Helga Weissová-Hošková: painting the truth of Terezín. Part 1.
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.
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…
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.
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?
“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.