Helga’s Diary: A Young Girl’s Account of Life in a Concentration Camp begins with the German army crossing the Czechoslovak border on March 15th, 1939. Helga Weiss was ten going on eleven at the onset of occupation. In her Author’s Notes, Helga Weiss admits to pulling the diary together after the war. She edited the pages herself, adding detail where she felt it was needed. Everything written after Terezin was written in remembrance since paper and pencils were impossible to find at Auschwitz and the two other camps she was sent to. Helga maintains a sense of optimism, or perhaps naivete, throughout her diary even in her hindsight reflections where missing information was added in.
Helga reminds the reader, in her Author’s Notes, that six million Jews perished during the Second World War. “Each number, however, contains one human fate, one story. My diary is only one of these.”
In the Introduction, Francine Prose poses the question “why should we read another book about the Holocaust?” This question is answered by Helga Weiss herself who believes her words “will help people to understand those times”. As a reader and armchair historian, I cannot say that I understand “those times”, but Helga Weiss’ words sound true and add another unique voice to the collective story of “those times”. Perhaps we will never fully understand while looking back through time, but works such as Helga’s Diary remind us that these unique stories belong to real people and it’s good to remember “those times” from time to time and not to become complacent.
Helga’s Diary lacks dates in many entries, yet the reader gets the sense of time progressing without the actual date being associated with the entry. It is interesting that Helga writes her diary with a sense of impending adventure even after she’s witnessed the execution of men who she watched dig their own graves. Her young age must have assisted her to see her circumstances differently than an adult, or even a teenager, would have seen things. The translator’s footnotes throughout the diary turned out more distracting than they were edifying. I discontinued reading the footnotes a few pages in opting to derive my understanding from Helga’s diary entries. The book flowed much better without reading the footnotes allowing me to better see what Helga was experiencing.
Helga’s Diary is a unique read and worthwhile. The book fully engaged my interest and focused a light on an unknown story from a strange time in history. I found the introduction, author’s notes and interview with Helga Weiss to be as intriguing at the diary itself. I can’t say Helga’s Diary is a happy read, but there is a great sense of elation with how Helga Weiss’ diary ends.
Nina Longfield is a writer living in Oregon’s fertile wine country. When she is not reading or writing in her spare time, Nina enjoys hiking in the hills surrounding her cabin.
Review copy was provided free of any obligation by W.W. Norton & Company. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.