When HELGA SCHNEIDER fi­nally dis­cov­ered the real rea­son her mother had aban­doned her, aged four, in war-torn Ber­lin, the con­se­quences were dev­as­tat­ing. Her painful story has now been made into a film. Adri­aane Pielou re­ports

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The tor­ment of a daugh­ter aban­doned as a child in war-torn Ber­lin

Ten in the morn­ing, in a Vi­enna ho­tel. Out­side, the Let Me Go film crew, newly ar­rived from Lon­don, are un­load­ing their equip­ment. In the lobby, the film’s di­rec­tor Polly Steele is pac­ing up and down, her phone clamped to her ear. In the restau­rant, ac­tress Juliet Steven­son, the film’s star, is hav­ing break­fast. And sit­ting in the lounge, wait­ing for a cof­fee, is the rea­son Polly and her crew are here: 80-year- old Helga Schneider.

As a four-year-old in wartime Ber­lin, Helga sobbed by the front door as her mother aban­doned the fam­ily to join the SS and be­come a con­cen­tra­tion-camp guard. In her 20s, Helga left Ger­many, moved to Italy, mar­ried an Ital­ian and tried to throw off ev­ery Ger­manic el­e­ment of her iden­tity. Her ef­forts didn’t work, and in her 60s, after decades of feel­ing haunted, trau­ma­tised and unlov­able, she wrote a short, shock­ing book – which be­came a world­wide best­seller – about the reper­cus­sions of hav­ing ‘the worst kind of Nazi’ for a mother. It is this book that has in­spired Polly’s film. ‘Films don’t tell women’s sto­ries enough. They don’t get in­side women’s heads enough,’ says Polly, snatch­ing a few min­utes to talk. ‘I came across Helga’s book by ac­ci­dent, while brows­ing in a book­shop. It was stick­ing out of the shelf, just as if some­one had left it like that, want­ing it to be dis­cov­ered, and I’d barely read two pages be­fore I was en­grossed.’

It’s a com­pelling story. SS guard Traudi Schneider didn’t just fol­low or­ders, she loved her job; took pride in car­ry­ing out her grue­some du­ties. On her re­lease from prison in 1948, hav­ing served three years for war crimes dur­ing which she had shown no re­morse for her ac­tions, she made no ef­fort to get in touch with the daugh­ter from whose arms she had coldly dis­en­tan­gled her­self in 1941. Be­tween then and Traudi’s death in 2002 Helga saw her mother on just two har­row­ing oc­ca­sions. Th­ese events have dom­i­nated Helga’s life.

‘I have not one happy mem­ory of my mother,’ Helga tells me. ‘Since the age of four I have spent just a few hours with her, but she has haunted me all my life.’ Beau­ti­fully groomed and with a warm, en­er­getic man­ner, she looks ev­ery inch the Ital­ian she has tried to be­come. I’ve read her book, though, and when you get in­side her head – to use Polly’s phrase – it soon be­comes clear that psy­cho­log­i­cally she is still, in part, the aghast, aban­doned Ger­man child.

Helga can clearly re­mem­ber the day her mother left: how she caught hold of her mother’s long hair as she bent down to scold her for mak­ing such a fuss, her 19-month-old brother scream­ing in his cot as the door slammed shut be­hind her. A con­cerned neigh­bour knock­ing at the door; her grand­mother tem­po­rar­ily mov­ing in the next day; her fa­ther away, fight­ing for the Führer.

At four she was too young to un­der­stand why her mother had left, and ev­ery­day life in wartime Ber­lin, spent cold and hun­gry in the fam­ily’s com­mu­nal cel­lar as bombs fell above, soon sub­merged mem­o­ries of her. Within a year Helga’s silent, un­com­mu­nica­tive fa­ther had re­mar­ried. Ur­sula, an icy woman who loathed Helga, for­bade any talk of Helga’s mother. Her step­mother was so de­voted to the Third Re­ich that she ar­ranged, via a sister who worked for the pro­pa­ganda min­is­ter Josef Goebbels, for Helga to be among the group of chil­dren who in De­cem­ber 1944 would meet Hitler in his un­der­ground bunker in Ber­lin. Helga had to spend the pre­ced­ing days in the bunker, be­ing fat­tened up – she ate un­til she was sick – and put un­der sun­lamps so that the Führer would be shielded from the true ef­fect of the war on Ger­many’s chil­dren. ‘Hitler seemed so old and grey,’ says Helga with a slight shud­der of dis­taste. ‘One arm with­ered, hang­ing by his side. Shuf­fling along but with a pen­e­trat­ing gaze. I can still re­mem­ber the feel of his hand – it was so clammy.’

It wasn’t un­til the war ended that Helga be­gan to hear adults mur­mur about the mass killing of Jews in con­cen­tra­tion camps, but she had no idea her mother had any link to the camps. When her fa­ther came home from the war, Helga tear­fully de­manded to know where her mother was, only to be told, fu­ri­ously, that this was a sub­ject to stay away from. For decades she as­sumed that meant her mother had dis­ap­peared be­cause she’d been un­faith­ful. It was not un­til 1971 that she saw her mother again and learned the truth.

By then Helga had moved to Italy, try­ing to as­sume a new iden­tity. She had lost touch with her fa­ther and Ur­sula, mar­ried an Ital­ian (gain­ing a mother-in-law who dis­liked her for not be­ing Ital­ian) and had a son. Feel­ing in need of some­thing in­ex­press­ible – ‘I had a black hole in me I needed to fill’ – she had tracked down her mother to a flat in Vi­enna so that her five-year-old son, Lorenzo, could meet his grand­mother.

‘On the train from Bologna I was think­ing, “Well, if she be­trayed my fa­ther, I can for­give her,”’ she says. But to her shock, the mother she hadn’t seen for 30 years showed no in­ter­est in what Helga had been do­ing in the in­ter­ven­ing years, no in­ter­est in her grand­son and was al­most glee­ful when Helga asked where and why she’d gone away in 1941.

‘She said, very proudly, “I worked at Auschwitz. I was in the SS.” She said she’d had to go be­cause she had sworn an oath of ab­so­lute al­le­giance to the SS. Then she said, “And I’ve al­ways dreamt of see­ing this on you!” She opened her wardrobe and brought out her old SS uni­form jacket.’

Her mother also tried to press on Helga a jum­bled hand­ful of gold jewellery: spoils from the camps. She re­mem­bers re­coil­ing as a lit­tle chain, the sort small girls are

Auschwitz-Birke­nau con­cen­tra­tion camp is now a memo­rial and mu­seum

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