Reviewed: Helga’s Diary by Helga Weiss

The will to live.

Helga’s Diary: a Young Girl’s Account of Life in a Concentration Camp
Helga Weiss (translated by Neil Bermel)
Viking, 256pp, £16.99

Many readers of this review will have kept a diary as a youngster but few will have made entries in the expectation that they might soon be wrenched from home and confronted with mass murder. Yet these were the circumstances in which countless young Jews kept diaries in countries under Nazi rule between 1939 and 1945. Only a few have survived and they are prized as witnesses to the catastrophe. However, for decades after the war, there was apparently only one “Holocaust diary”, Anne Frank’s.

This was odd because Anne was hardly representative of the 1.5 million Jewish children who fell victim to the Nazis. She came from an assimilated German-Jewish family who found refuge in the Netherlands. Thanks to her father’s foresight, means and loyal staff, she survived in hiding from July 1942 to August 1944. Her diary records little about anti-Jewish measures and ends before she faced the horrors of Westerbork transit camp, Birkenau and Belsen. She did not document daily suffering in a ghetto, mass shootings or the struggle for existence in the camps. She recrafted the original diary to have universal appeal and, after her death, her father edited it still more to offer a redemptive message to a postwar world thirsting to find meaning in the recent disasters.

It was odder still since other diaries were available. The diary of Mary Berg, published in New York in 1945, offered an unsparing account of life in the Warsaw ghetto. Eva Heyman’s diary, which appeared in Hungarian in 1947, chronicled the German occupation of Budapest and the deportations to Auschwitz, where she perished.

These diaries faded from view partly because they were less amenable to a universal, redemptive interpretation. They force readers to confront ugliness, spiritual confusion, despair and, ultimately, extinction.

More recently, several new diarists have come to light. David Sierakowiak’s notebooks from the Lodz ghetto are a searing account of deprivation, starvation and forced labour recounted by a cultured, sensitive teenager. Ruth Maier’s diary takes us from the annexation of Austria to uncertain refuge in Norway. She is a terrific writer who was befriended by poets and intellectuals before she was deported and murdered. The greatest chronicle is by Hélène Berr, a brilliant, privileged French “Israélite” who threw in her lot with the eastern European Jews targeted by the Vichy regime.

Now Helga Weiss joins this list. Born in Prague in 1929, she grew up in a comfortable, well-integrated Jewish family. With indignation she records the shrinking world of Jewish children after the German occupation, driven out of schools and sundered from “Aryan” friends. She puzzles over anti-Semitism and wrestles with her identity. Is she a Czech, a Jew, a human being or, as the Nazis held, none of the above?

On a trip into town in October 1941, she sees the streets “full of stars” – that is, Jews wearing the newly mandated badge of identity. With a shrewd eye, she notes that Czech responses ranged from sympathetic smiles to sneers but concludes, “We’ll get used to it.” Her first journal ends after months of nerve-racking tension when her family is finally transported to Theresienstadt, a fortress town converted into a ghetto.

The second part, scribbled on loose sheets and reassembled after the war, recounts in the present tense life in the ghetto. Writing becomes a form of resistance. While the Nazis have issued the Jews with transportation numbers, block numbers, bunk numbers, Helga expresses her individuality in words. Her repeated insistence that “We won’t give in” and her determination not to flinch in front of the Germans are acts of defiance.

Having evaded repeated transportations to an unknown fate, her father and boyfriend are shipped off in late September 1944. She and her mother follow the next month, naively hoping to find their men in Auschwitz-Birkenau. The memoir of the next seven months, composed after liberation, records a hellish odyssey of abuse, hunger and discomfort. Only occasional acts of kindness relieve their suffering. Somehow, however, Helga and her mother survive.

Helga’s diary resounds with a ferocious will to endure conditions of astonishing cruelty. It displays a rare capacity to remain keenly observant while shutting down the feelings that would normally reduce a person to despair and, then, to find the right words for transmitting an essential approximation of experience from memory into history, as an admonition for all time.

David Cesarani teaches history at Royal Holloway, University of London and is writing a book on the fate of Europe’s Jews, 1933-49

The fence surrounding Auschwitz. Photograph: Getty Images

This article first appeared in the 25 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The cheap food delusion

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Orhan Pamuk's The Red-Haired Woman is playful and unsettling

At times, the novel seems to owe as much to Dostoevsky as to the epics of the long-distant past.

