The following is an excerpt from Helga’s Diary: A Young Girl’s Account of Life in a Concentration Camp. In 1944, Helga Weiss was fifteen years old.
We might have been able to get out of it, but we didn’t want to. Since we’re in it, we’re going. In this case it’s best to leave things as you find them. We’ve been allowed to take all our luggage—a good sign. Maybe they were right and we’re following the men. I’m looking forward to it; perhaps I’ll see Dad by the end of the day.
It’s twelve o’clock; the train has left the station. We were lucky to get on the train. We’re in the last carriage. It’s a good thing we went out to the courtyard early; there was a mêlée at the gate. I feel as if my back’s broken. It wasn’t easy pushing my way through starting at 4 a.m. with a rucksack on my back. It’s never happened in a transport before that people fought so hard to get on the train. Today’s transport is different from the others. We’re following our men. I’m following Dad and Ota.
I wonder if a Transportleitung will come and help us with our luggage, like when we arrived at Terezín? Maybe Dad or Ota will be at the station. They’ll be surprised to see us. We should be there soon—Königstein, they said, it must be close already. We’ve been traveling about six hours.
For God’s sake, aren’t we there yet? We’ve been traveling all night. That’s not possible. Königstein isn’t even that far away. What’s happened—the train’s stopped for a while. No, now it’s flying onward—that was a siren, there must be an air raid somewhere. What if it hits here? We’re in Germany now, there are air raids here. Why is the train going so horribly fast?
It’s getting light out. Where are we now? We’ve just passed through a station. Katowice. My God, that’s the Polish border. Where are they taking us? The front’s in Poland now. Could it be to Birkenau? But we heard it had been wound up, that transports weren’t going there anymore. So where are we headed? Are our men there? If so, then it doesn’t matter where we go, so long as we stay together.
We’ve been traveling for twenty-four hours. Where, only God knows. We’re all starting to get nervous. People were saying all sorts of things; listen to them and the front must be far behind us, and yet we’ve been traveling across Poland for half a day now and there’s no sign of it. Now the train has started to slow. Could we finally be there? I don’t want to believe it—I’d started to think this trip would never end. We’re getting close, definitely—you can see buildings over there. And so many of them—it’s a huge camp. I can see people, but what are they wearing? It looks like pajamas, and they’ve all got the same ones.
My God, those are prisoners’ clothes! Where have they taken us?! This is a concentration camp! There are some men working over there, stacking boards. Why is that man beating them so hard? It must hurt horribly, he took a cudgel to them. How can he be so cruel? He isn’t even a German—he’s also in a striped jumper, but he’s got a band on his arm.
I must have been wrong; we can’t be stopping here. Why would they take us to a concentration camp? It’s not as if we’ve done anything. It’s horrible how they treat people here. I can’t watch; it makes me ill. He’s walloped another one, an old man. What a stinker; he’s barely twenty. Shame on him; that man could be his father and to treat him that way. He kicked him again till the poor old man staggered.
So that’s what a concentration camp looks like; I could never imagine it. People have been living this way for several years. And we complained about Terezín. That was an absolute paradise compared to this.
What’s this? The train has stopped. A whole group of striped people is running toward us. Is there anyone among them from Terezín? Maybe they’ve come to help with our baggage. Perhaps Dad’s among them. But no, they’ve probably just come to see what sort of train this is. We’re not getting off here, surely? Or—why didn’t it occur to me earlier?—this is Auschwitz, of course. Birkenau is nearby, maybe the trains don’t go there, so we’ll have to walk that bit. Definitely, that’s the way it is. This is Auschwitz, the concentration camp, and we’re going to Birkenau, the work camp.
The carriage next to us is already alighting. Why so much noise over there? They’re banging on our door. I suppose it’s our turn now. Why are there so many SS men outside? Are they all here to guard us? Where would we run to? It would be pointless anyway. We’re in it; there’s no helping us.
