Helga Weiss, now an artist in Prague, escaped death at Auschwitz by lying to Josef Mengele about her age and saying she was fit to work
On an Auschwitz station platform in 1944, Helga Weiss and her mother fooled one of the most reviled men in modern history, Josef Mengele, and managed to save their lives. Not long into her teens, Weiss lied about her age, claiming she was old enough to work for her keep. Her mother persuaded the Nazis under Mengele's command that Helga was in fact her daughter's older sister, and she was sent to the forced labour barracks and not the gas chamber.
The story is one of many recorded in a concentration camp diary that was sold to publishers around the world at the Frankfurt book fair. The private journals of Helga Weiss are to be published in the UK for the first time next year by Viking Press, while foreign rights have been snapped up by publishing houses across the world.
Weiss, an artist in her early 80s who lives in Prague and is also known by her married name of Weissova-Hoskova, mentioned her journal during occasional public appearances, but until now public interest in her written story has always been overshadowed by her success as a postwar painter. The British publisher Venetia Butterfield heard of the diary's existence last summer when Weiss visited London for a concert at the Wigmore Hall commemorating fellow inmates at the Terezín camp in former Czechoslovakia.
"I heard about the event and called someone in north London who knew Helga. They told me she was just about to get on a plane back to Prague, but that she was coming round for a coffee first," said Butterfield. "I raced up to see her and we talked for no more than 10 or 15 minutes. She is an amazing woman with a great, feisty attitude."
Butterfield, who also publishes Anne Frank's diary, asked to see a sample of the writing in one of Weiss's surviving exercise books. "We had an academic report done, and once it was clear what the diaries were I went to Prague to see her. Accounts of the past are often shaped by the knowledge of what was to happen next. What is so important about the diary is that it is Helga's reality. You are there with her. It is a very different thing from a memoir."
Before Weiss was sent to the Nazi-controlled ghetto of Terezín as a child, she witnessed the insidious progress of the Holocaust in Prague. "One thing after another was forbidden: employees lost their jobs, we were banned from the parks, swimming pools, sports clubs. I was banned from going to school when I was 10," Weiss told the Observer at the time of the London concert. "I was always asking my parents, 'What's happening?', and became angry at them if I thought they were trying to hide something, to protect me."
The Weiss apartment was handed over to Germans and the family were transported to Terezín by rail. Known as Theresienstadt in German, the city on the north-west perimeter of Prague had become a transit hub where Czech Jews were put to work before being sent on to extermination camps. Her diary, which begins in 1939, records noises that still haunt her; the "thunderous steps, the roar of the ghetto guards, the banging of doors and hysterical weeping always sound – and foretell – the same".
"She was obviously very clever and quite mature," said Butterfield. "She was obsessed with school at first, like any child of that age. Then there are terrible goodbyes as her friends begin to be taken off to Terezín. At each point Helga thinks the worst thing has happened to her so you see how people become used to bad things. Eventually, when the family are sent to the camp they take some cake and eat a little every day."
Butterfield points out that memories of Terezín are not all painful. Weiss grew up there, fell in love for the first time, and spent time with both her parents, before her father was killed at Auschwitz. "My father told me that, whatever happens, we must remain human, so that we do not die like cattle," Weiss has said. "And I think that the will to create was an expression of the will to live, and survive, as human beings."
On 4 October 1944, Weiss and her mother were also transported to Auschwitz, where they faced Mengele, who was directing children and older women towards the gas chambers and fit adults towards the forced labour camp. Thanks to her subterfuge, she was one of only 150 to 1,500 children believed to have survived of the 15,000 sent to Terezín.
She was then transferred from Auschwitz to a labour camp at Flossenbürg where she escaped death a second time when she was forced to join a 16-day "death march" to the camp at Mauthausen. She remained there until the end of the war. "I asked Helga whether it had felt wonderful to be liberated," said Butterfield. "She said, no, it was not that special because by that point she was so ill and had seen so many terrible things it was hard to feel anything."
Helga's Diary will be published by Viking on 7 June next year