The Nazis' cynical message at the Terezin concentration camp: "Work will make you free"

The Nazis’ cynical message at the Terezin concentration camp: “Work will make you free”

The dimensions of the Holocaust are brought home by the fact that the stories of individual victims are still emerging 67 years after the end of World War II. One example is Helga’s Diary: A Young Girl’s Account of Life in a Concentration Camp. The author is Helga Weiss, whose family were prisoners at Terezin, a concentration camp in what was then Czechoslovakia. Helga never heard of her father, Otto, or a boyfriend she met in camp, after they were dispatched from Terezin on one of the Nazi “transport” trains, but she and her mother, Irena, survived, despite being sent to the Auschwitz death camp at one point shortly before Germany was defeated.

Helga first day school

Helga kept the diary during the years at Terezin (1941-1944), beginning when she was 11 years old. When she knew that she and her mother had been selected for one of the dreaded transports, she gave the diary and drawings and paintings she had done to her uncle, who was assigned to work in the finance office at Terezin. He hid the materials by bricking them up in a wall, and he recovered them after the war. When Helga and Irena had  returned to their native Prague, Helga recorded, writing in the present tense, her recollections of their experiences after they left Terezin.

Some of the illustrations Helga did during her ordeal are included in this book. She became a professional artist after the war.

Terezin was a unique enterprise for the Nazis. It was not a camp as such but a Czech town purloined for use as a ghetto. The Nazis incarcerated a lot of writers and musicians there because Terezin was used as a showplace to hoodwink international authorities such as the Red Cross into thinking that Jewish culture was thriving in the Third Reich. My longtime colleague in newspaper journalism, Mirko Tuma, was one of the young Czech intellectuals who were sent to Terezin.

An orchestra of prisoners gives one of the concerts that on the one hand were encouraged by the Nazis and on the other hand helped the victims maintain their sanity.

An orchestra of prisoners gives one of the concerts that on the one hand were encouraged by the Nazis and on the other hand helped the victims maintain their sanity.

Mirko told me that reciting poetry, writing and performing plays, and performing musical works helped the prisoners at Terezin maintain their sanity.

But although the Nazis went to a lot of trouble to create a faux town with shops and other amenities — including a school with neither teachers nor students — as a veneer for outside visitors, Helga vividly describes the hunger, thirst, illness, cold, heat, vermin, and human brutality that characterized life in the camp and at the other stops on her odyssey.

Helga 1 mirror

She also describes the fear, the uncertainty, the desperation that daily beset the prisoners. They worried constantly about being included in the frequent transports that carried people to God knows what fate.

And Helga, of course writes about the longing for the life that was abruptly taken away from her, of the simple comforts of her home and of Prague itself.

We learn in this diary, which has been translated from the original Czech text, that a young girl had to learn not only to survive but to connive and barter in the camp. She became adept at grabbing scraps of food, even though she knew the possible consequences. Indeed, she saw a boy beaten for taking a single cucumber peel.

We also learn that although she despaired at times, Helga had a strong spirit that wouldn’t let her capitulate to the Nazis.

“(T)here’s no reason for crying,” she writes. “Maybe because we’re imprisoned, because we can’t go to the cinema, the theater, or even on walks like other children? Quite the opposite. That’s exactly why we have to be cheerful. No one ever died for lack of a cinema or theater. You can live in overcrowded hostels . . . on bunks with fleas and bedbugs. It’s rather worse without food, but even a bit of hunger can be tolerated. … only you mustn’t take everything so seriously and start sobbing. They want to destroy us, that’s obvious, but we won’t give in. . . .”

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DENIS AVEY/BBC photo

The title of the book is misleading. Denis Avey, a British soldier during World War II, didn’t break into Auschwitz. He was a POW there, so he was already within the walls, as it were. He and the other inmates had been put to work building an enormous industrial plant in which a German company planned to manufacture synthetic rubber and methanol. From the first, Avey was deeply disturbed by the condition of the Jewish prisoners – the “stripeys” he called them because of their pajama-like uniforms. He was so distressed in fact, that he became obsessed with the need to see for himself the section of the Auschwitz complex where the Jewish inmates lived. If he survived the prison himself, Avey wanted to be a witness.

AVEY with Prime Minister GORDON BROWN/BBC

So compelling was this need in Avey’s mind that on two occasions he swapped clothing with a Jewish inmate and shuffled off with the other Jewish prisoners at the end of the work day. What he found was at least as bad as he had imagined.

That part of Avey’s story is recounted in “The Man who Broke into Auschwitz,” which he co-wrote with Rob Broomby, a BBC reporter who worked very hard to help Avey reconstruct the experience 60 years after the fact.

Before he was sent to Auschwitz, Avey had seen plenty of combat in North Africa. He was part of the force that first drove the Italian army out of Egypt and across Libya and then went on the defensive when Erwin Rommel brought his Afrika Korps into the fray and reversed the tide of battle for a time.

ERWIN ROMMEL

Avey, who explains that he went to war in the first place for adventure, not for King and country, was a brash sort whose chutzpah both got him into scrapes and enabled him to survive on both the battlefield and in prison. Once he was captured, he escaped several times including one final time during a forced march eastward in the dead of winter when the Nazis abandoned Auschwitz in order to elude the advancing allies.

On one occasion, Avey watched while an SS officer repeatedly beat a Jewish inmate until the young man died. Avey was already frustrated by both the fact that the Nazis were deliberately working the Jews to death and by the knowledge that he couldn’t do anything about it. When that young man died, Avey shouted a crude German insult at the officer, who responded by cold cocking Avey with the butt of a hand gun. The injury cost Avey his sight and eventually the eye itself.

But the worst injury he suffered was psychological. When he finally returned home, his own family – including his father, who had also enlisted – didn’t want to discuss the war at all, and others wanted to hear only about derring-do on the battlefield. No one was interested in, or capable of confronting, the truth about the concentration camp.

Avey himself stopped talking about it for decades, and he suffered nightmares and other signs of post traumatic stress disorder – a problem that was not recognized and therefore not treated at the time.

There is much more to this story, including the unexpected outcome of a small favor Avey was able to do for one Jewish inmate, but that’s best read in the pages of Avey’s book. It was largely because of Broomby’s work that Avey was eventually able to talk openly, and write, about what he experienced. The two men have performed an important service, because it is critical that knowledge of what the Nazis did be kept alive in the public consciousness.

That’s true both because of the crimes committed by the Third Reich and its collaborators but also because such atrocities have been committed again and again since then – the difference being only one of scale.