Monday, July 1, 2013

Helga’s Diary: A Young Girl’s Account of Life in a Concentration Camp by Helga Weiss

"...[T]he diary reads with refreshing immediacy, describing how a smart, spirited young girl negotiated increasingly desperate circumstances." from a review by Julia M. Klein in the Jewish  Daily Forward April 27, 2013

Helga Weiss, who was born in 1929 in Prague, Czechoslovakia, survived to see the journal she kept during and after World War II published in 2013. Her story is similar to others who were moved from camp to camp, each time not knowing where they were going and what their fate would be when they arrived.

As a young child she was deported with her parents to Terezin (Theresienstadt) where she spent most of her imprisonment. From there she was moved to Auschwitz, then to Frieberg, a satellite work camp connected to the Flossenburg concentration camp. When it didn’t seem like their situation could get much worse, it got even worse. She and her mother barely survived a sixteen-day trip to the Mauthausen concentration camp where they were finally liberated.

One of the most moving pieces of this memoir is the family dynamic. The author, an only child, was separated from her father early because once in Terezin males and females were sent to separate living quarters. But she did manage to see him during the day. Her father got work in the financial office and had power to delay the deportation of family members – many of their relatives ended up in Terezin. But eventually they are all deported. There is much agony: Should she and her mother insist on going on the same transport he is assigned to? He insists not.  Mother and daughter are deported the day after he is, and Helga hopes against hope that she will see her father when she arrives wherever they are being sent.

It is only in hindsight that the author comes to realize that incarceration in Terezin was bearable compared to what happened once they were deported. Her descriptions of Terezin encompass both the good and the bad. The closeness that developed amongst her and other teenagers, their birthday celebrations and parties are contrasted to the overcrowded conditions, the serious outbreaks of diseases like typhus, the annoyance of bedbugs and lice, the constant worry about being selected for a transport. Once they are on a transport, as they move from place to place, food supplies dwindle; in the weeks before the Germans surrender there is barely any food. Helga’s mother becomes so weak that Helga, still a young teenager, has the added burden of making sure her mother survives.

Helga Weiss and her mother had been imprisoned for three and a half years. The author was released when she was 15 ½, one of a small number of children from Terezin to have survived.

This edition of the memoir includes:
A map of Helga’s journey
A map of Terezin
An Introduction - Francine Prose places this memoir in the context of other Holocaust memoirs.
An Author’s Note – Helga Weiss writes about the writing and re-writing of this memoir
An Interview with Helga Weiss – the author answers questions posed by the translator Neil Bermel about her experience during the war and about the writing of her journal.
A Translator’s Note – Neil Bermel writes about Helga Weiss’s writing style and how he worked with the mix of the German and Czech languages.
A Glossary of German terms not translated into English

To watch an interview with Helga Weiss which also includes photos and some of her artwork representing scenes during her imprisonment, click here.
To read a previous post of a review of a cookbook assembled by women in Theriesenstadt, click here.
To read a post on this blog about a memoir written by Gonda Redlich, also a prisoner in Theresienstadt, click here.
To read a post on this blog of a memoir written by Petr Ginz, also a prisoner in Theresienstadt, click here.
To read a post on this blog about Madeleine Albright's memoir Prague Winter which has several chapters on Theresienstadt, click here.
To read a post on this blog about a book that takes place in Terezin called "The Girls of Room 28," click here.

Sofie Weiss
    Otto Weiss – son of Sophie; married to Irena Fuchsova
         Helga Weiss – daughter of Otto and Irena
                      Dominika, Natalie, and Sarah – granddaughters of Helga
    Josef Polak – uncle of Helga; exact relationship unclear

Friends and Acquaintances
Eva Vohryzeks
Fredy Hirsch
Laska and Ruza Vogelova
Jakob Edelstein

Prague, Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic)
Terezin concentration camp, Czechoslovakia
Auschwitz  concentration camp, Poland
Frieburg, Germany
Mauthausen concentration camp, Austria

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