By October 1944, Helga Weiss had spent almost three years of her life in a concentration camp in the former Czechoslovakia. She was just 14 years old. Now, along with her mother, she was about to be moved again. Her father had been forced to leave just days earlier.
To where, they had no idea. There was talk of “transports” to “the east”. Talk of a new ghetto for the Jews somewhere in Germany. But there was also talk of gas.
“We did not understand,” says Weiss. “Maybe we didn’t want to. Maybe they didn’t want to create a panic. Maybe some people knew more. I don’t know. Nobody expected what was coming.” She pauses for breath and then continues in her quiet, measured way. “No. We did not know we were going to Auschwitz.”
First, a journey packed on to a cattle train without food, water, or light. They realised they were not going to Germany. The train was travelling too far, too fast.
A day later, they found themselves crossing the Polish border. Eventually they were ordered off the train, made to leave their luggage behind. Weiss, her mother, and many hundreds of others found themselves on the platform at Auschwitz-Birkenau, the Nazi extermination camp where, from early 1942 until late 1944, more than a million Jews were murdered. Weiss saw barracks, barbed wire, prisoners in striped clothing, and in the distance, smoking chimneys. A factory, she assumed.
On the ramp, they underwent the selection process. German officers ordered those considered fit for work to the right. Elderly people, mothers, and small children were sent to the left. To the gas chambers. The smoke rising from the chimneys was coming from the camp crematorium. “There were prisoners who knew the situation,” Weiss explains. “They whispered to us… ‘Say you are older if you are young. Say you aren’t sick. Say you don’t know each other.’” Weiss made the quick decision to pretend she was three years older. At the front her mother faced an SS officer first. He may have been Nazi physician Josef Mengele but Weiss doesn’t remember his face. Only his finger, and in which direction it was pointing.
“Right, for my mother and then me,” she says slowly. “I tell you that of the 15,000 children who passed through Terezín [the camp Weiss came from] to Auschwitz, only 100 survived. And I was one of them. It was luck, fate, a miracle… I don’t know what it was. Still I ask myself… why me? Why just me? Maybe there is no answer. Maybe the answer is that it was my duty to survive. Somebody had to, to tell what happened.”
And so, at the age of 83, Weiss finds herself in a swanky London hotel by the Thames, telling her story once more. We meet in the lobby, an incongruous setting for the discussion of such unspeakable atrocities, but there is no appropriate place for this. Weiss, who has gamely travelled from Prague, is an artist, a great-grandmother, a widow, and a Holocaust survivor. She passed through four camps – Terezín, Auschwitz, Freiburg, Mauthausen – and recorded her experiences in a diary accompanied by more than 100 drawings. The result is a powerful piece of testimony; what happened, if you like, after the last pages of Anne Frank’s diary. When the war ended, Weiss’s uncle, who had bricked the diary into a wall at Terezín, returned it to her and she added in what happened next. “Sometimes people naively ask me why I didn’t continue to write in Auschwitz,” she says, shaking her head. “We had nothing. They took our hair, our shoes. A piece of paper? A crayon?” She laughs.
She is small, neat and distinguished, with a thick accent and a throaty laugh. Short white hair, apple cheeks, and tired eyes. She sips on water and asks for a plate of complimentary pastries to be left on the table. She can’t bear for food to be thrown away. Around her neck is a pendant in the shape of a butterfly’s wing. She loves butterflies. They are all over her flat in Prague, the same flat where she was born and from where she was taken one night in January, 1942. Butterflies represent freedom, you see. And she never saw any during her years in the camps.
When I arrived, Weiss was sending an email to her son, a renowned Czech cellist (her late husband was also a musician, as is her granddaughter). She contacts him every single morning and night, she says, to reassure him that she is still alive. “It is because of the transports…” she sighs. “Still, I am always waiting for something bad to happen and I have influenced my family. We are always expecting catastrophe. I am still afraid.” She tells me that when a car was late to pick her up recently, she called the police. “I assumed there was an accident,” she says with a hollow laugh. “Maybe I am a little crazy.”
Her son would like her to stop travelling the world, telling her story. “He gets angry with me,” she says, “because talking like this makes me upset. When I get ready to go somewhere, he looks at me and says ‘there you go again, off on another transport’.” We both laugh, though of course it isn’t funny at all.
