A child of Auschwitz remembers
Holocaust survivor: Helga Weiss (above) has published her childhood diary of her time in Auschwitz and other concentration camps. main photograph: galerie bilderwelt/getty images
Holocaust survivor: Helga Weiss has published her childhood diary of her time in Auschwitz (above) and other concentration camps. main photograph: galerie bilderwelt/getty images
For Helga Weiss, a Holocaust survivor who is publishing her diary of life in a concentration camp, the passing of time has only made her memories more vivid
Standing in the foyer of Penguin Books in London, Helga Weiss has an immediate priority: a pop-up book to give to her great-granddaughter, seven-month-old Adina.
“She’s wonderful. I said I would get her something,” says Weiss, a concentration-camp survivor who is in London to speak about her diary of her years in Auschwitz and, earlier, in the Theresienstadt internment camp – the ghetto in Terezin, in what is now the Czech Republic, used by the Nazis to convince the outside world that Jews were not being ill treated.
On the morning in 1939 when the Nazis entered Prague, Weiss was nine years old. She watched her father, Otto, a bank official, and her mother, Irena, a dressmaker, “sitting by the radio, their heads hung low” in their fourth-floor apartment.
“A trembling voice came from the radio: ‘This morning at 6.30 the German army cross the Czechoslovak border.’ I didn’t really understand the meaning of those words, but I felt there was something terrible in them,” her diary records.
Her parents lost their jobs, and Helga was expelled from the state-run school, educated instead at one with only Jewish children. “I like school, and the thought that I will never be able to sit at a school desk with the other student brings tears to my eyes,” she wrote at the time.
By 1941, the fear and uncertainty worsened, coming in tandem with the order to wear the Star of David. “At school we all boast about whose star is sewn on best. Even though it’s not pleasant to have to wear it, we make light of it,” wrote the 11-year-old.
Rumours of “transports”, perhaps to Poland, perhaps elsewhere, spread like wildfire. “Jewish flats are turning slowly, or actually, quite quickly, into warehouses of things needed for the journey.”
In time, the papers came for the Weiss family. In Terezin, she was separated from her father, and everyone struggled to find the basics needed to live. Soon, the horror grew. She saw nine men forced to dig their own graves before they were hanged.
By 1944, the Nazis need Terezin to put a false face on their treatment of the Jews. Streets known only by letters were given names, roses were planted, and a poorly equipped hospital was beautified and turned into a school, “except it’s got no pupils, or teachers”.
In September 1944, her father and Ota, a 25-year-old man who had become fond of Helga, were ordered to Auschwitz. The night before they left the two men sat smoking cigarettes made from tea. Her father’s “hand tosses the still-smouldering cigarette away, clutches me to him and Mum on the other side. We can’t hold back the tears; we’ve stored up too many of them this past week and we can’t resist them any longer.