Monday, July 8, 2013

Feminist Book Review: Helga's Diary

Several diaries chronicling life in the Nazi ghettos and concentration camps have been published since the 1940s, the most popular being Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl. Holocaust diarists can now welcome Helga Weiss into their ranks, thanks to the publication of her memoir Helga’s Diary: A Young Girl’s Account of Life in a Concentration Camp. The book is a deeply touching, personal account of life during the Holocaust, chronicling a young woman’s experiences going through the hell known as Nazi concentration camps. Written during the war and right after liberation, Helga’s Diary gives the reader a comprehensive understanding of life during the Holocaust.

When Helga kept her diary, it was impossible for her to know the historical import of the events she was recording. As a result, it’s fascinating to read about what happened during the war from someone who was living through it.

It’s fortunate that Helga had both the desire and capability to keep a diary. “Events were such that I started to write them down,” Helga stated simply when asked why she started recording events. “I was writing only for myself.” She was able to continue her diary while in concentration camp, as she was sent to Theresienstadt, a propaganda camp that treated inmates more humanely and gave them access to luxury items like writing materials.

It’s truly astounding that both the diary and its author survived the war. Only a stroke of sheer luck - the fact that Helga’s uncle worked in the records department of Theresienstadt and could hide her diary when she was deported to Auschwitz - preserved it. Considering that only 100 out of the 15,000 children from Theresienstadt who were sent to Auschwitz made it through the war, Helga’s chances of survival were even lower than those of the diary. This series of fortunate events culminated in a priceless historical document.

Part of why Helga’s Diary is so invaluable is because Helga recorded her experiences through art as well as writing. Although other Holocaust diarists may have been artists like Helga, they were interned in ghettos or hiding from the Nazis without access to expensive goods like art supplies. Since Helga was in Theresienstadt, she had the opportunity to produce art and give the world a unique perspective on the era. Following her father’s command to “draw what you see!”, Helga sketched scenes like people going on the transports to other concentration camps and the overcrowded waiting room of the emergency clinic.

It’s easy to lose faith in humanity while reading Helga’s Diary. Reading about the ripping apart of families, public executions, starvation, forced labor, interminable roll calls, and other forms of physical and psychological torture that Helga witnessed or experienced makes a person wonder about the extent of human cruelty. This question becomes even deeper when one considers the fact that the Nazis inflicted such torment on people simply because of their ethnicity, race, physical ability, religion, sexuality, or political ideology.

The reader’s hope is restored by reading about the small acts of kindness that Helga experienced. For example, soon after Helga and her mother were deported to Auschwitz, a guard gave young Helga her handkerchief. “She saw Mom covering my [shaved] head with her bare hands and it must have awakened a bit of human kindness in her,” Helga said. After the two were liberated and returned home, their neighbors opened their home to them, even though giving shelter to the two emaciated, sickly, and physically and mentally exhausted women was a great expense and burden.

As my grandmother’s entire family was taken to Auschwitz in 1944, it was particularly meaningful for me to read about Helga and her family’s deportation to the same camp in the same year. Reading Helga’s experiences and knowing that my grandmother went through the same things made the diary so much more personal.

You don’t have to be related to a Holocaust survivor to relate to Helga’s Diary, though. You just have to be a person who cares about the welfare of other human beings. The purpose of analyzing major historical events and reading literature from those eras is to learn from the mistakes that were made and apply the lessons that are learned to the modern day. Although Holocaust remembrance for its own sake is a worthy goal, it should not be the only one. Readers of Helga’s Diary must come away from the book with the understanding that humankind cannot allow Nazi-like genocide to occur ever again. However, we have not learned this lesson in time. In Somalia, in the Congo, in Sri Lanka, in dozens of countries, we have stood idly by and allowed for systemic murders of entire peoples. From Helga’s Diary, we must draw inspiration anew and learn that we cannot allow for senseless murder and baseless hatred anymore. We have to stop the genocide. And we have to stop it right now.

No comments:

Post a Comment