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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How nature created consciousness – and our brains became minds

In From Bacteria to Bach and Back, Daniel C Dennett investigates the evolution of consciousness.

In the preface to his new book, the ­philosopher Daniel Dennett announces proudly that what we are about to read is “the sketch, the backbone, of the best scientific theory to date of how our minds came into existence”. By the end, the reader may consider it more scribble than spine – at least as far as an account of the origins of human consciousness goes. But this is still a superb book about evolution, engineering, information and design. It ranges from neuroscience to nesting birds, from computing theory to jazz, and there is something fascinating on every page.

The term “design” has a bad reputation in biology because it has been co-opted by creationists disguised as theorists of “intelligent design”. Nature is the blind watchmaker (in Richard Dawkins’s phrase), dumbly building remarkable structures through a process of random accretion and winnowing over vast spans of time. Nonetheless, Dennett argues stylishly, asking “design” questions about evolution shouldn’t be ­taboo, because “biology is reverse engin­eering”: asking what some phenomenon or structure is for is an excellent way to understand how it might have arisen.

Just as in nature there is design without a designer, so in many natural phenomena we can observe what Dennett calls “competence without comprehension”. Evolution does not understand nightingales, but it builds them; your immune system does not understand disease. Termites do not build their mounds according to blueprints, and yet the results are remarkably complex: reminiscent in one case, as Dennett notes, of Gaudí’s church the Sagrada Família. In general, evolution and its living products are saturated with competence without comprehension, with “unintelligent design”.

The question, therefore, is twofold. Why did “intelligent design” of the kind human beings exhibit – by building robotic cars or writing books – come about at all, if unintelligent design yields such impressive results? And how did the unintelligent-design process of evolution ever build intelligent designers like us in the first place? In sum, how did nature get from bacteria to Bach?

Dennett’s answer depends on memes – self-replicating units of cultural evolution, metaphorical viruses of the mind. Today we mostly use “meme” to mean something that is shared on social media, but in Richard Dawkins’s original formulation of the idea, a meme can be anything that is culturally transmitted and undergoes change: melodies, ideas, clothing fashions, ways of building pots, and so forth. Some might say that the only good example of a meme is the very idea of a meme, given that it has replicated efficiently over the years despite being of no use whatsoever to its hosts. (The biologist Stephen Jay Gould, for one, didn’t believe in memes.) But Dennett thinks that memes add something important to discussions of “cultural evolution” (a contested idea in its own right) that is not captured by established disciplines such as history or sociology.

The memes Dennett has in mind here are words: after all, they reproduce, with variation, in a changing environment (the mind of a host). Somehow, early vocalisations in our species became standardised as words. They acquired usefulness and meaning, and so, gradually, their use spread. Eventually, words became the tools that enabled our brains to reflect on what they were ­doing, thus bootstrapping themselves into full consciousness. The “meme invasion”, as Dennett puts it, “turned our brains into minds”. The idea that language had a critical role to play in the development of human consciousness is very plausible and not, in broad outline, new. The question is how much Dennett’s version leaves to explain.

Before the reader arrives at that crux, there are many useful philosophical interludes: on different senses of “why” (why as in “how come?” against why as in “what for?”), or in the “strange inversions of reasoning” offered by Darwin (the notion that competence does not require comprehension), Alan Turing (that a perfect computing machine need not know what arithmetic is) and David Hume (that causation is a projection of our minds and not something we perceive directly). Dennett suggests that the era of intelligent design may be coming to an end; after all, our best AIs, such as the ­AlphaGo program (which beat the human European champion of the boardgame Go 5-0 in a 2015 match), are these days created as learning systems that will teach themselves what to do. But our sunny and convivial host is not as worried as some about an imminent takeover by intelligent machines; the more pressing problem, he argues persuasively, is that we usually trust computerised systems to an extent they don’t deserve. His final call for critical thinking tools to be made widely available is timely and admirable. What remains puzzlingly vague to the end, however, is whether Dennett actually thinks human consciousness – the entire book’s explanandum – is real; and even what exactly he means by the term.

Dennett’s 1991 book, Consciousness Explained, seemed to some people to deny the existence of consciousness at all, so waggish critics retitled it Consciousness Explained Away. Yet it was never quite clear just what Dennett was claiming didn’t exist. In this new book, confusion persists, owing to his reluctance to define his terms. When he says “consciousness” he appears to mean reflective self-consciousness (I am aware that I am aware), whereas many other philosophers use “consciousness” to mean ordinary awareness, or experience. There ensues much sparring with straw men, as when he ridicules thinkers who assume that gorillas, say, have consciousness. They almost certainly don’t in his sense, and they almost certainly do in his opponents’ sense. (A gorilla, we may be pretty confident, has experience in the way that a volcano or a cloud does not.)

More unnecessary confusion, in which one begins to suspect Dennett takes a polemical delight, arises from his continued use of the term “illusion”. Consciousness, he has long said, is an illusion: we think we have it, but we don’t. But what is it that we are fooled into believing in? It can’t be experience itself: as the philosopher Galen Strawson has pointed out, the claim that I only seem to have experience presupposes that I really am having experience – the experience of there seeming to be something. And throughout this book, Dennett’s language implies that he thinks consciousness is real: he refers to “conscious thinking in H[omo] sapiens”, to people’s “private thoughts and experiences”, to our “proper minds, enculturated minds full of thinking tools”, and to “a ‘rich mental life’ in the sense of a conscious life like ours”.

The way in which this conscious life is allegedly illusory is finally explained in terms of a “user illusion”, such as the desktop on a computer operating system. We move files around on our screen desktop, but the way the computer works under the hood bears no relation to these pictorial metaphors. Similarly, Dennett writes, we think we are consistent “selves”, able to perceive the world as it is directly, and acting for rational reasons. But by far the bulk of what is going on in the brain is unconscious, ­low-level processing by neurons, to which we have no access. Therefore we are stuck at an ­“illusory” level, incapable of experiencing how our brains work.

This picture of our conscious mind is rather like Freud’s ego, precariously balan­ced atop a seething unconscious with an entirely different agenda. Dennett explains wonderfully what we now know, or at least compellingly theorise, about how much unconscious guessing, prediction and logical inference is done by our brains to produce even a very simple experience such as seeing a table. Still, to call our normal experience of things an “illusion” is, arguably, to privilege one level of explanation arbitrarily over another. If you ask me what is happening on my computer at the moment, I shall reply that I am writing a book review on a word processor. If I embarked instead on a description of electrical impulses running through the CPU, you would think I was being sarcastically obtuse. The normal answer is perfectly true. It’s also true that I am currently seeing my laptop screen even as this experience depends on innumerable neural processes of guessing and reconstruction.

The upshot is that, by the end of this brilliant book, the one thing that hasn’t been explained is consciousness. How does first-person experience – the experience you are having now, reading these words – arise from the electrochemical interactions of neurons? No one has even the beginnings of a plausible theory, which is why the question has been called the “Hard Problem”. Dennett’s story is that human consciousness arose because our brains were colonised by word-memes; but how did that do the trick? No explanation is forthcoming. Dennett likes to say the Hard Problem just doesn’t exist, but ignoring it won’t make it go away – even if, as his own book demonstrates, you can ignore it and still do a lot of deep and fascinating thinking about human beings and our place in nature.

Steven Poole’s books include “Rethink: the Surprising History of New Ideas” (Random House Books)

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times