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From the Compendium 2017. Room 28 Educational Project
The lasting echo of Helga Pollak’s Theresienstadt diary is closely linked to the book Die Mädchen von Zimmer 28, published in German in 2004 and in English as The Girls of Room 28 in 2009. Without Helga’s diary – the heart and thread of the story – this documentary narrative could not have been written. Since then, Helga’s diary has often been described as being as important as the diary of Anne Frank. When, in 2014, the unabridged diary was published by Edition Room 28, Peter Gstettner wrote in the afterword: The story of young Helga Pollak is a model case of remembrance and commemoration of the fate of European Jewish children. Her autobiographical notes are comparable to the Diary of Anne Frank.
It is absolutely necessary in this context to draw attention to the existence of a book by Helga Weiss, which was published in 2013 by Penguin Books with the title Helga’s Diary and has meanwhile been translated into numerous languages. Since then Helga Pollak’s diary has, again and again, been confused with Helga Weiss’s diary.
This already happened a year before in Madeleine Albright’s autobiography, Prague Winter, published in 2012. In a chapter of this basically excellent book she describes, for special reasons, everyday life in Girls’ Home L 410 by making reference to the book The Girls of Room 28 and quoting from it. Unfortunately, she attributes two quotes to Helga Weiss instead to Helga Pollak-Kinsky, who is not mentioned at all. Thus, Albright’s description gives the impression that the book The Girls of Room 28 is based on Helga Weiss's diary.
One statement quoted by Madeleine Albright at length can be found in chapter 6.5 of the present Compendium, in the section about Friedl Dicker Brandeis. To attribute these words by “our Helga” to Helga Weiss is – and everyone who knows the subject would agree to this– a major mistake. Helga Weiss would never have said this. She did not paint in the spirit of Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, in the contrary. Actually this is an issue worth creating a worksheet about, and I am sure this will be done soon as part of our educational project.
The errors remained uncorrected and have been reproduced in the German edition of Prague Winter (Winter in Prag) , and, I am sure, in all other foreign language editions too.
Madeleine Albright’s autobiography is only the most prominent example of the fact that the two diaries are often mixed up. Therefore, to avoid any further confusion and prevent further harm, it is necessary to point out this error very clearly.
Helga Weiss belongs to the circle of friends of the “Girls of Room 28”. I have known her as long as I have known Helga Pollak-Kinsky and Anna Hanusová. I have great esteem for her and her artistic work. Helga Weiss became known for her Theresienstadt drawings and for the exhibition Draw what you see. In the Theresienstadt Ghetto, she lived in Room 24 of Girls' Home L 410 and also kept a diary.
And yet, what Penguin Books has published under the title Helga’s Diary is not an authentic “diary”. As already clear from the first lines of the “translator’s notes”, it is not an original. The subtitle comes closer to reality: A Young Girl’s Account of Life in a Concentration Camp. But even this wording is misleading. Strictly speaking, the book is based on a number of extant original diary entries reworked by the author after the war and on memories written down years later in the form of diary entries. Or, in other words: the book offers an authentic personal report written in the genre of a diary. But it is not an authentic diary like Helga Pollak’s.
The German edition – probably the only exception – has a more neutral title: Und doch ein ganzes Leben. Ein Mädchen, das Auschwitz überlebt hat. (And yet a whole life. A girl who survived Auschwitz.) All other foreign-language editions are entitled Helga’s Diary. In Brazil: O Diário de Helga.
How important it is to distinguish these two “Helgas” also became eminently obvious in 2016, when Brazil’s largest magazine Veja conducted a telephone interview with Helga Pollak-Kinsky, devoting an entire page to her but with a photo of Helga Weiss taking up a third of a page above the text. A correction in the next edition in form of a mini marginal note could not make up for the error.
In spring 2016, the Brazilian translator of the book The Girls of Room 28, Renate Müller – to whom I am very grateful for her careful translation of the book and of the exhibition – discovered the following essay online: Lembrar para esquecer: diários e memórias do Holocausto./ Remembering in order to forget. Diaries and memories of the Holocaust.
The authors are Priscilla Ferreira Perazzo, professor at Universidade Municipal de São Caetano do Sul, and Barbara Heller, professor at Universidade Paulista in São Paulo. Their reflections focus on O Diário de Helga by Helga Weiss and As Meninas do Quarto 28 by Hannelore Brenner. Their comparison and critical analysis of these two publications marked the beginning of an exciting German-Brazilian dialogue on the subject of history, memory and communication. Today, Barbara Heller and Priscila F. Perazzo are among the “Room 28 Bridge Builders" - more on the Website of Room 28 Projects.
To make a long story short: It is the authentic diary of young Helga Pollak from Vienna, that is the central document of the Room 28 Projects and the Room 28 Educational Project. And Helga Pollak-Kinsky is the project’s strongest ally. She is 87 years old and lives in Vienna.
After the publication of Helga Pollak’s diary in 2014, Austrian writer Erich Hackl wrote: My dream would be that “Mein Theresienstädter Tagebuch" would be read more than Anne Frank's diary. It would have all the prerequisites for this.
Certainly, the diaries of Anne Frank and Helga Pollak are both important historical and personal documents. And a comparison – especially in the context of this project – is certainly worthwhile. A first step in this direction has been taken in this Compendiumn. It is not a question of playing one document against the other – on the contrary. Both diaries and both stories are, in the words of Peter Gstettner, a model case of remembrance and commemoration of the fate of European Jewish children.
Note: The full article with footnotes and source references is published in the English edition of the Compendium:
Theresienstadt.The Girls of Room 28. Compendium 2017. Room 28 Educational Project .
since October 9, 2014