Release Date: 14/02/13
Publisher: Viking (Penguin)
"Helga's Diary" is a young girl's remarkable first-hand account of life in a concentration camp during World War II. Like "The Diary of Anne Frank" this is a publication of international importance and a book that will endure for decades. In 1938, when her diary begins, Helga is eight years old. Alongside her father and mother and the 45,000 Jews who live in Prague, she endures the Nazi invasion and regime: her father is denied work, schools are closed to her, she and her parents are confined to their flat. Then deportations begin, and her friends and family start to disappear. In 1941, Helga and her parents are sent to the concentration camp of Terezin, where they live for three years. Here Helga documents their daily life - the harsh conditions, disease and suffering, as well as moments of friendship, creativity and hope - until, in 1944, they are sent to Auschwitz. Helga leaves her diary behind with her uncle, who bricks it into a wall to preserve it. Helga's father is never heard of again, but miraculously Helga and her mother survive the horrors of Auschwitz, the gruelling transports of the last days of the war, and manage to return to Prague. As Helga writes down her experiences since Terezin, completing the diary, she is fifteen and a half. She is one of only a tiny number of Czech Jews who have survived. Reconstructed from her original notebooks, which were later retrieved from Terezin, and from the loose-leaf pages on which Helga wrote after the war, the diary is presented here in its entirety, accompanied by an interview with Helga and illustrated with the paintings she made during her time at Terezin. As such, "Helga's Diary" is one of the most vivid and comprehensive testimonies written during the Holocaust ever to have been recovered. Helga Weiss was born in Prague in 1929. Her father Otto was employed in the state bank in Prague and her mother Irena was a dressmaker. Of the 15,000 children brought to Terezin and later deported to Auschwitz, only 100 survived the Holocaust. Helga was one of them. On her return to Prague she studied art and has become well known for her paintings. The drawings and paintings that Helga made during her time in Terezin, which accompany this diary, were published in 1998 in the book "Draw What You See" ("Zeichne, was Du siehst"). Her father's novel "And God Saw That It Was Bad", written during his time in Terezin and which she illustrated, was published in 2010. In 1954 Helga married the musician Jiri Hosek. She has two children, three grandchildren and lives to this day in the flat where she was born.
The diary of Concentration Camp survivor Helga Weiss, for me was the chance to read a personal account of what occurred to the victims of the holocaust from a singular point of view, after all, we’ve seen the news feeds, learned about the historical events from books but to get the story from someone who went through it makes this not only an historical document but the chance to see history as it happened rather than with hindsight.
Whilst the diary was well written, the way that it was presented was more the telling of her story without dates, it delved into the depths of living in the ghetto’s, how they lived together and then moved onto the concentration camps. Whilst this is powerful information on its own, what made this harder to get through was the fact that it felt more like the emotional context had been removed, almost as if admitting to some of the things that occurred gives strength to those who inflicted it upon her and she’d rather stay tall and undefeated in her own right.
Many will understand that point of view, but when a document of this importance is presented with straight facts without the emotional aspects the power is diminished removing a lot of the true horror. All in whilst it is informative it feels more like a factual book rather than a true emotional story and with that aspect missing for me, doesn’t make it the best book to help bring the events of the holocaust victims to life for the reader.