She speaks in the forthright manner of someone who has learned to make their past bearable. Often she does not hear my questions. She says ‘we’ instead of ‘I’ as though she is speaking not just for herself but for all those who did not survive. And again and again she tells me she is lucky. Lucky to have made it home to Prague. Lucky to have survived. Lucky to have never been separated from her mother.
Weiss was born in Prague in 1929, the only child of a dressmaker and a banker. It was a happy childhood and Weiss recalls her loving relationship with her parents; swimming in the river; walking in the woods with friends and thriving at school.
“Each person has one life from birth until death,” she says. “Survivors are different. We have three lives: before, during, and after the war. And we did not have childhoods. We were children one day, adults the next. We lost maybe the best part of life.”
The first section of her diary describes the growing number of anti-Jewish orders in Prague. “You barely know what you can and can’t do,” Weiss writes. “It is forbidden to visit cafés, cinemas, theatres, playgrounds, parks… so many things… I can’t remember them all.” Her father lost his job. They were forced to sew the Star of David on to their clothes. Weiss was no longer able to attend school. “I cried when it was forbidden for me to go to school,” she says, looking almost sheepish. “We didn’t want to show we were upset. We felt the same about wearing the Star. It was bad but we didn’t want to show the Germans that we cared. So we smiled. We just wanted to remain as normal as we could.”
Then the ‘transports’ began. Less than a month after Weiss’s 12th birthday, their summons arrived. They were deported to the old garrison town and fortress of Terezín. Known in German during the war as Theresienstadt, it became a transit hub for tens of thousands of Jews before they were sent on to the death camps.
Weiss suffered fevers, typhus, encephalitis, malnutrition, and the constant threat of deportation and separation from her parents. Around 32,000 people died there before the transports to extermination camps even began. Yet there were also moments of happiness.
Weiss made friends, organised dances, even fell in love. And Terezín had a thriving cultural life. Many prominent artists, musicians, and intellectuals from all over Europe ended up there and Weiss’s diaries recall secret concerts, operas, plays, and lectures. Later these events were permitted by the Germans and used as Nazi propaganda.
“People who passed through Terezín thought it was terrible,” Weiss tells me. “And you know, it was not good. But those of us who passed through other camps remember Terezín like a paradise. Compared to Auschwitz, it was.”
We look through a few of her drawings from this period. Her first picture at Terezín depicts warmly clad children building a snowman. Weiss smuggled it to her father in the men’s barracks. He wrote back: “Draw what you see.” And so she did. She drew people in the washroom, the waiting room for the emergency clinic, children pulling a hearse filled with bread. “The only vehicles in Terezín were these outmoded hearses,” she explains. Everything was carried on them, except dead bodies. And on the side it said ‘Welfare for Children’. I find it the most representative picture of Terezín. It shows how they wanted to decimate us psychologically as well as physically.”
She shows me a drawing made for her best friend Francka on her 14th birthday. It depicts three scenes: the girls as newborns in 1929, sharing a bunk at Terezín in 1943, and back in Prague pushing buggies in 1957. “We were born in the same hospital,” Weiss explains. “When we moved into our room at Terezín our mothers recognised each other. We slept on the same bunk. The third part of the triptych is the most important. We spent a lot of time imagining our future after the war. We would both be married mothers and would push our buggies down the street together in Prague.” Weiss sighs. “I was lucky. I did marry in 1954 and my son was born in 1955. I did push my son down the street in Prague. But Francka did not. This was her last birthday. She was sent to the gas chambers before she turned 15.”
In 1944 the SS began the “beautification” of Terezín in preparation for a visit by a committee of the International Red Cross. The concentration camp was momentarily transformed into a spa town. After the visit, which the Nazis deemed a success, a propaganda film called Hitler Gives a City to the Jews was made. Days later almost everyone involved, from the Jewish director of the film to the children singing in the opera, were sent to the gas chambers. What does Weiss remember of the visit?