“Everyone out! Leave your luggage where it is! Alle heraus, schneller!!!” Leave everything here, hand luggage too? Why are they shouting so much, what’s with the spiteful smiles? They’re grabbing everyone by the wrist; what are they looking for, watches? If only they wouldn’t yell at us so much, and what do those grimaces and comments mean? They’re treating us as if we belong in that concentration camp. One woman just got a slap for trying to take a loaf of bread with her. Is this Birkenau?
Why is my throat so scratchy? I don’t want them to know how I feel.
Stupid eyes—why are they smarting? I mustn’t cry! For all the world, not now!! “Alles da lassen!”—“Leave everything as is!”—“Schneller, heraus!!!”
They sort us into two groups. One—older women and mothers with young children—goes to the left; the other goes to the right. “Sick people shouldn’t say anything,” hushed voices repeat; “you’re all healthy,” one of the ones in prisoner’s clothes whispers in Czech just behind me. A Czech, then. The lines in front of us move; soon it will be our turn. As long as they leave me and Mom together. Surely they can’t separate us if I say we belong together. Or will it be better not to say we’re together? Probably; maybe they deliberately wouldn’t let us stay together if they knew how much it mattered to us.
They’re even taking mothers away from their children. I know that girl there; she’s going to the right and her mom’s going left. But the mom’s quite old; she’s got gray hair. My mom still looks young. But . . . maybe I look too much like a child? Maybe they’ll ask me how old I am. Should I tell the truth? Fifteen; no, that’s too little—they’d send me left and separate me from Mom. I’d better say I’m older, maybe eighteen. Do I look it? Sure, maybe they’ll believe me.
The line is getting shorter; the group of five in front of us has gone. Oh Lord, I pray to you, leave me and Mom together. Don’t let them send us each a different way.
Two more people and it’s our turn. For God’s sake, what if he asks me what year I was born? Quickly: 1929 and I’m fifteen, so if I’m eighteen . . . 29, 28, 27, that makes 1926. Mom is standing in front of the SS man, he’s sent her to the right. Lord, let us stay together! “Rechts!” the SS man snarled at me and pointed the way with his finger. Praise be, we’re both on the same side. Thank you, God, a thousand thanks for making it work out.
First they led us to the baths, where they took from us everything we still had. Quite literally there wasn’t even a hair left. I’ve sort of got used to the shaven heads, but the first impression was horrid. I didn’t even recognize my own mother till I heard her voice. But so what, hair will grow back, it’s not such a tragedy, as long as we survive. I don’t hold out much hope. As soon as we got here, they held us up with a long speech, of which I remember nothing beyond the first sentence, which was plenty: “Ihr seid in Vernichtungslager!” You are in an extermination camp. Upon which they drove us here, into this building, on to bunks from which we are not allowed to move.
I’m seriously hungry; we’ve not eaten since morning, it must be seven o’clock already, but it doesn’t look as if we’ll be getting any supper. Who knows, maybe they won’t feed us at all and will leave us to die of hunger. If only we’d eaten that pâté on the train; we were saving it for Dad, so we’d have something to give him right away.
My God, we’re such idiots, what were we thinking? “You’re following your men to a new ghetto.” And we believed them. Some people even volunteered to come. That’s why they let us take all our luggage. A nice pile of things they can put in their warehouse today.
We’re better off going to bed and sleeping off our hunger. Maybe they’ll leave us alone for today. Figuring out how to fit ten into a space for four will be a problem, of course, but we’ll manage somehow. If we all lie on our sides in one direction, it might work. We have three covers (that’s not really the right word, but I can’t find another term for the filthy rags that perhaps at one time used to be covers) that we have to share; we’ll put our clothes under our heads—so yes, it’ll work. We won’t be comfortable, but after all the events and afflictions of the last twenty-four hours I’m so tired that I think I could sleep well even on these bare boards.
What must the girls in the Heim be doing? Francka, Šáry, and the others? Will they remember me? And what about my lovely bunk? I won’t see out the end of the war on it now.
