BOOKS APRIL 10, 2013
In Eichmann in Jerusalem, Hannah Arendt writes movingly about the Nazis' failed attempt to plunge the entire Holocaust into silence. The Nazis thought they could exterminate the Jews so totally that not a single voice would remain to describe what had happened. This would mean literally erasing the Jews from the face of the earth—the ultimate demonstration of the totalitarian state's power to reshape reality. But, Arendt concluded, this power has its limits; there is no such thing as complete oblivion. From the day the Holocaust ended until today, voices keep coming forward to break the silence, to reestablish contact between the concentration camp and the world.
Helga's Diary: A Young Girl's Account of Life in a Concentration Camp is the latest of these revenants. During World War II, some 15,000 Jewish children passed through the Terezin concentration camp in Czechoslovakia; of those, about 100 survived to the end of the war. One of them was Helga Weiss, a Prague native who is now 83 years old and lives, amazingly enough, in the same apartment from which she and her parents were deported on December 7, 1941 (the same day the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor brought America into the war). Before Terezin, Helga began keeping a diary of her experiences as a Jewish child in Nazified Bohemia, and she managed to sporadically continue it in the camp. When she was deported to Auschwitz in 1944, she entrusted the diary to her uncle, an office worker in Terezin, who managed to hide it with other documents behind a brick wall.
In Auschwitz, of course, Helga would not have had the chance to keep a diary anyway. But as soon as she returned home to Prague—with her mother, but without her father, who vanished into the gas chambers—she filled in the time she had missed. In later years, Helga edited and rewrote parts of the diary. "I recorded these events as they occurred to me in my memories," she writes in an author's note, "writing spontaneously, quickly, under the pressure of the experiences that filled me ... It did not occur to me to check the dates—in many cases I hadn't even noted them down." It is this document—somewhere between a historical artifact and a literary narrative—that has now been published, almost 70 years later, as Helga's Diary.
The history of the composition of the diary, as described in a concluding note by the translator Neil Bermel, means that it can't be read transparently, as a day-to-day record of events. Unlike The Diary of Anne Frank, which is the inevitable point of comparison, Helga's Diary was written, or rewritten, with a knowledge of how its story was going to end. (It is also a much less introspective book than Frank's—Weiss, who went on to become a painter, was a sharp witness but not a born writer.) This is visible from the first page, which reads less like a diary entry than like a passage of dramatic exposition. "I'm a big girl already, I'll be nine soon," Helga writes, before attempting a stream-of-consciousness description of a bombing raid: "What air raid? Into the cellar—now, at night? Why are you getting me up, Mommy? What's wrong, what's happening? What are you doing; you can't put my clothes on over my pajamas..."
Read as a memoir rather than a straight journal, however, Helga's Diary is a lucid and valuable piece of testimony. Its focus is less on Helga's character than on the events she undergoes, but one quality that does stand out is the author's amazing adaptability. The diary describes an unbroken downward trajectory, as Helga is subjected to increasing humiliation, imprisonment, slave labor, and finally starvation. Yet not until the very end, when she is packed into a cattle car with no food or water for days on end, certain that she is on her way to be gassed at Mauthausen, does she lose hope or start to long for death. Until it becomes unbearable, Helga manages to meet the pressure of events with a child's resilience and hopefulness. These qualities, along with good timing, good luck, and good health—and the ability to lie when necessary—helped to carry her through the Holocaust. They also make Helga’s Diary a far less harrowing book than many Holocaust memoirs. Because the full moral and religious dimensions of the horror do not weigh on the young Helga as they did on Primo Levi and others, she is able to treat her experience more as a story of challenges overcome than of the collapse of civilization.
For Czech Jews, the walls started to close in on March 15, 1939, when Hitler's armies marched into Czechoslovakia. Reconfigured as a Nazi puppet state, it quickly introduced anti-Jewish laws modeled on Germany's. The young Helga feels the sheer unfairness of the bans on Jews in parks, cinemas, and schools: "After the holidays I was supposed to go into Year 5. I like school and the thought that I will never be able to sit at a school desk with the other students brings tears to my eyes. But I have to bear up," she tells herself, possibly with the wisdom of hindsight. "There are other things waiting for me and many of them will undoubtedly be much worse."
They were. From 1939 until 1941, the Jews of Prague attempted to maintain a kind of regular life, even as they were deprived of jobs and civil rights. Jewish schools were set up in private homes. She and other Jews try to turn the yellow star into a kind of joke: "It amuses us when we meet other Jews. They always smile, as if to say, 'Looks good on us, doesn't it?' ... We talk gaily and laugh loudly. Let the Germans see that we're not bothered."