“We had to stay inside while this stage set was prepared,” she says. “For example they selected a group of young people to parade up and down with baskets of food, singing. It was a lie. We hoped they would see that but they were not interested. If they wanted to see the truth, they could have done. We were so disappointed.” She tells me about the film. “You can see children eating bread and fish… the one day they were given this and they had to say ‘oh no, not bread and fish again’. But when you watch it you can see how quickly these children ate the food. It was the first and last time they ever got it. All of them were sent to the gas chambers. So when you watch that film, you must watch it with that knowledge. They were all murdered.”
The transports to “the east” were increasing. Her father came up on the list of 5,000 men and on 1 October, 1944, Weiss and her mother were forced to say goodbye to him. “We didn’t know exactly what would happen,” she says. “But we guessed we would not see each other again.” And they were right. “We never found a trace of him,” she continues. “At Auschwitz prisoners were tattooed with a number. I don’t have one because I was sent in autumn of 1944, the war was nearing an end, and they were in a hurry. Neither did my father. He was probably sent directly to the gas chambers. After the war we waited in hope. He didn’t come back.”
Days later, Weiss and her mother were on the list. They spent 10 days at Auschwitz. Unbelievably, they were never separated. “It was a miracle. In Auschwitz you could be separated in a moment and never see each other again. We had to walk in groups in five and somehow we were always in the same group. That stayed with me after the war. I was never separated from my mother again. It was out of the question. Even when I married, my husband moved in with my mother and me. We lived together until she died at 84. She gave her life to my family. Recently my daughter told me she doesn’t remember her grandmother ever smiling. I never thought about it, but maybe she had no reason to smile.”
From Auschwitz, they were transported to Freiburg, where they were forced to polish German aeroplane parts for five months. Then came a 16-day “death train” to another camp, Mauthausen in Austria, as the SS officer in charge attempted to outrun the end of the war and deliver them to their death. Packed on to an open cattle train at the start of winter, they were unable to move and some days, survived on just a couple of spoons of sugar. A few people fled on the way. Three babies were born. Others died and their bodies were thrown from the train. “This journey was very bad,” says Weiss quietly. “Yet at the same time we were lucky that it lasted as long as it did because we were supposed to be going to the gas chambers. Two days before our arrival at Mauthausen they were destroyed.”
On 5 May 1945, they were liberated by Allied Forces. “It was a little too late for us,” Weiss says. “For my mother it really was the last minute. If the war had lasted a few more days she would have died. It was not a euphoric moment. We were glad it was over, but our first thought was who else has survived? What about the others? What about my father?”
After the war, they returned to Prague where their flat had been occupied by a German. At first they stayed with neighbours. Then they would sleep in hostels for a night at a time, spending most evenings walking the streets. “It was very difficult,” Weiss recalls. “We had no hope, nowhere to go, nothing. We received a piece of bread from dormitories and there was nowhere to put it. I had to hold it in my hand.”
How did people react to them returning? “They were surprised. They did not expect it. For some it was a great pleasure to see us again. For others, not so much. There were people who would tell us stories of the war and say how dreadful it was. We found that ridiculous. They could not understand what we had been through. It was easier not to speak about it.”
More than half a century on, Weiss has published her diary. Why now? “Because we are the last ones,” she says. “The last ones who remember it as it happened. And I am afraid it will be forgotten.” She wishes people had asked her earlier though. “It is a pity that for so many years nobody was interested,” she tells me. “Now they ask us but we are old.”
Weiss looks tired and her voice is starting to crack. We have been talking for well over an hour, though she assures me she is fine. She tells me the past is returning more as she ages. “I am living it now,” she says. “After the war we started to live a new life. We studied, married, had children, became grandparents. We had normal troubles. But now all of that is done. Most of us are alone again. My husband died 10 years ago. And so we go back…. We see it in front of us again.”
I tell her I’m sorry, that we should stop. “No, no, no,” she says softly. “This is my duty... to tell the story for as long as I am able. We are very few now. I am one of the youngest. One of the children. We still call ourselves the girls from 24 because that was the number of our room at Terezín.” She smiles widely and for a moment that girl materialises in front of me. “But now the girls are all over 80,” she continues, pausing to clear her throat. “In a few years there will be nobody left. And so we try to leave something behind.”
• Helga’s Diary is published by Viking, £16.99