Helga Weiss was a young Jew living in Prague during World War II. She had a happy childhood until her world was turned upside down by the invasion of Czechoslovakia by the German Nazis in 1939. Little by little, her life was changed into something that would not have been conceivable in her early years.
The Nazis started out by forbidding the Jewish children from going to public schools, while their parents lost their jobs, money and most of their personal possessions. Helga and her folks were eventually forced out of their home and taken to a concentration camp called Theresienstadt (also known as Terezin) when Helga was 15. Terezin was a ghetto where many Jews were forced to live jammed into space meant for a few. They were allowed to bring their suitcases with them, in which they had managed to pack as many things as possible --- clothes, food, books and small keepsakes --- so they had some of their creature comforts. But as living conditions became harsher, they ran out of extra food, outgrew or wore out their clothes, and were exposed to an array of communicable diseases that killed many.
"Helga was unable to write in her diary after she left Terezin. All entries after that point were made following the war, and Helga also made corrections and additions to earlier parts of the diary. Still, the story is real, raw and heartbreaking, and deserves to be told and heard."
But their plight seemed mild by comparison to other camps where prisoners were literally worked to death. They were sent to work camps to do hard labor for the Nazis, given meager rations of food, forced to work in the freezing cold with barely a rag to cover them, and exposed to rat-infested, disease-ridden living quarters.
While still in Terezin, Helga’s father got sent out on a work detail and they never saw or heard from him again. She and her mother were eventually “transported” to Auschwitz in 1944 where conditions were horrendous compared to those at Terezin, even at its worst moments. Few survived Auschwitz, but Helga and her mother were among those who did. By the time they reached Auschwitz, the Germans were surrounded by the Allies on all sides. The Germans knew the Russians would soon arrive to liberate those still left in the concentration camps. So the Nazis gassed as many prisoners as they could before they were forced to empty out the camps. Those prisoners who were still alive, Helga and her mother included, were sent on death marches, walking through miserable weather conditions with little or no food. After marching for several days, Helga and her mother were put in a cage-like train car that moved from place to place, never sitting at any one spot too long. The prisoners were not allowed to leave the train car except when they were temporarily disembarked at another camp, more horrible than the one they had just left. By the time the war ended and they were liberated, Helga and her mother were barely alive.
Helga started keeping a diary of her experiences while she and her family were in Terezin. She recorded events as they happened around her and added her thoughts and feelings to what she saw. A gifted artist, she also created drawings and paintings to go with her diary. Her original story is told from a teenager’s perspective, one that is open and honest yet initially filled with naiveté. Whenever the family faced a hardship, Helga’s immediate reaction was frustration, then hope that the war would soon be over and things would get back to normal soon. It’s not until much later in the narrative that the tone changes.
Helga was unable to write in her diary after she left Terezin. All entries after that point were made following the war, and Helga also made corrections and additions to earlier parts of the diary. Still, the story is real, raw and heartbreaking, and deserves to be told and heard.
Francine Prose has written an introduction to HELGA’S DIARY, and translator Neil Bermel includes an interview with Helga at the end of the book, where she adds more insight into what life was like before, during and after the war. There is also a glossary that defines foreign words used throughout the text.
Reviewed by Christine M. Irvin on April 26, 2013