When the wartime diaries and drawings of Helga Weissová were published in Britain last year, they caused quite a stir. Up to that time they had been all but forgotten, even here in her home city of Prague, and only fragments had ever being published. Yet there are few more vivid evocations of life in the Terezín Ghetto, where Helga was sent with her parents in 1941. Her father perished, but miraculously Helga and her mother, as well as her diary and drawings survived. David Vaughan went to meet Helga, now a sprightly 84-year-old, at the flat in Prague where she has lived all her life. In the next two editions of Czech Books, she will be talking about her remarkable life.
Helga Weissová, or Hošková, to use her married name, was born in the same year as Anne Frank. She was only twelve when she was sent with her parents to Terezín. She had been keeping a diary since she was nine and in the ghetto she continued to write. Her parents had already recognized her gift as an artist, and she managed to take a few painting materials with her. Conditions in Terezín were tough and humiliating and after three years in the ghetto, she went on to survive an even greater nightmare, first in Auschwitz, then Freiberg near Dresden and finally Mauthausen.
When you visit her today at her modest apartment in Prague’s Libeň district, it seems strange to imagine that this is the same flat in which Helga spent the first years of her life, before she and her family were swept up in the Holocaust. But here she is, over seventy years later and very much alive, still in that same plain grey apartment block. At first sight you could almost imagine that nothing had ever happened.
“It really is the apartment I was born in and I have been here all my life, except the wartime, because in the wartime I was in the concentration camps, but after the war we had the luck to get it back again. I like the place. You have to climb to the fourth floor, everybody asks me why I don’t move to another apartment, but I’m attached to this apartment.”
And you were born into a very normal Czech middle-class family.
“Like most Czech Jews, we were very assimilated. We lived the same kind of life as our neighbours. As you can see from my apartment, we were neither a poor nor a rich family. I like it and I don’t want to move. I hope to stay here as long as it will be possible. “
And in the corner of your living room there is a piano. There has always been music in your household, hasn’t there?
“There was always a piano standing in this corner. I also write about it in my diary, but it is not the same one, because after the war we received our apartment back, but nothing was left of our possessions. After we were deported, all our possessions were taken away and during the wartime a German was staying here.”
Here is a brief extract from Helga Weissová’s diary, from the day the family was sent to Terezín, December 7 1941:
Five o’clock in the morning. The light is on in the living room; my parents are also up. My underclothes and dress are laid out on the chair. There are some notebooks on the desk; probably mine from school. On the doorframe opposite are hooks for the exercise rings. The piano stands in the corner. My eyes wander round the room from one object to another. Lying on my back, hands beneath my head, I etch all these familiar things into my memory so they will never disappear.
We sit down to breakfast – our last. Today everything, no matter what we do, is the last.
It must have been very strange coming back to this apartment at the end of the war. Also your father had been killed…
“You are right. Perhaps we were not too clever to come back, because nothing was left, none of our possessions. But the memories were here. The memories are still here and it took us a long, long time to get used to being here again. I returned with my mother. So perhaps it was not a good idea.”
Do you still feel that, 70 years later?
“Yes, I still feel it. But after that I lived a whole life, because I returned with my mother, then I married. So, when we returned, there were two of us. Then I married and there were three of us. Then my two children were born here and they grew up here. But then the children married, they left, and then my mother died, and then, eleven years ago, my husband also passed away. So, there were five of us living in this small apartment, and now I am alone.”
And what actually happened? It was towards the end of 1941 that there was a knock on the door.
“We were in one of the first transports. I was deported together with my parents to Terezín and in Terezín we spent almost three years, and after the three years we were deported to another concentration camp. First it was my father who left Terezín. Two days later I was also deported with my mother. It was just called an ‘Osttransport’ – transport to the east – and we had no idea what it meant. So we were looking forward to it naively, because we expected that maybe we would meet my father again. We were sent to the same place – to Auschwitz – but we never met my father again.”
And do you know what happened to him?
“No, we never learned what happened to him, because after the war we looked at all the lists, but we never found his name.
