Author: Helga Schneider
The following review was contributed by: Sue Vogan: To read more of Sue's reviews Click Here
Helga is just four years old and her mother's suitcase is ready at the front door. Helga's younger brother, Peter, is sleeping as their mother slips through the door -- Helga will be a mother herself when she sees Mutti (German for 'mother') again. Then, she will learn the true reason her mother has gone away.
The war was harsh -- even for the children of true German parents. Helga recalls hunger, her father off fighting in the war, and her stepmother's cruelty. She was only four years old when her mother walked out of the front door, but after all this time, she still misses her Mutti. Helga finds one special person at the boarding school that she thinks of as a Mutti. It is a fond memory.
Helga's mother didn't abandon her husband for another lover; she didn't leave her children because she wanted another family. It was the German army that she heard calling. The call to cleanse Germany of vileness that only death could end. She gave up her family to exterminate Jews.
It would be thirty years before Helga would see her Mutti again. She arranged to bring her five-year old son, Renzo, to see his Oma (German for grandmother), hoping that Mutti will bond with her grandson. Instead, Oma ignores him -- leaving him traumatized and alone, coloring at a table. He will never know, hear about or see his Oma again. Mutti offers Helga a gift -- gold. She knows where the gold came from and refuses the offer. Helga is disgusted to think that her own mother has gold from Jewish prisoners.
Another twenty-seven years will pass before Helga reunites with Mutti. She will travel from her home in Italy to the nursing home in Vienna. It is a visit she will be uneasy and unsure about -- even after it's over.
Helga takes a cousin along for the visit. Eva will serve as her anchor should the stay become awkward. Helga loves Eva like a sister.
The visit really starts at Helga's hotel room. She relives all the anguish and hurt; and dreads the choice she has made to revisit her past. She needs answers to questions that she has carried with her all these years. She doesn't want to know the answers. She wishes she had never agreed to come.
Mutti is frail. She smells of decay and Helga keeps her distance. Mutti doesn't believe that this is her daughter, her little Mausi, standing before her. She claims that her children have died long ago. Helga convinces her mother that she is very much alive. And, the visit officially begins.
It isn't a normal visit. But, then this is not a normal mother-daughter relationship. Questions about Mutti's absence, her career, and the burning question -- didn't you miss your children?
Mutti hedges, using tricks to keep her audience. She finally admits that she felt no compassion for the Jews -- she hated the race. She felt no sympathy for the babies and children -- "there's a few less Jewish brats." She had status and her comrades respected her -- it was Auschwitz. Mutti was a Wafen-SS guard -- and proud of her commitment to Hitler.
Why did she hate the Jews? "They were guilty." When asked to elaborate, "Of everything. Of Germany's defeat in the First World War, of constant defeatism toward Germany, of international conspiracies to unleash fresh conflict."
Mutti's son, Peter. Helga asks if she ever thinks of him. Mutti responds, "I don't know...and he died so long ago."
Names are dropped -- Goebbels and aunt Hilde who worked for and was in love with Goebbels; Klahr, "a sort of specialist nurse," who gave "injections" of phenic acid straight into the heart of the seriously ill; and "one Lagerfuher" who got the prisoners "to make him a Viking ship entirely of gold."
"Do you want me to tell you about the fourth one?"
"What is the mysterious fourth one?"
"The fourth crematorium in Birkenau had no ovens, " she begins as though savoring every word, apparently satisfied at having drawn me into her net, "because it was never finished. All it had was a big well filled with hot embers."
"She leans toward me confidentially. "The new commander in Auschwitz found it terribly amusing. He used to line the prisoners up on the edge of the well and then have them shot, to enjoy the scene as they fell in."
Mutti, Wafen-SS guard -- Helga doesn't hate her mother, but she doesn't love her. She can't break the tie that binds mother and daughter, but she feels so detached. She hates that she has come so far to hear tales of torture, but she knows she will probably never see her Mutti again. Helga is torn.
The visit is over and it's lunchtime for Mutti. "The taxi stops outside the gate. Before getting in, Eva turns and asks"..."Do you think you'll be coming back?"
"Publisher's Note: Helga Schneider's mother was sentenced by an Allied jury to serve a six-year prison term for minor war crimes and for having been a member of the SS. Since she cooperated fully with the investigating committee, she ultimately served a reduced sentence. Dossiers that document her work as an SS guard on are on file in various archives, including the Wiesenthal Center in Vienna and at Auschwitz. The visit chronicled in t his book took place in 1998. It was the last time Helga Schneider would see her mother, who died in 2001."