ill, exhausted from hard labour, survive the ordeal? How were the Allies faring, and where might the Jewish prisoners be moved next? When would the war end? Increasingly, there were terrifying rumours that the next move might be the last, a transport to the gas chambers of mass extermination.
In an interview recorded in 2011 and printed at the end of the book, Weiss tells Bermel what the inmates knew about these other camps: “We knew it would be worse. But we had no idea even where the transports were going. We did know, to some extent, that concentration camps existed – they’d existed before the war, in Germany. But that we were being sent to other camps, that gas chambers existed, and death trains ... We had no idea of that at all.” Weiss’s father was taken on a transport and almost certainly died in the gas chambers.
The Jewish Museum in Prague holds a fine collection of pictures by children in Terezin, and Weiss’s diary is illustrated with some of the poignant sketches and watercolours she produced as she moved from camp to camp. As an adult, she became an artist.
As Nicholas Stargardt writes in Witnesses of War: Children’s Lives Under the Nazis (2005), “In all wars children are victims. The second world war differed only in the unprecedented extent to which this was true.” More than a million Jewish children perished in the Nazis’ final solution: of the 15,000 taken to Terezin and on to Auschwitz, Weiss writes that only about 100 survived.
Helga’s Diary is another moving testimony to the courage, endurance and painfully premature maturity of the young victims of the Holocaust. Hardly any Czech Jews survived. One victim was Petr Ginz, another Prague schoolchild, whose diary was published in 2007 and whose gruelling journey was very similar to that of Weiss.
Weiss was 15 when she was at last liberated on May 5 1945 with her mother. The pair returned to Prague, where by 1947 there were fewer than 8,000 Jews left in the city. After finding themselves initially homeless and having to live in shelters, they eventually returned to the Prague apartment from which they had been transported four years earlier – and where Weiss still lives today.
Juliet Gardiner is author of ‘The Blitz: The British Under Attack’ (HarperPress)
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