Helga's Diary: A Young Girl's Account of Life in a Concentration Camp by Helga Weiss
|Helga's Diary: A Young Girl's Account of Life in a Concentration Camp by Helga Weiss|
|Reviewer: John Lloyd|
|Summary: Impressions of the Holocaust from a young girl, only published in English for the first time in 2013.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 256||Date: February 2013|
This seems to be quite a rare book, and I doubt if there will be too many further examples in the years to come. I don't mean to say that Holocaust testimonies are thin on the ground, for I've reviewed several on this site recently. I mean the fact that this is newly published and by an author who is still alive. There is something a little heart-warming to know that this lady was living and able to be interviewed by her translator in 2011, and presumably able to answer his editorial notes and queries. Of course, that fact does highlight the selling point of this book – the author was a very young girl when WWII started.
Indeed the book begins before she hits double figures. We see the life of the Jew under the Nazi, with ever-increasing restrictions on her education, and on Jews working, resting and playing. Come the actual war years, and Helga is soon put in an institution, and we are shown her circumstances in several pages, which it is admitted have been edited over the intervening years to reduce the juvenile style and content. At one point her journals and artwork got bricked up, and Helga at last succumbed to the ever-present transportations. The final third of the book is still in diary form, but was written after the event, in peace time.
Several things strike the reader who has read the likes of this before, and the main one is awkward to state, but remains to some extent true – it seems that Helga's Holocaust, while of course horrendous, was not as bad as some other people's. Consider these two facts. True she was locked up in a ghetto for years, but that was Theresienstadt, the showcase of the Nazis, who dressed it up to convince the Red Cross and other observers that these people were not being oppressed, abused and starved as a matter of routine elsewhere. Secondly, even at the end of the war, when Helga was fifteen but passing as eighteen to appear more useful to the Nazis in their snap selection processes, she had never left her mother's side. Countless others were nowhere near as fortunate.
There is still hard-hitting detail here to make my comments seem churlish – at one late point Helga goes four days and perhaps has five hundred calories the whole time, if that. She gets forced to leave Theresienstadt for far worse places – although the writing is never exactly clear as to which of the two it is, and a picture caption makes a fatal, basic error of fact. The main thrust of the book is her youthful thoughts, and while they are those of an intelligent young woman they still have a slightly naïve, loose, impressionistic touch. The random nature of her diary entries does not make this a hard-and-fast, dated document for the researcher, but does give an overall feel for her life.
The fact this is a looser, more spontaneous-seeming text, will bring with it an appeal for some, but I didn't find the opening sections quite as engaging as I might have thought. Certainly, however, the final third carries heft, as the more mature Helga is able to convey the nightmare more succinctly. Her examples of being on tenterhooks all the time – will I eat or starve, get moved or stay, lose someone or remain with friends and family, be ill or healthy, give up or carry on, live or die – shows the effects the entire Jewish population would have thought being on the cusp of losing out to the Nazi ideology. Here are the stronger elements of this writing – whereas before there was something both humble and humbling, but not as strikingly unique as I started by saying this book was.
I must thank the publishers for my review copy.
Treblinka: A Survivor's Memory by Chil Rajchman is probably the most gut-wrenching testimony from those times, and as such is definitely recommended.
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