Helga Weiss Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Helga Weiss

Helga Weiss

How to pronounce Helga Weiss: wyss (rhymes with ice)

An interview with Helga Weiss

Holocaust survivor Helga Weiss, who wrote Helga's Diary, talks about her time in a concentration camp and the fate of her family.

Neil Bermel spoke with Helga Weiss in her apartment in Prague on December 1, 2011. The following is an edited version of their conversation, translated from the Czech. Additions and clarifications made by the translator and editor are in brackets.

Could you tell us something about your parents: what their names were, what they did, what they were like before the war? From the diary we learn only that they were Mom and Dad...
My father's name was Otto Weiss; he was very educated, loved music, wrote poetry as well. He worked as a bank clerk. In the First World War, when he was eighteen, he was badly wounded in his right arm. My mother, Irena, born Fuchsová, trained as a dressmaker; she stayed home and ran the household. We weren't rich, but my parents created a home that was full of love. I had a happy childhood.

What was the fate of your friends, acquaintances, relatives?
In general things ended badly. Sadly, my father probably went to the gas chambers. But we never found out for sure. There's even a book, The Terezín Memory Book, where people's details are recorded in brief. There's always the date they were sent to Terezín, the date they were sent onward and, if it's known, the concentration camp they were sent to. But for Dad the last mention is the date he left Terezín. That's the last trace of him.

Even with all those reports, daily attendances, and so forth...?
Later we searched everywhere, combed through all those papers, asked people who came back from various camps whether they'd seen him. There's no further trace. Probably he went straight off the train to the gas chambers. Dad was forty-six, but one reason might have been the fact that he wore glasses—that was a mark of the intelligentsia, and they got liquidated first—or he also had a scar on his arm, because he'd been badly wounded in the First World War. So there could have been two reasons: glasses and that scar.

They didn't need reasons, though, did they?
And so in all probability he went straight to the gas chambers.

And Ota?
I don't know anything further about Ota. After the war I visited his sister; he'd given me her address. She was in a mixed marriage and even had a child during the war. I went to see her after the war, but couldn't find him anywhere. Finally I found his name; it's written here in Prague. It's in the old Pinkas Synagogue, which is now a memorial. The walls are covered from top to bottom with the names of the eighty thousand people who perished. So I found him inscribed there.

And I think you've written about Francka that...
Francka didn't come back.

You've written that of the fifteen thousand children who passed through Terezín, about a hundred survived...
That's true. Of the ones who were sent on from Terezín, only a few were saved and they were mixed-race kids, the children of mixed marriages. It's interesting: I don't know why, but the mixed-race boys were sent onward [to other camps], while the girls somehow managed to stay in Terezín, so some of them survived.

So of that whole group of yours that was there...?
Well, now there are only a few of us.

I'd like to ask you about how you lived in Terezín...
Terezín had been an ordinary town, a regimental town with lots of barracks. And around the barracks lived the normal civilian population. When the transports started in November 1941, the civilians were still living there. So at the beginning we just lived in the barracks. These were enormous dormitory barracks; sixty or a hundred people could live there. But the number of people kept increasing. Terezín was originally for about seven thousand inhabitants including the soldiers and all of a sudden there were about sixty thousand of us there. After a few months the civilian population had to move out, and then they divided us up and we lived everywhere, even in the civilians' homes. Of course, it wasn't as if we were allocated apartments; they were just rooms and we lived the same way there. So each person had 1.80 square yards of space. And people filled up the barracks. Some then stayed in the barracks and others were sent into housing blocks, and later people lived in lofts and former shops and various warehouses—basically everywhere.

Is it true that some of the inhabitants felt themselves to be somewhat better than others
Yes, of course, such castes did exist there to some extent. First there was the Ältestenrat [the Council of Elders]. That was our self-governing body. So they were the highest society, and yes—maybe I mentioned it somewhere—some of them came across as a bit arrogant. The first transport was November 24, [1941] and the second a few days later. And those were all male; they were called the AK, which was from the German word Aufbaukommando, construction squad. And they were the ones who went to get the ghetto ready. They were given certain benefits, and for a time they were even protected from further deportations. Because they said: "We built all this" and "We slept on the concrete." By implication: "You have something better to sleep on." So that was the Ältestenrat, and the gradations went on down from there.

As far as accommodation goes, one of the best things that the Ältestenrat did was to try first of all to protect the children from the difficult conditions, to the extent that they could. So they identified suitable buildings from those in the vicinity and set up children's homes. There was a children's home; there was even a home for mothers with small children, newborns, because a few children were born there. That was the Säuglingsheim, from Säugling, baby. Then there was the Kinderheim, for younger children; then two homes, one for boys and one for girls: Knabenheim and Mädchenheim. The Mädchenheim is the one where I lived. It was for girls from about ten to seventeen. And then there was the Lehrlingsheim, which was for adolescents. And that's where we were cared for by the Betreuers [caregivers]

So is that why your father was so insistent on you moving to the girls' home?
Yes, of course, because things were better for us there. Conditions there were basically the same as for the adults. We had only 1.80 yards of living space, a bunk, but of course it was better and easier to be among children than to live with the elderly, where people were ill, they were nervous, there were various misunderstandings, people were dying, and...Well, it was just better for the children to live separately.

Whenever you were summoned for deportation from Terezín, you immediately had to find a way to get the notice rescinded. How did that work?
Of course, the fear of being allocated to a transport was always with us, and everyone tried to avoid it. So it happened that when people found themselves in a transport, they tried to get themselves recalled from it. One excuse, for instance, was infectious diseases. The Germans were horribly afraid of people spreading infections. So if someone got, I don't know, scarlet fever or something, then at least for the moment that would protect him from deportation and his family along with him.

Later people also started to appeal to their bosses in various departments, arguing that their work was indispensable. And if the work truly was indispensable, then they would leave them there. For example, there was one German in Terezín named Kursavy, who oversaw a group of women agricultural laborers. And he did in fact protect them. Sometimes it would happen that, I don't know, the mother of one of the women would be in a transport and the daughter would volunteer to go with her mother, and he wouldn't give her permission. Because we didn't know what was coming, only that it would be something worse. But they really did know, and he didn't let them go. I think he even permitted her to save her mother. So that was one of those recalls.

But you felt that there was something going on in those other camps and that, at the least, it would be worse.
We knew it would be worse. But we had no idea even where the transports were going. We did know, to some extent, that concentration camps existed—they'd existed before the war, in Germany. But that we were being sent to other camps, that gas chambers existed, and death trains, where we'd...We had no idea of that at all.

At least that was the case while you were still at Terezín. Because later, at Auschwitz...
But even there we had no idea until the moment we got there.

Excerpted from Helga's Diary: A Young Girl's Account of Life in a Concentration Camp by Helga Weiss, translated by Neil Bermel. Copyright © 2013 by Helga Weiss. With permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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