But this kind of wry courage is powerless once deportations, the notorious "transports," begin. Some of the most heartbreaking writing in the book comes in Helga's description of the slow decimation of her class, as first one Jewish child and then another gets selected for transportation. No one knows where they are going, or whether they will ever return: As each family is called, friends and relatives help them pack their belongings and cook food for a journey whose end none of them know. Helga's best friend Eva is preoccupied with deciding which of her dolls to take with her: "Eva will carry the dolls themselves in the pocket of her coat, in their own sleeping bags and clothing with transport numbers. What if the handbag were to get lost? Then at least the dolls would be saved."
Finally, the Weiss family is called, and Helga describes each stage of their ordeal. Summoned to the Trade Fair building in Prague, they spend three days in a confused crowd, queuing for food and trying to make the best of the atrocious bathrooms. Then the train arrives to carry them to Terezin, a fortress converted into a vast detention center. In the universe of Nazi camps, Terezin was possibly the least awful, more like a ghetto than a death camp; comparatively speaking, Helga slept in a barracks dormitory near her mother—the men were segregated, and she saw her father only occasionally—and she usually had enough to eat. The inmates improvised schools and put on concerts and plays; by combining rations, they were even able to have parties of a kind.1 At one such party Helga struck up a chaste flirtation with an older boy named Ota, her first experience of romance: "He's a great guy; we had a nice conversation. He's not one of those crazy boys, like the ones some of our girls date."
Still, Helga makes clear that life in Terezin was life in a prison. Even children were put to work, and schools were conducted in secret, since they were officially forbidden. Vermin were everywhere, and constant epidemics carried off wave after wave of Helga's friends and roommates; dead bodies were an everyday sight. Worst of all, Terezin, too, was subject to "transports," the slow drumbeat of departures to an unknown destination. Helga's father worked in the camp's office, and was sometimes able to pull strings to get a friend or relative out of the transport. But eventually his own time came, and Helga records her last sight of him: "I can still see him standing on the steps, waving, smiling ... Oh God, what sort of smile was that?"
None of them knew it, but he was on his way to Auschwitz, where as a 46-year-old in poor health he was either gassed immediately or worked to death. Two days later, in October 1944, Helga and her mother followed him. Helga had the presence of mind to lie about her age, claiming to be 18 instead of 15; this lie probably spared her from the gas chambers. Amazingly, she and her mother managed to stay together, in part by hiding their relationship. Having a mother close by was another stroke of luck that helped Helga to survive.
Yet she still had to face all the horrors of Auschwitz, which by now are so familiar from memoirs like Levi's as to form a deep layer of our collective unconscious. There were the cruel guards, the starvation rations, the slave labor, the hours spent taking attendance in the freezing cold and boiling heat. The only way to survive, Helga writes, was to eat everything in sight, even the soup made of "rotten turnip, corn cobs, bits of frozen marrow, stalks, and beetroot, which gave the mixture a pinkish color." Ten people ate from the same pot, using their hands.
Timing, more than anything, explains why Helga was able to survive Auschwitz. She arrived there just seven months before the war's end, at a time when the Nazis were keeping Jews alive as slave laborers rather than killing them instantly, as they did in Poland in 1942. As the Soviet armies approached, Helga and her fellow prisoners were evacuated to a camp at Freiberg, where they were put to work building airplanes. Then they were deported again, this time to Mauthausen, on a lethal train trip that was the worst part of Helga's whole Holocaust ordeal. Crammed into a cattle car, abandoned on a siding for days at a time, given nothing to eat or drink, people died where they lay. "During the day it's bearable, but the nights can drive you mad," Helga writes. "We've figured out there's only one way for everyone to lie down. We line up like sardines, starting the process before dusk, so we can get ready while it's still light. We all lie on our right side and if anyone turns over—which we've forbidden ourselves to do—the whole car has to do the same at precisely that moment."
By the time the train arrived at Mauthausen, the end of the war was days away and the killing of prisoners had stopped. Helga's mother was close to dying from illness and malnutrition when, on May 5, 1945, the Germans abandoned the camp and the inmates ran a white flag up the flagpole. "I feel like dancing, whooping," Helga writes near the end of the diary. "We made it. We survived the war. PEACE IS HERE." Just 16 days later, she was back in Prague, starving and homeless, but still "home." How she rebuilt her life would make a fascinating book of its own. As for Helga's Diary, it takes a proud place in the library of eyewitness testimonies to the Holocaust, a sacred reminder of what so many millions suffered, and only a few survived.