And after that we were going to be included in a transport, until my father managed to stop it. He was waving and trying to smile, but it was not a smile.” Three days later, it was the turn of Helga and her mother. We supposed it was a factory.” She waits for it to sink in.For one plum, you could pay with your life.” In October 1944, Helga’s father was loaded on to a railway truck. Their destination – Auschwitz-Birkenau – meant nothing to them. “Everything was terrible, but everything was much worse than we supposed.” She stepped on to the ramp with her mother.In the event, they were among 45,000 Prague Jews who were transported by train to the fortress of Terezín, three hours away. Men were immediately separated from women, parents from children.
She flicks through a book of them, pausing over an ink sketch of a man checking his blanket for bedbugs or “blechy”. They were small, but when they had eaten or drunk they bloated up – and what is most terrible, full of blood.” Her favourite drawing is of a funeral cart loaded with bread, and bearing the logo “Welfare for the young”. “Once it happened to me that I was walking under a plum tree and I took a plum and shared it, and some worker saw me – because we were watched by the Jews too. The train stopped and we saw a big area with barracks and barbed wire and smoking chimneys.
I ask God to leave me and my mother together.” For whatever reason, the man lifted his finger, snarled at both of them: “Rechts! I had a lot of hair, dark blonde, long enough, and I remember my mother finished earlier than me.
” She was led into a room with 500 others to be shaved. I was looking for her, I couldn’t recognise her – my mother, the same. I saw some shoes in the street the other day, and I remember how shoes or a piece of bread would save somebody’s life.
In Czechoslovakia, no one cared about the Jews: “First of all, no one figured on us returning,” she explains, and in 1948 there was the Communist coup, at which point, “the situation for Jews here was pretty ugly”.
Yet talking to Helga, it becomes possible to imagine what it might be like chatting with Anne Frank, also born in 1929, had she lived. So when there was a knock, it couldn’t be anyone else.” It was December 4 1941.