Publisher: Penguin Viking
Published: March 6th 2013
Book: For review*
Format: Finished Copy
Genre: Non-Fiction, Biography, Diary
Reviewed For: Spinebreakers
"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 roughly 40,000 Jews who lived in Prague at the time, she endures the first wave of the Nazi invasion and racist brutality: her father is denied work, schools are closed to her, she and her parents are eventually confined to their flat. Gradually, as the Nazis' full intentions unfold, 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, and then, in 1944, Helga's father is sent to Auschwitz. Helga and her mother choose to follow him there, not realising what lies in wait for them. Helga's uncle bricks her diary into a wall to preserve it.
At Auschwitz, Helga's father is murdered, but miraculously Helga and her mother survive the camp, the many transports and journeys of the last days of the war, and manage ultimately 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 a tiny number ofJews who remain in the city.
Written in pencil in school exercise books and translated here for the first time, Helga's diary is a strikingly immediate and exceptionally important first-hand account of the Holocaust.
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 Terezín 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 Terezín, 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 Terezín 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.
In 1941, Helga and her parents are transported to the concentration camp Theresienstadt (also called “Terezin”). Helga’s Diary provides a daily account of life in Terezin, Auschwitz and other Nazi concentration camps and death camps. In her diary she describes her misery and suffering as her and her family and friends live through the pain of slow starvation, the forced labour, cruel camp guards, the rampant sickness that sweeps through their quarters and the continual deaths of family and friends that she has to endure at such a young age. The diary brings light onto the already well-known Nazi plan to get rid of every Jewish person they come across. Along with Helga, The Nazi’s deport 15,000 children to Terezin and later to Auschwitz. However, only about 100 of them survive.
Reading this diary, it was hard not to compare it to previous war time diaries and eye-witness accounts that I had already read, like Anne Frank’s, although much of it was actually not very similar.
The thing that I thought would make this diary so different to Anne Frank’s was the fact that Anne lived in hiding throughout the whole of her diary whereas Helga was transported to many different places. As a result I thought reading hers would be altogether scarier and harrowing, and although much of it was, I could never really feel myself connecting with her surroundings and what was happening to her.
I found it easier as the book progressed but the way that Helga never really lost all hope made the book much less sad and terrifying, and I was slightly disappointed that the journal read like a daily diary (having gone through a few edits after the book was finished when Helga was slightly older.) I would have liked it to have been in its original form, although I think it wouldn’t have had such a mature style of writing and she would maybe have been more innocent in her outlook on what was happening as she was only eight when she started writing the diary and had no knowledge about gassing and ‘death camps’ until much later on.
Because of this I found the book did not seem as ‘original’ as Anne Frank’s unedited version but I found it a good book to read to understand what it was like to have the constant fear of being transported elsewhere hanging over you and having to live with the fact that you may never see your parents again.
The book was enhanced by illustrations and drawings that she had done throughout her time there and also ends with an interview with Helga herself which helps you to understand some things I in her diary that may not seem so clear.
Helga’s Diary gives an insight into the life of living in a concentration camp and is a perfect example of how someone so young, can be so scared, yet so hopeful, and faithful that the end would be alright.
p.s sorry if my review isn’t as descriptive as you had hoped, I found it hard to review it because it wasn’t just a fictional story that had to be explained, it was a real-life account of someone so it wasn’t as easy to portray the impact it had on me.