Author: Helga Schneider
Publisher: Walker & Co., New York, N.Y.
When Helga Schneider was herself just an infant, her mother joined the Nazi SS and became a concentration camp guard. At Auschwitz she was in charge of a “correction” unit and responsible for unimaginable acts of torture. Her mother’s acts included tying down and gagging the unwilling “volunteers” at Auschwitz who were injected with lethal diseases or had arms, legs or eyes removed while they were still alive – without anesthesia.
This is a truly amazing memoir. At the age of 34 Ms. Schneider, who had left Germany as a child and was then living in Italy, again met her mother for the first time in more than 30 years. After another 30-year lapse she met her mother one more time – in the nursing home in which the nonagenarian was then residing, and “interrogated” her about the past in order to learn the truth.
What she learned and felt about the experience was that the person before her, who had brought her into the world, had lived a depraved and criminal existence, and serving an abbreviated sentence in prison was still not sorry for her crimes. She felt, rather, that she had done the right thing in persecuting Jews and other “enemies” of the German people. During their last session together, her mother even reminded her of her own behavior, as a small
child when she had participated in an anti-Semitic attack against a young Jewish couple in Berlin. (The couple were eventually deported to a concentration camp by the SS.)
This spellbinding book – a relatively “short read” that most people will feel compelled to digest in just one heart-aching reading session – is a recounting of Schneider’s conversations with her
mother in spellbinding detail, intertwined with the childhood memories that were triggered within her. She skillfully weaves these together, evoking the misery of Nazi and postwar Berlin as well as the internal struggle of a daughter’s sense of obligation toward a parent colliding with the inescapable horror of what that parent was responsible for.
In addition to the horrors that were perpetrated against the Jews by Nazis in Germany and elsewhere in Europe was the effect on the psyche of the children and grandchildren of the Nazi perpetrators and bystanders, especially when they see that the insane anti-Semitic hatred that destroyed their parent’s human personalities is still alive.
Helga Schneider’s account of her meetings with her mother is devoid of sentimentality or self-pity, and is a powerful original memoir of great human depth and an eloquent reminder about the seductive force and enormous depth of human evil. Such recounting and admissions of guilt by perpetrators of the Shoah have been quite rare and this is an outstanding and exemplary accounting that must be heard.
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