Anne Frank curated her life experiences in her diary, and it told the world a story that humanized the Holocaust and the horrors of the Second World War. With the end of the war, many a memoir came forth, each as a testament to the horrific treatment of the Jews during the Third Reich. One of these voices was Helga Weiss’.
All of eleven, Helga was in Prague at the time when Jews were being transported and carted off into concentration camps. Not necessarily able to comprehend what was happening, Helga, for the most part, was in a situation where it was all too much to take in. She began keeping a diary since March 1939. When Czechoslovakia was incorporated into the Third Reich and renamed the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, restrictions on the Jewish population were installed.
Not necessarily aware of it at the time, Helga began making note of everything that happened around her, and slowly, built a testimony the Nazi persecution and aggression policies. Transported first to Terezin, and then deported to Auschwitz, Helga was lucky to survive. Her diary chronicled the events in Terezin as it happened – and just as she was to be transported to Auschwitz, she left her diary in her uncle’s care, who worked in the records department and put the diary into a gap in a brick wall in one of the barracks. In 1945, Helga traced her diary and found it – and began to chronicle events in retrospect – those that she couldn’t, while at Auschwitz.
Divided into three chronological sections that speak of Prague, Terezin and then Auschwitz, Freiberg, Mauthausen, Home; the book takes the reader through Helga’s journey through the time that began with unfair Nazi decrees curtailing Jewish Freedoms, before turning into a nightmare in the form of the transportations to labour camps, and then to concentration camps. The entire essence of the Holocaust and its reality were beautifully encapsulated in what only a child can express so painfully, and yet so realistically:
“Everything is our fault even though we didn’t do anything.”
Helga’s Diary talks about everything: right from how friends stopped speaking to her and visiting her because she was Jewish, to how the concentration camps were literally dressed up to fool the Red Cross into believing that they were in good shape for the Jewish inhabitants, and that the prison ghetto was indeed a “spa town”. She talks of the rumours about gas chambers and the constant stream of black smoke from the chimneys, and the slave labour unit that she and her mother are forced into. The entire narrative is peppered with Helga’s own illustrations – drawings by hand, showing scenes from her time during the war. Her father would urge her to draw what she saw – and she did. Each picture, although drawn with what is evidently a child’s hand, helps Helga’s writing tell a very painful truth that the world would otherwise not know.
Her effort in saving the truth in the form of her writing and her art is a powerful reminder of the value of storytelling, and of the fact that these stories must not only be told, but also remembered and valued as lessons from the past – on which to build a peaceful future.