Helga Weissová-Hošková: painting the truth of Terezín. Part 2

Helga Weissová-Hošková and her painting, photo: David Vaughan

In the last Czech Books we met the artist Helga Weissová-Hošková, who talked about her remarkable wartime diaries. She drew and described what she saw and experienced in the Terezín ghetto, where she was sent at the age of just twelve in 1941. Amazingly, her diaries have only just been published in full, but they have since aroused so much interest that they have been translated into no less than sixteen languages. In the second part of his conversation with Helga, David Vaughan asks her about her life after the war, and the fate of her diaries and drawings.

Photo: archive of Helga Weissová-Hošková
Last week Helga Weissová-Hošková told us about how she came to write the diaries. She had begun at home in Prague when she was nine and when, three years later, her whole family was sent to the Terezín ghetto, she continued to write her diary in secret. Remarkably, she also managed to produce over a hundred drawings and paintings that offer a vivid record of life – and death – in the ghetto. Helga’s father perished in Auschwitz, but she and her mother went on to survive both Auschwitz and Mauthausen. The diaries and drawings also survived the war thanks to Helga’s uncle, a fellow prisoner in Terezín, who bricked them up in a wall in the barracks. Here we pick up the story with Helga’s return to Prague at the end of the war. I asked her why it took so many years for the diaries to be published.

“Nobody cared, people were not interested, nobody asked us and I did nothing for it. There was no interest here in what happened. Parts of the diary were published in 1961 in a book ‘Children’s Diaries’ and then parts were published by the Jewish Museum in Prague, also in English translation, but nothing more. Nobody was interested and I did nothing, but it happened just three years ago that I was invited to London. There was a week about cultural life in Terezín with some concerts. I was invited and spoke there, and it was lucky that there was also a person from the Penguin publishers. Somebody showed her the excerpts from the book published by the Jewish Museum. She read it and was very moved by it and offered to publish it. So I agreed.”

So it was published in Britain and it aroused a great deal of interest. There were articles in all the main newspapers, there were reproductions of your drawings and it became quite a major media event.

“There were a lot of articles in newspapers, and the publishers took it to a book fair. There was great interest – sixteen publishers from all round the world. It has been translated into sixteen languages.”

Here is an extract from the diary, on the day that Helga’s father was separated from the family in the Terezín ghetto and sent to Auschwitz. Helga and her mother never saw him again:

Terezín, September 29 1944 The train carriages are here, the second transport is beginning. Mum is quickly getting supper ready, so Dad can have one last real meal. Ota is here too, this whole week of transports he’s been having supper with us. I stuff myself with food; I don’t know what I’m eating. Does it even matter? I swallow mouthfuls; I’m not hungry, but with each spoonful I swallow a single tear. There is not enough food; there are far more tears. Dad and Ota are rolling cigarettes in the Russian style, filling them with tea and laughing. Gallows humour again! A quarter to six; we have to go. Roll-ups laid aside on the bench, and laughter abandoned along with them. All three of us used to sit here, every evening – not for long, only this last three-quarters of a year. This was our best time at Terezín, our happiest days here. So here we sit today for the last time. From tomorrow, Mum and I are alone. And you, Dad? His hand tosses the cigarette away, clutches me to him and Mum on the other side. We can’t hold back the tears; we’ve stored up too many of them this past week and we can’t resist them any longer. With my head pressed to Dad’s chest I can distinctly hear the beating of his heart. Halting, sad, like the mood this evening. Oh, Dad, if only your hands were so strong that no one could rip me from their embrace.

Helga Weissová-Hošková with her great-grandson,  photo: archive of Helga Weissová-Hošková
“I really didn’t expect such a success, because there were a lot of diaries written. I wonder why my diary is so popular, but maybe it’s a little different from the others. One thing is that in other diaries, perhaps, they describe the terrible things that happened to them. I do not describe these terrible things so much. Perhaps it’s moving because I describe more our feelings. I describe it from the childish point of view and perhaps that is the reason why it is so popular.”