“It was a shock when we came there, because we expected something similar to Terezín. We saw this big area of wooden barracks and people walking in what looked like pyjamas. And at the back there were some smoking chimneys. We supposed that was a factory and we had no idea what happened. And they cried, ‘Hurry along – schnell heraus!’ – everything was in German – leave all your possessions inside and go away. We had to stand in a long line and at the front of this line was an SS man. We only saw that he divided people to the two sides with his finger, and we saw that to one side he sent the stronger and younger ones and to the other side he sent the older ones and mothers with children. At that time it was really a miracle, or luck, or my fate, I don’t know what happened. I had been sent to Terezín one month after my twelfth birthday in 1941. I spent three years there. There were about fifteen thousand children of this age and of these fifteen thousand children only about one hundred passed through this selection. I am one of them. It was really a miracle because, not yet fifteen, I was chosen and sent to the right side and at that moment it meant life. The other piece of luck I had was that I was sent together with my mother.”
And you were together the whole time, till the end of the war?
“The whole time I was with my mother and it was a great piece of luck.”
To come to your diary – you had always loved drawing and painting…
“… and in Terezín I drew a lot. I created about one hundred drawings. I had been very fond of drawing before, therefore I took some crayons and pencils and watercolours.”
You were able to take them with you…
“Yes, and after we came there in 1941, men and women were divided and we lived in different barracks. We used to smuggle messages to each other. I did a really childish drawing. It was December, so I painted two children who had made a snowman. I smuggled it two my father and he returned the answer to me: ‘Draw what you see. ’ So, this snowman is my first drawing in Terezín, but it is the last really childish one. I started to depict everyday life.”
As a twelve-year-old, did you already feel it was important to document what was going on there?
“I don’t know. Maybe my father did. I didn’t think about it. But, when we were deported from Terezín, we didn’t know where the transport was going, but we supposed it would be something worse. So I left these drawings and the diary as well with my uncle, who worked in an office – it was special work, so he was never deported from Terezín and he stayed till the end of the war. But I was not the only person who painted there. There were other children, but there were also adult artists. Officially they worked in so-called drawing centres, they made graphs and parcels for the SS, but secretly, at night, they did the same as I did. They also hid their drawings somewhere under the floor, somewhere in the attic. And also they tried to smuggle some of these drawings outside the ghetto. Unfortunately, one of the drawings was found and they took all these artists together with their families and sent them to the Small Fortress. It’s very close to Terezín and it was always a political prison. Apart from one, all these adult artists who painted the truth of Terezín died because of their drawings.
“When I was deported, I gave my drawings and my diary to my uncle and because they were dangerous he bricked them up in a wall in the barracks. So after the war, he took them out and gave them back to me.”
Could you describe the sort of things that you were painting and the techniques you were using?
“I painted the rooms where we were staying, I painted the lines when we were standing in front of the kitchen waiting for our food, I painted people being sent on transports, carrying luggage on their backs, I also painted the dead bodies, also the funeral cars. But it’s interesting that the funeral cars didn’t carry dead bodies. There were no other vehicles in Terezín, but what they did was to bring old-fashioned hearses – funeral cars – and they carried everything on them: dirty linen, luggage, also old people and also – and this is my favourite drawing – the children’s house where I was staying also had such a hearse, and on it was written in German, because everything was in German, ‘Jugendfürsorge’ – care for youth – and on this hearse, the children are carrying bread. It is very typical and I like this drawing very much.
“Once an International Red Cross commission was invited. Before the commission came, they made a plan, what would be shown to them, and everything was painted and washed. They sent two big transports of old people, so that members of this commission wouldn’t meet old and ill people. That day we were not allowed into the streets, we had no possibility to speak to them. They only chose certain groups who would meet them. For example, on that very day they also built a music pavilion on the square and they chose a group of young girls, gave them some baskets with vegetables and they had to walk and sing, and just by chance to meet the commission. So that is also one of my drawings.”
And at the same time you were keeping a written diary of what was happening.
“Everything I saw, I also wrote in my diary, so, if you read my diary, for nearly all sections you will find an illustration, because I described with words, but also with my drawings.”
In the next Czech Books in two weeks’ time, we shall be looking at the subsequent fate of Helga and her diary in the years that followed the war, how she became a successful artist and had a family, but also how it took seventy years for the diary to be published in full. It has now been translated into sixteen languages.