When cultures collide or begin to merge, what happens to their myths? In Orhan Pamuk’s psychodramatic and psychogeographic tale of fathers and sons, the protagonist Cem mentally collects versions of the Oedipus story from across Europe – Ingres’s painting of Oedipus and the Sphinx hanging in the Louvre, Gustave Moreau’s work of the same name, painted 50 years later, Pasolini’s film adaptation, Oedipus Rex. But he also fixates on the epic poem “Shahnameh”, written by the Persian poet Ferdowsi; and in particular the story of Rostam and Sohrab, a reversal of the Oedipus story in which father kills son rather than vice versa. As Cem and his wife travel the world’s libraries to inspect copies, what they learn is “how ephemeral all those ancient lives had been”.

Nor is Cem immune to the act of readerly projection. “Like all educated Turks of my father’s generation,” Cem tells us, “what I really hoped to find on these trips wandering the shops, the cinemas, and the museums of the Western world was an idea, an object, a painting – anything at all – that might transform and illuminate my own life.”

Cem has more reason than many to seek clarification: his own father has been absent – whether for reasons of underground political activity or romantic complications is, for a long time, unclear – for most of his childhood; he and his mother become impoverished and, as he tells us at the very beginning of the novel, his dream of becoming a writer yields to a life as a building contractor. But these matter-of-fact bare bones are deceptive, for what unfolds is a far more fabular account of a life gone awry.

Even beyond his father’s departure, Cem’s life is shaped by his teenage apprenticeship to Master Mahmut, a well-digger of great renown. It removes him from his protective mother’s sphere of influence and immerses him in a world at once simple – long hours of physical labour – and highly skilled. As his and Master Mahmut’s quest for water on a patch of land slated for development runs into difficulties, so their relationship – boss and employee, craftsman and disciple, quasi father and son – becomes antagonistic, beset by undercurrents of rivalry and rebellion. Before too long (and avoiding spoilers) matters come to a head.

Throughout, their story gestures toward the fairytale, as underlined by Cem’s irresistible attraction to a travelling theatre troupe performing satirical sketches and classical scenes in the town near their excavation, and to the red-haired woman of the title. But Pamuk, in the style that characterises much of his work, fuses this material with political and social commentary. Over the three or four decades covered by the narrative, which takes place from the mid-1980s to the present day, the landscape of Istanbul and its surrounding areas literally changes shape. Residential and commercial developments spring up everywhere, many of them courtesy of Cem and his wife Aye, who have named their business after Shahnameh’s murdered son, Sohrab. Water shortages belie the sophisticated nature of these new suburbs, which eventually begin to form an amorphous mass.

Cem is preoccupied by the differences between Turkey and Iran, the latter seeming to him more alive to its cultural past. Turks, he decides, “had become so Westernised that we’d forgotten our old poets and myths”. While in Tehran, he sees numerous depictions of Rostam and Sohrab, and finds himself stirred:

I felt frustrated and uneasy, as if a fearful memory I refused to acknowledge consciously might suddenly well up and make me miserable. The image was like some wicked thought that keeps intruding on your mind no matter how much you yearn to be rid of it.

The extent to which individuals and societies suffer by not keeping their mythic past in mind is Pamuk’s subject, but it becomes more ambiguous when different stories are brought into play. What is the significance of a son who kills his father in innocence rather than a father who kills his son? Which is the more transgressive and ultimately damaging act and should both killers be regarded as guiltless because they knew not what they did?

But, as its title is perhaps designed to suggest, these accounts of fathers and sons omit a key element of the family drama: if paternity becomes a focus to the exclusion of all else, maternal energy must find an alternative outlet. As this strange, shifting novel edges to its conclusion – becoming, in its final act, a noir thriller – that energy makes a dramatic return, changing not only the story but the entire narrative paradigm.

The Red-Haired Woman is a puzzling novel; its intentions are often concealed, and oblique. At times, it seems to owe as much to Dostoevsky as to the epics of the long-distant past; it moves forward by indirection, swapping modes and registers at will. Playful and unsettling, it reprises some of Pamuk’s favourite themes – the clash between the past and the erasures of modernity, so charged in a Turkish context, and the effect on the individual’s psyche – without quite reaching the expansive heights of some of his previous novels. It is, nonetheless, an intriguing addition to his body of work. 

The Red-Haired Woman
Orhan Pamuk. Translated by Ekin Oklap
Faber & Faber, 253pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 14 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The German problem