So they’re not letting us die of hunger. By this I don’t mean that there was plenty of tasty food, not by any reckoning, but it doesn’t matter, the main thing is that there was something at all.
Early in the morning came the wake-up call, after which each bunk received a pot with scrapings in it. They said that we’re new here so there was no more left for us. I was utterly miserable. If that’s how they’re going to feed us, then it’s the end for us. Although it wasn’t at all edible—cold, thick, and bitter—we forced it down. Partially to fill our stomachs with something, anything, and also because we were afraid that they would punish us for leaving food.
After breakfast was roll-call, where they counted us, left us standing there for an hour, maybe two, I don’t know exactly, because I don’t have a watch—in any case it was endless. Why I don’t know; apparently it’s part of the daily program. They only let us back in the building once it seemed to them that we were sufficiently tired and frozen through and through. It’s only October, but it was freezing cold standing there at four in the morning (it must have been around then, it was still completely dark), almost naked, for the rags they dressed us in can’t be called clothes, our bare feet stuck in Dutch clogs (sometimes only one clog, if you’re not clever and energetic enough to clamber down from the bunk in time and there aren’t enough to go round)—and the worst thing of all, with a shaven head; that’s the part that gets coldest.
Besides that, this Polish climate is awfully odd. During the day the sun beats down till people faint from the heat, while in the early morning it freezes worse than at home in December. I have to laugh when I remember how Mom always got mad when I wouldn’t want to put on a cap or long stockings in winter. If I ever get home again, I will never wear anything on my head till the day I die.
No sooner had we crawled (in the true sense of the word; there are no ladders here like there were at Terezín) back on our bunks and wrapped our numb legs and hands in rags than it was time to get up again, from whence we went to the latrine and the Waschraum. Everything went by at such a pace that it was absolutely impossible to use either of these two rooms. We’d barely taken two steps inside and the guards were chasing us out again, using cudgels and suchlike.
Marching at a pace quick enough to lose your clogs in the mud so abundant here, we returned to the building. Shortly thereafter they brought soup—called zupa here—not too tasty, with everything possible (and impossible) floating in it. Rotten turnip, corn cobs, bits of frozen marrow, stalks, and beetroot, which gave the mixture a pinkish color. As earlier that morning, five to ten people ate from a single pot. That didn’t help the taste, because we don’t even have spoons. Many people turned up their noses or didn’t even eat, but not me. You have to eat—doesn’t matter how or what. Like the proverb “A good pig eats everything,” I stuffed myself as full as I could. I used my teeth and my hands—just like the others who understand what’s what and don’t give themselves airs.
In the evening there was roll-call again, when bread rations were given out—a quarter-loaf of dark rye for each person and a spoonful of jam. We have no knives, so we just broke off bits and spread the jam with the crust. Mom and I hid one portion for the next morning and ate the other for supper. One of the guards gave me a handkerchief—I was surprised, since they’re all such pigs. She saw Mom covering my head with her bare hands and it must have awakened a bit of human kindness in her; the rest aren’t susceptible.
I’m so angry with myself; I let myself be waited on like a small child and I just sob all day. I can’t help it; everything here is so horrible. Bedtime is drawing near and I’m already good for nothing. Lying unmoving in one position until morning. Last night I didn’t even wake up once, but this morning I was all bruised, my bones felt as if they’d been broken, dreadful. You can’t sleep well on a hard surface and now here it is again. Oh, God, why are you punishing us like this? “Ruhe, alle schlafen, schneller!”—“Silence, everyone to sleep, hurry up!” The block warden patrols the middle of the building and the guards tear about shouting like madwomen. “Schlafen, schneller!” The lights have gone out.
Helga Weiss was born in Prague in 1929. After surviving the Holocaust and the Second World War, Helga returned to Prague, studied at the Academy of Fine Arts, and became an artist. She has two children, three grandchildren, and lives to this day in the apartment where she was born.
Learn more about Helga’s story of Holocaust survival in this 11-minute documentary from the Telegraph.