Given the recent popularity of the diary, has it been painful for you so often to be reminded of it and to have journalists – like myself – coming and asking you about it?

“You are right because we never forget it, of course. For a long time nobody asked, nobody was interested. It’s just in the last ten years that there has been interest. And there are so few of us. We found that we don’t like to do it. It’s very difficult. My son is always angry with me. He always says, ‘You have to rest and not speak about it,’ because when we speak about it, we are still inside it. Perhaps you can recognize when I tell it to you, I always see the things in front of my eyes again. It’s not easy. My son is always angry and perhaps he is right, but it’s our duty to do it. We are speaking in the voice of the people who are not able to speak.”

After the war you carried on painting and you studied under the very famous Czech artist Emil Filla. It is a rather moving end to the story – that you did manage to fulfil your ambitions as an artist.

“I studied and became a professional artist, but not only my life but also all my art work is influenced by my experiences. So I don’t have many happy pictures. My daughter always says she would not like to have one of my pictures hanging in her dining room. After I finished my studies I painted still lifes and portraits and such things, but after ten years I suppose I was ready enough or strong enough to describe what I had experienced. So I returned to this theme and this influenced all my life. I tried to describe the Holocaust. I made a great cycle on this theme. I called it ‘Kalvárie’ (Calvary) and I described it.

“I wanted to finish with it. I was lucky enough – it was in the 60s – that there was a short time when the political situation here was good and relations with Israel improved. They offered a scholarship to one Czech artist. So I really received the scholarship. Today the young ones cannot understand it, but at that time to go to Israel was a miracle. I spent ten weeks in Israel in an artists’ village and everything changed in my art. I stopped with the Holocaust and the war and I started to paint fresh colours – red and yellow and sun and all the countryside. Then after I returned I prepared an exhibition. It was very successful, but it was in 1968. I just remember. It was August, the night of the 20th, and everything changed.”

The Soviet tanks rolled in…

“So there were several years when I didn’t paint any more. I wasn’t allowed to depict Israel. And then I did something I never wanted to do. I came to a school and became an art teacher. It was a school for children that they visited just once a week and only if they were interested and liked to express something through art. And I stayed at the school for fourteen years. Then, after some time, I came back to painting, but it was neither the Holocaust nor the war, nor Israel, but they were some very serious ideas – uprooted roots, broken earth and destruction. I wanted to say what had happened, but also what could happen and what mustn’t happen and what shouldn’t happen. So that’s what I did. And very recently I have become a little more optimistic, because since that time I have also visited Israel three times. Also my work is influenced by life, by some religious motifs and things like that – for example, this picture which is hanging on my wall – with a little hope for the future. You see, it’s in two parts. In the lower part there is ash and some ruins…”

Helga Weissová-Hošková and her painting,  photo: David Vaughan
… it’s mostly in browns, oranges and greys…

“… yes, broken ash and ruins, but something grows up. You can look at it as a sun or a candlestick – a menorah – or something like that, and at the top you can see two Hebrew letters ‘Chai’ – it means ‘life’ in Hebrew – so it means that from the ash and the earth a new life would grow again.”

One thing that is also rather wonderful is that your family has achieved a great deal. Your son is a successful musician and one of your granddaughters is also a successful musician.

“My father was also very fond of music. He was very sad that I had no talent, but maybe that was the reason why he supported me in painting. But then my husband was a musician. He was a double-bass player in the Radio Symphony Orchestra. My son is a cello player, teaching at the music academy. His daughter, my granddaughter, is also a well-known solo cello player…”

… and there’s a poster of her just behind you…

“Yes. That’s Dominika.”

There is something miraculous about your family.

“I have had a lot of luck in my life that I survived and I had children. It’s really a miracle, because 70 years ago we didn’t suppose that we would have families, and just now my second great-grandchild was born. It’s really a miracle, that we, the children of that time survived, a miracle.”