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Excerpt from Helga's Diary by Helga Weiss, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Helga's Diary

A Young Girl's Account of Life in a Concentration Camp

by Helga Weiss

Helga's Diary
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  • First Published:
    Apr 2013, 240 pages
    Feb 2014, 256 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Bob Sauerbrey

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September 1, 1939
War has broken out. No one was surprised. The way events turned out, we had to count on it. However horrid the prospect that this could lead to a world war, it's the only hope—not only for us, but for all enslaved peoples—to have a happier tomorrow.


Before I got back from the holidays, Dad signed me up for a group so I could keep up my studies. It's not like being in school, but I'm getting used to it and am starting to like this new way of learning. Our group is made up of five Jewish girls. Our teachers are two young students who had to give up their studies for the same reason we did. We take turns meeting in each other's apartments. Instead of a school building like we were used to, it's an ordinary tenement; instead of a classroom, a child's bedroom. School desks are replaced by simple chairs and a table, the big school blackboard by a child's small slate.


October 28, 1939
Another disruptive order. This time, for a change, it doesn't concern Jews, but university students. All the colleges will be closed down—because a few students tried to hold a protest. One of them was killed. At his funeral there was a repeat of the protest. But nothing was achieved except that a lot of students were dragged off to the concentration camps.

The arrests never stop. The German "Gestapo" police rampage through Prague and arrest everyone it suits them to, as they say. Prague is full of these uniformed and plainclothes Gestapo men. They spread terror wherever they go and everyone takes great care not to fall into their clutches. Despite people trying their hardest to stay clear, there are many unlucky ones who fall victim to their cleverly laid traps. Danger lurks at every step. When you leave your house, you never know if you will return. By now there are very few families who don't have one of their nearest and dearest in a concentration camp. Thank God we have been spared that so far.


Autumn 1940
Slowly we got used to the new regime. We grew numb. Even the sharpest decrees don't nettle us much. And there are a fair number of them.

All businesses have to be German-Czech. (Some enthusiasts take it too much to heart and only have German on their shopfronts.) A notice was added to the menu in every restaurant, printed in bold letters so no one could miss it: "Jews not allowed—Juden nicht zugänglich." This sign appeared at the entrance to all entertainment establishments, sweet shops and barbers. Contact with Jews is being curtailed.

Despite this my Aryan friends have not stopped visiting me. They always bring their school notebooks, which Dad uses as a guide, because since Christmas he's been teaching me himself.

So I muddled through a whole year that way. I passed my exam at the Jewish school and got my report. All A's. Why don't I feel satisfied the way I used to? The marks still make me happy, but the knowledge that I'll be spending the forthcoming holidays in Prague fills me with sadness.

Last year, even though it wasn't as nice as the previous year, at least we were in the countryside. In a small town—more like a village—called Cerhenice. Dad was employed there on a farm, by the farmer. He went voluntarily, like many others, so he wouldn't be called up for other manual work. Staying there certainly wasn't ideal, but since there weren't many summer apartments Jews were allowed to rent, I was happy enough with it. It was a long way to the woods and I only went swimming a couple of times at the beginning before the ban came in: "Jews are forbidden to swim in the river"—just in case, God forbid, they pollute the water before the Aryans can bathe in it. But the relatives we were staying with had a big garden and a pool in it—a small one, but a pool nonetheless. Four of my distant cousins lived in the village and our other relatives had two daughters themselves. So there were seven of us and that was enough for us to play to our hearts' content.

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

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