Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Helga Weiss: an interview with a holocaust survivor

At Helga Weiss’s first concentration camp, a boy of her age, 14, wrote a poem she has never forgotten. It ends:
Butterflies don’t live here,
In the ghetto.

Helga got out of the ghetto and eventually back to Prague, where she lives in a short street of flat-fronted apartment blocks. I speak into an intercom, and she lets me in, not taking her finger off the buzzer. The buzzing pursues me up four flights of granite steps, all the way to her open door, breaking off only as I step inside. She stands, waiting, in the hallway, an old woman no taller than a girl: black trousers, blue eyes, short grey hair – and, hanging on a silver chain around her neck, a stone in the shape of a butterfly wing.

“This is the apartment I was born in,” she says, leading the way into a small drawing room crammed with books and paintings. “It’s not the most comfortable, not the most beautiful, but I have become attached to it. From this apartment we were deported.”
I look around, quickly taking in a piano (on the same spot where her father, a bank official, used to play Chopin), a brown sofa scattered with knitted cushions (“saved by our non-Jewish friends during the war”) and a contemporary poster of a young female cellist, her granddaughter. It’s much later that I notice the butterflies.
“I have a lot of butterflies,” she agrees, and points at the stained-glass orange one embedded in the window, four dangling in the net curtain, a blue one pinned to the wall. “Because butterflies mean freedom.”

She finds it interesting that there were none at Terezín – “only lice and bedbugs”. It was while watching a butterfly settle on a flower as she stumbled up the hill to her fourth and final concentration camp, Mauthausen, that Helga reached a simple decision: she wanted to live. Of the 15,000 Jewish children under the age of 15 deported to Terezín, Helga was one of a mere 100 ever to see Prague again.
Helga – now Helga Hosková-Weissová, her married name – is, incredibly, a survivor of Terezín, Auschwitz, Freiberg and Mauthausen; an artist, a widow and a great-grandmother; and, in her 84th year, the published author of a remarkable journal describing her girlhood as a prisoner of the Nazis.

If it seems surprising that such a diary should surface at this point, it should be explained that parts of it were published in the Sixties, in a Czech anthology, and Helga had no idea anyone was interested beyond that. In Czechoslovakia, no one cared about the Jews: “First of all, no one figured on us returning,” she explains, and in 1948 there was the Communist coup, at which point, “the situation for Jews here was pretty ugly”. Yet talking to Helga, it becomes possible to imagine what it might be like chatting with Anne Frank, also born in 1929, had she lived.
“We were sitting here and heard the knocking on the door. It always happened at night. There were already rumours that this evening someone from the Jewish community would distribute the summons, so we expected it. After 8pm it was forbidden to go outside. No Jew would come up those stairs, nor an Aryan. So when there was a knock, it couldn’t be anyone else.” It was December 4 1941. 

Full article

Extract from book  -

Helga’s Diary: A Young Girl’s Account of Life in a Concentration Camp(Viking)

1 comment:

Geoff Churchman said...

"in 1948 there was the Communist coup, at which point, “the situation for Jews here was pretty ugly."

Life became pretty ugly for everybody who wasn't a communist boss.