Hel­ga’s Diary

  • Review
By – April 27, 2012

Writ­ten in spare prose and infused with a touch­ing mix­ture of a child’s dri­ve for dis­cov­ery and an adult’s dread of a wartime future, Helga’s Diary touch­es raw nerves and con­tains the poten­tial to send shock waves through the oeu­vre of Holo­caust mem­oirs. Hel­ga Weiss was an eleven-year-old school­girl when the Nazis first invad­ed Prague, and her sur­pris­ing­ly insight­ful descrip­tions of the bru­tal­i­ty she wit­nessed toward her friends and fam­i­ly became the first entries in her diary. 

She and her par­ents were sent to Terezin, the con­cen­tra­tion camp built with­in the walls of an old army gar­ri­son, and then Auschwitz, and she con­tin­ued to doc­u­ment her day-to-day expe­ri­ences and rela­tion­ships in words and pic­tures in school exer­cise books. The aston­ish­ing result is this first­hand account of the Holo­caust, now pub­lished for the first time. 

The role of pri­ma­ry doc­u­ments in his­tor­i­cal research can’t be over­es­ti­mat­ed — noth­ing gives the events more imme­di­a­cy or lends them more cred­i­bil­i­ty — and one more vol­ume in this impor­tant genre of Holo­caust remem­brance is a sig­nif­i­cant con­tri­bu­tion to the body of work that shores up and strength­ens the doc­u­men­ta­tion that grounds it firm­ly in his­to­ry. Weiss’s draw­ings in par­tic­u­lar cre­ate a stun­ning visu­al impact as they are cou­pled with the insights con­tained in her sto­ries, poems, and entries about every­day life in a con­cen­tra­tion camp. 

Of the approx­i­mate­ly 15,000 chil­dren sent to Terezin and deport­ed to Auschwitz, Weiss is one of only one hun­dred who sur­vived. She made her entries into the diary between the ages of ten and four­teen. Yet what looks at first like sur­face sim­plic­i­ty shows itself to be pen­e­trat­ing descrip­tions and insights. Before she was sent to Auschwitz in 1944, her uncle, also incar­cer­at­ed in Terezin, hid her diary and draw­ings in a brick wall. He too sur­vived, and was lat­er able to go back and reclaim them.

In addi­tion to an excel­lent intro­duc­tion by a well-respect­ed Jew­ish author, which gives the diary greater his­tor­i­cal mean­ing, the book con­tains a lengthy inter­view with Weiss that con­tex­tu­al­izes the mate­r­i­al and adds a sat­is­fy­ing lay­er of inter­pre­ta­tion over the diary entries and draw­ings. Author’s note, glos­sary, illus­tra­tion cred­its, inter­view with the author, maps, translator’s note.

Lin­da F. Burghardt is a New York-based jour­nal­ist and author who has con­tributed com­men­tary, break­ing news, and fea­tures to major news­pa­pers across the U.S., in addi­tion to hav­ing three non-fic­tion books pub­lished. She writes fre­quent­ly on Jew­ish top­ics and is now serv­ing as Schol­ar-in-Res­i­dence at the Holo­caust Memo­r­i­al & Tol­er­ance Cen­ter of Nas­sau County.

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