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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“Real Housewives of Isis”: How do British Muslim women feel about the controversial BBC sketch?

The sketch show Revolting's satiricial take on jihadi brides has divided opinion.

“He can’t stop talking about his 40 virgins. Why can’t he be happy with me?” says a crying woman dressed in an abaya (a robe-like dress worn by some Muslim women) to her friend. “Ali bought me a new chain . . . which is eight-foot long, so I can almost get outside, which is great,” says an identically attired woman talking to camera in another sketch.

The scene flits to her wrestling with a chain attached to a cooker as she struggles to move.

Thus did the BBC announce the forthcoming arrival of “Real Housewives of Isis”, the first sketch in a new comedy series called Revolting. For some, the name of the show is apt. The trailer, which is just under two minutes long, caused uproar from certain sections on social and legacy media, with many describing it as offensive and Islamophobic. Others, however, held a different view. Satire, went the argument, should never be off limits, especially when directed at a group as heinous as the murderous death cult that is IS.

Sulekha Hassan, a British Muslim woman who lives and works in Hackney, tells me she is unhappy with the video. “I don’t think that the entire sketch is without any merits,” she says. “It succeeds in capturing the fact that these young women – they are depicted as very young in the sketch – who have gone to join Isis are no different to their non-Muslim peer group. The references to social media in particular really capture this well.”

But, she continues, “As a visibly Muslim woman who wears the abaya on occasion and the scarf [the clothes represented in the sketch], I felt offended that my choice of clothing was being inextricably linked with terrorism. I did not feel offended by it from a theological perspective at all . . . The reality is that visibly Muslim women have been physically and verbally attacked on our streets. This isn’t about us being overly sensitive, it is a product of the real dangers we face as visibly Muslim women.”

Indeed, Hassan felt strongly enough about the subject to write a piece on it. She believes it is problematic to poke fun at young women who may have been groomed by IS and who are then further subjugated by them, rather than the perpetrators themselves.

“It does not sit well with my sensibilities as a woman who is concerned for the welfare of women everywhere,” she tells me. “Isis are opportunistic death squads who reserve special cruelty for the vulnerable – including women, who they view as little more than expendables for their cause.”

But other Muslim women, like Sara Khan, director of the counter-extremism and women’s rights organisation Inspire and co-author of the book The Battle for British Islam: Reclaiming Muslim Identity from Extremism, take a different view. As a Muslim woman, does the video offend her? Her response is blunt as it is strident:

“As a counter-extremism campaigner who has delivered counter-narrative work against Isis, why would it offend me?” she asks in reply to my question. “What offends me more is the fact that there are Muslim women who endorse and support Isis’ patriarchy and subjugation of women, as opposed to a sketch mocking these very women.

“I’m more offended by people who, while well-intentioned in seeking to combat anti-Muslim prejudice, downplay and ignore the reality of Islamist extremism and its radicalising power on even teenage girls,” she adds. “The fact is, many British Isis female supporters have endorsed not only the oppression of Muslim women, but also of Yazidi women, they have glorified the killings of aid workers and non-Muslims, they have expressed the desire to commit acts of horrendous violence and revel in the brutality of it.

“If that doesn’t offend you more, then you clearly have little understanding about the reality of these women jihadists.”

The case of the “Real Housewives of Isis” centres on two distinct issues. The first is the video itself; the second is the outrage that greeted it. And here the differences within the community are plain to see. For Hassan, “the outrage is reflective of the political anxieties that Muslims face due to the climate at this moment in time. I have not seen Muslims arguing that their faith was being mocked – Isis after all are not representative of Islam, they just happen to dress and look like people who adhere to the faith.”

Khan, however, takes an entirely different and characteristically robust, line. “I’m not surprised by the faux outrage,” she says. “It seems in this day and age the issues we should be offended by we are not, and the issues we aren’t offended by are precisely the ones we should be.

“It is clear in some quarters that people are in denial that there are female Muslim terrorists and supporters. Rather than taking offence at that, they misguidedly attack a sketch mocking these women. What’s been amusing to see is how some have tied themselves in knots about this: on the one hand they argue Isis has nothing to do with Islam, but then they accuse the sketch of being ‘Islamophobic’. So which is it?”

I’ve spent the last year researching IS for my forthcoming book, focusing on propaganda and recruitment methods geared both towards men and women, as well as interviewing a female IS returnee in Paris. When I was trying to work out people’s motives for joining IS, Melanie Smith, a researcher and project coordinator for the Women and Extremism programme at the Institute of Strategic Dialogue, told me: “I think this is less about grooming online. I don’t subscribe to that because it takes away the agency of the person being radicalised and speaks to gender stereotypes around Isis, with the press and government saying ‘innocent’ women are groomed while men are ‘angry’ jihadists. Our research shows that many women are just as aggressive and violent.”

I have also researched the reaction to IS in the Islamic Middle East for my book – and what emerges is a clear pattern of sustained mockery toward the group from the Muslim mainstream.

From Lebanese comedy songs that IS will lead Muslims into “an abyss like no other” to clips satirising the absurdity of IS’ literal readings of the Quran, lampooning the group is widespread. An especially popular example of the genre is a sketch showing three jihadists asking IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi the correct way to urinate. Can one hold his penis? No, says al-Baghdadi, because that’s the finger they use to fire their weapons on jihad. Can they squat?, asks the other. No, because girls squat. How do we piss?, asks the third. Like this says al-Baghdadi and they all urinate in their pants. The sketch ends with them all taking their urine-stained clothes to the dry cleaners.

The “Real Housewives of Isis” lacks a degree of nuance, but it does carry on a tradition long-established in the Muslim world of satire and ridicule. But whether Muslim women in the UK are comfortable about this tradition moving West-wards remains to be seen. Mockery might not be the ammunition that will ultimately defeat IS, but by being outraged at this sketch, we may be overlooking a powerful weapon at our disposal in this effort.