A new generation confronts the Holocaust

Helga Weiss's Holocaust diary

4 minute read
Helga survived; now her  daughter works with children of Holocaust perpetrators.
Helga survived; now her daughter works with children of Holocaust perpetrators.
Helga Weiss's diary, like Anne Frank's, details the experiences of a young Jewish girl during the Holocaust— in Helga's case, from the beginning of the Nazi occupation of the Czech Sudetenland border regions in 1938, when she was nine. It continues through the establishment of Hitler's Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia on March 15, 1939 to the deportations of her classmates and friends to the concentration camps and to her own survival in several concentration camps.

The Weiss family was deported in 1941 to the Terezín camp, where they lived together until Helga's father was deported to Auschwitz in 1944. Two days later, Helga and her mother followed him on a new transport. Her father was murdered in Auschwitz, while Helga and her mother miraculously survived and then were subsequently placed in Freiberg and Mauthausen.

They returned by train to Prague when Helga was 15 as she wrote her last entries into her diary. Helga Weiss (married name: HoÅ¡ek) was one of the very few Jews who returned to and remained in Prague after the war. Helga's diary, written in pencil in a school notebook, was cemented by her uncle into one of the walls at Terezín.

My foster family

Among other things, Helga Weiss's significant work reflects her desire for a normal life, her view of communal life in Terezín, and a child's hunger for education even in the most difficult conditions. Her diary was published this year in the original Czech and will soon be translated into several languages; Penguin is preparing an American English translation, which will include little Helga's original childhood drawings.

I first learned about Helga's diary in 1972, when, as a recently orphaned 15-year-old, I found a home in Prague with a prominent dissident Catholic family named Kaplan. The eldest of the Kaplans' ten children was a daughter named Marie, who subsequently married Helga Weiss's son, the cellist JiÅ™í HoÅ¡ek. In this manner I first met Helga (who still lives today in the flat where she was born) and learned bits and pieces about Helga's Terezín story. Yet I remained unaware of the bits and pieces of my own life story, as well as my Jewish origins.

As a political dissident myself, I had to flee Prague for America in 1977, during my second semester at Charles University. I didn't return to Prague until 11 years later, and didn't begin uncovering my own family's survival stories until 1997. As I discovered my Jewish origins, Helga's story took on new meaning for me.

Children of perpetrators, too

My story also took on a new significance for Marie, who has shared with JiÅ™í a context that my American wife, Patricia, has in turn shared with me: lives and larger histories transmitted to second-generation Holocaust survivors.

JiÅ™í— Helga Weiss's son— is today the musical director of the annual Prague classical music festival, ŽižkovskÓ½ podzim. His wife Marie is a psychoanalyst who works with, among others, second-generation Holocaust survivors as well as children of Holocaust perpetrators, often facilitating these two survivor groups.

JiÅ™í and Marie have a daughter, Dominika, a cellist whose Czech husband, AleÅ¡, is a Prague philosopher with a focus on Judaism and interreligious dialogue. Dominika and AleÅ¡ both studied in Jerusalem; now they live in Prague with their small daughter Adina"“ Helga Weiss's granddaughter. In memory of Helga's father, who was murdered in Auschwitz, Dominika and AleÅ¡ adopted "Weiss" as their new joint surname. JiÅ™í and Marie's second daughter, Natálka, follows Helga's creative legacy: She studies studio art in Prague.

Reunions in Prague

Today our families and friends, whose paths have touched each other in these incredible transgenerational ways, meet for conversations every time we visit Prague.

Many observers have voiced the fear that, as Holocaust survivors die off, the memory of the Holocaust will fade, along with the world's determination to prevent future Holocausts. But my experience suggests the opposite: As the descendants delve into their pasts, they may very well dig deeper than the original traumatized victims ever did. We have barely begun to scratch the surface of this horrifying but profoundly important event in human history.

What, When, Where

The Diary of Helga Weiss, 1938-1945: A Young Girl's Account of Life in a Concentration Camp. Penguin Books (due February 2013). 240 pages. www.penguin.co.uk.

Sign up for our newsletter

All of the week's new articles, all in one place. Sign up for the free weekly BSR newsletters, and don't miss a conversation.

Join the Conversation