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