MY MOTHER THE NAZI PRISON GUARD
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
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