HELGA Schneider still remembers her mother’s words. Suitcase in hand, she bent down, looked her in the eye and said: “Mummy has to go away. Be a good girl, don’t cry.”
With that, Traudi shut the door on the family home, leaving Helga alone with her 19-month-old brother. It was 1941 in Berlin. And Helga was just four.
Shunted between homes and put into an institution for problem children, Helga grew up yearning for a mum to comfort her through the horrors of war.
It was 30 years before she finally found her again, and then she unearthed a truth that would scar her for ever – the mother she had pined for was a volunteer for Hitler’s Nazi Waffen-SS and a guard at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
While Helga had been crying for her mum, Traudi was “proud” to be working at the worst death camp in history, where more than a million Jewish, Roma and Polish men, women and children were gassed, starved and worked to death.
And worse still, she had no regrets – maintaining to the end that “Nazis were just, Hitler was great and the Jews needed to be exterminated”.
“I was so shocked” Helga, now 80, recalled: “Because after 30 years, when a mother tells you ‘I was with the SS and a guard at Auschwitz’, and she is ‘proud, not repentant’, you are speechless. It was terrible, terrible.
“I’d wanted to find a mother, so when, instead of a mother you find a woman who says, proudly, she was a guard at Auschwitz. Can you imagine that?”
The trauma of her discovery became the subject of a best-selling memoir and has now been made into a film, Let Me Go, by British director Polly Steele and starring Juliet Stevenson as Helga.
Helga’s father Stefan was away fighting when Traudi left their home in Berlin. Helga was looked after by relatives until her father remarried a year later.
Through stepmother Ursula, whose sister worked under Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, Helga met Hitler in 1944. She said: “Hitler, he wasn’t unpleasant, he was nice to us.”
Hitler seemed unwell following the assassination attempt earlier that year, she recalled. “He was very pale. He looked ill and a bit sweaty. And he couldn’t walk properly. But his gaze, I don’t know how to explain it. It was fixed, resolved.”
At 16 Helga ran away to Austria, where she studied to be an actress. On holiday in Italy she met her future husband and went to live with him in Bologna, where she still lives. She wanted to forget Germany – her mother, the war, the language. Even now she prefers to speak Italian, as German is too distressing.
It was after her son Renzo was born that she decided to search for
SHOCKED Helga’s reunion with her mum lasted just 45 minutes NO REMORSE Traudi, top, and with Helga, above. Helga and her brother , below