The older of two sisters, Helga was raised by prosperous, non-religious Jewish parents in the small Catholic town of Duelmen in western Germany. Her family owned a linen factory. Before marrying Helga's much older father in 1927, her mother had been a Dutch citizen. As a child, Helga looked forward to vacations in the Netherlands with its comparatively relaxed atmosphere.
1933-39: At age 6 Helga began attending a Catholic elementary school. Antisemitism wasn't a problem until the night of November 9, 1938 [Kristallnacht, Night of Broken Glass], when Nazis from a nearby city vandalized her town's Jewish properties. Her father raced downstairs and was arrested; four days later, he committed suicide in his prison cell. Helga's mother regained her Dutch citizenship and immigrated to the Netherlands. With her grandfather's help, Helga and her sister joined her.
1940-44: After the Germans occupied the Netherlands in 1940, Helga was forced out of school. In 1942 they avoided deportation by getting false papers saying they were Dutch Christians and by moving to Rotterdam where a Dutch couple hid them in their flat. They lived just two blocks from police headquarters. Because she was very Jewish looking, Helga had to stay inside. She spent her time reading and studying. Often they listened to the BBC. Their worst problem was the lack of food; by the end of 1944, they were reduced to eating mainly sugar beets.
After their liberation at the end of the war, Helga, her sister and mother remained in Rotterdam.