A child of Auschwitz remembers
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.
“With my head pressed to Dad’s chest I can distinctly hear the beating of his heart. Halting, sad, like the mood this evening. Oh, Dad, if only your hands were so strong that no one could rip me from their embrace,” she wrote.
Within hours, the men were gone, soon lost forever.
A different world
A month later, Helga and her mother made the journey to Auschwitz, believing it to be “a good sign” that they were allowed to take their luggage. Illusions evaporated on Auschwitz’s railway platform: “We can’t be stopping here. Why would they take us to a concentration camp? It’s not as if we’ve done anything. It’s horrible how they treat people here,” Helga wrote.
In all, 15,000 Jewish children were taken to the internment camp in Terezin and then on to Auschwitz. Just 100 survived; life or death was decided capriciously.
Weiss and her mother were finally sent to Mauthausen, where they survived because they arrived just after mass killings had stopped, as the war’s end neared.
“It is a different world,” says Weiss, looking back on the war. “Normally, a person has a life: it is birth until death. But our lives are divided into three pieces. The diary describes the chapter in between, but there was a world behind, and there is a world, or life, after.
“When I look back to my childhood it was a different world, a different life. I think about the girl which existed before. When I am talking about it sometimes I feel I am talking about somebody else, when I shouldn’t be able to express it.
“I feel I am talking about somebody else who is not me, so that I see all the things, all the evidence in front of my eyes,” Weiss says.
“Now when we are old, the more we are coming back to our past. I live on the fourth floor. Every day I have to climb the steps. Sometimes, in my old age, it is a little difficult. And when I cannot get my breath I always think about the prisoners in Mauthausen, in the quarry. They had to walk with heavy stones on their back.
“Now, every day when I am climbing the stairs, I remember these people. Sometimes I forget names but never the faces. Never the faces. Sometimes I see on the street a piece of bread, or piece of food thrown away. In the camps a piece of bread could save somebody’s life.”
Weiss finds time to speak with schoolchildren in the Czech Republic and in Germany, although she doesn’t say too much about her past to the youngest of them.
“It is too difficult. What to tell them? I don’t tell them about the murders. They would have terrible dreams after that. I told them memories of a friend of mine in camp who remembers the canary bird she had to give up.
“I ask the children, ‘Do you have a dog?’, ‘Do you have a cat?’, ‘Do you have a canary bird?’ Can you imagine that you have to give up your dog? That is the way that I am when I am speaking to small children,” she says. “They cannot imagine that they would have to give up their dog.”
In the years after the camps, Weiss had two opportunities to flee communist-controlled Czechoslovakia, once in 1969, when she and her two children visited her musician husband during a year’s work in Denmark.
“He had a very small apartment. The children were sleeping; we sat on the bathroom floor, talking. ‘It is today, or never.’ I was afraid. My husband came back. He always thought that I didn’t want to go, because we passed a terrible time in Czechoslovakia after [the Prague Spring] in ’68.”
But Weiss could not leave her mother. “Maybe if I had returned alone I would have done so. She was just 38 when she came back. But she supposed, and so did I, that she was old because she was a widow and she was afraid to go and start a new life.”
The camps have cast their shadows not only over Weiss but also over her children. “My son was for a long time afraid to read the diary. He knew it, but not exactly. For a long time he was afraid to hear the truth.
“He is terribly afraid all the time about me and his own children, where they are if they late. My daughter can’t listen to reports of accidents or things like that.
“My daughter always says I have a pessimistic view on life, that I am still expecting a tragedy. Maybe I influenced them, passed on my anxieties. Psychologists now work on how the second generation has been damaged. I apologise to them, but I think I am not to blame,” she says.
Helga’s Diary: A Young Girl’s Account of Life in a Concentration Camp is published by Viking