Czech girl’s diary witnesses Terezin, Auschwitz and ‘death’ train

“Helga’s Diary: A Young Girl’s Account of Life in a Concentration Camp” by Helga Weiss, Neil Bermel and Francine Prose (translator: Neil Bermel, W. W. Norton & Company, 248 pp., $24.95). 

By Elaine K. Alexander, Special to the Jewish Light

Helga Weiss, a Czech painter, art instructor (and grandmother), is now 83. But when Nazi Germany emerged as a threat to Czechoslovakia and Weiss started a diary, she was not quite nine-years-old.

The original journal written through the term of Weiss’s imprisonment at the Czech ghetto Terezin with additions Weiss made at age 15 (after she and her mother returned as debilitated survivors to Prague) has now been published as a memoir. It is simply titled, “Helga’s Diary: A Young Girl’s Account of Life in a Concentration Camp” (translator: Neil Bermel, W. W. Norton & Company, 248 pp., $24.95).

An early entry recalls March of 1939: Helga wakes to the radio announcing that at 6:30 that morning German tanks had crossed the border into Czechoslovakia. Her father Otto sits somberly on her bed. The little girl reaches for her father’s hand, and it is “trembling.” Arguably, it is at this moment that the Holocaust begins for Helga Weiss.

The Germans soon institute their “inch-by-inch” restrictions on Jewish life. Jews are forbidden to visit restaurants, theaters, parks, barbershops, etc., to swim in the river, to travel more than 20 miles from their homes, to ride in any but the last carriage of the streetcar, or be out past 8 p.m. Otto loses his job as a bank teller, and Helga, like all Jewish children, is barred from public school. Helga writes, “[T]he newspapers are full of anti-Jewish articles…We’re the cause of one thing after another, everything is our fault…[T]hey keep coming…order after order. [We] barely know what [we] can and can’t do.”


In December, 1941, Helga has just turned 12, and the entire Weiss family is deported to Terezin, which the Germans transform into a ghetto and at times cram with as many as 90,000 Jews into a town sized for 7,000 inhabitants.

As with the Polish ghettos in Warsaw and Lodz, many cosmopolitan Jews—from the Czech capital Prague, 40 miles south—are interned at Terezin leading to the surreal and critical transplantation of a rich, cultural life. Helga records scrounging for food, going three years without a bath, the deaths of classmates during a typhus epidemic, the execution of nine boys for “illegally” communicating with their mothers and enjoying operas by the Czech composer Bedrich Smetana. In a caption the author added to a black-and- white drawing she made at Terezin, she describes the “literary recitals, concerts, plays and lectures” as a “source of hope and strength.”

In October of 1944, Helga and her mother Irena are transported to Auschwitz, and over eight or nine days processed for slave labor at an airplane factory in Freiberg, Germany. When the SS corps who direct Freiberg become anxious about the approaching Russian front, the prisoners are put in open coal cars on a so-called “death” train.

An extensive interview at the end of the book elicits a synopsis of Weiss’s life and career as an artist during the Communist era which is characterized by ferocious anti-Semitism. It is an important addition to Helga’s diary.

The memoir shares intimate details of Weiss’s particular experience—being fully naked under the gaze of a flippant, 16-year-old SS guard; that her sweetheart left on a transport from Terezin and returned to her as a name on a wall of deceased victims; that when Helga saw her father for the very last time, his smile twisted and froze into a grimace…

This personal expression is no bar to reading the book as a primer on the major facets of Germany’s War Against the Jews: Registration and identification; legislated exclusion from social and economic activity; confiscation of assets; deportation; slave labor; random cruelty; death by disease/deliberate starvation/overwork/murder in gas chambers; liberation into a radically-new reality pierced by the pain of multiple losses; and limited opportunities for resistance by a civilian population including women, children and the aged who were being lied to at every turn.