Helga Schneider's mother walked out of her daughter's life at dusk on a chilly autumn day in 1941. Helga was four; her baby brother, sleeping in his cot, was 19 months old. Nobody else was home. Traudi, Helga's mother, did not say where she was going, or why, or for how long, or whether she was coming back. "My mother shut the door behind her," Helga writes in her memoir Let Me Go, to be published next month. "I wasn't to see her again for 30 years."
Helga Schneider's story is of a life of multiple abuses: by the selfish mother who abandoned her young family with war raging; by the hostile stepmother who took her place; and by the many dislocations that followed. But, as Let Me Go relates, the wounds caused by her mother's departure were only the start. Thirty years later she was to be devastated again when she discovered why her mother had left.
Traudi had gone to join the Nazi SS. She underwent special training to qualify as a concentration-camp guard. And when her training was complete she was assigned to duty at Auschwitz-Birkenau, the most notorious of the Nazi death camps, where, at the height of the operation to rid Europe of Jews, 12,000 men, women and children were gassed to death every day.
After her mother's pitiless farewell - "So, auf Wiedersehen, meine Kleine," she said as she walked out the door with her suitcase - Helga Schneider might well have lived out her life without encountering her mother again. Her parents divorced, her father re-married, the departed woman's name was never mentioned. Helga, who fought her stepmother and ran away from home at 16, made a life of her own, falling in love with an Italian boy she met on holiday, marrying him and settling in Bologna.
Her mother could have been dead for all she knew or cared. But then Helga had a child of her own, a son called Renzo. And recoiling from the chilliness of yet another unfeeling mother-figure - this time her Italian mother-in-law, who called her son "the little Austrian" - her thoughts turned reflexively to the first woman in her life.
"When my son was two or three," she says in her small, bright, picture-crowded flat in the middle of Bologna, "I started to think, 'You're a mother now, but what's become of your mother?' So at a certain point the idea matured in me; now I will look for my mother. Who knows - I might find a mother for myself, a granny for my son, a new relationship.
"I wrote to my father to ask if he knew anything. He said no. I said, 'Where can I find her?' He said, 'I don't know anything and I don't want to know anything. It's better to forget all about her.'"
But Helga ignored his advice and, in 1971, she set off on the trail. "The only thing I knew for sure was that my mother and father were born in Vienna," she says. "So my reasoning was that if she came back after the war, she must have gone back to her own city. I got a friend there to check the register of births, marriages and deaths and the phone books for everybody with the name Schneider. And I wrote to the five women who might have been my mother. And one of them wrote back to say, 'It's me.' So I told my husband, 'I've found my mother. I'm going to Vienna.' He couldn't come, so I said I'd go on my own. I took my son."
Helga knew nothing about the life of her vanished mother. Out of that nothing she had fashioned a loving woman delighted to get her daughter back, and a doting grandmother to her son. The disillusionment was swift. Traudi, a solidly built, handsome blonde woman of about 60, showed no interest in Renzo. "She didn't even look at my son. She gave him some biscuits and milk." And then - "on some absurd pretext" - she took Helga into her bedroom. She went to the wardrobe and took out a uniform.
"She said, 'I would very much like you to try it on.' I said, 'Why?' And, because my father had never told me anything, I didn't understand. I even thought that perhaps it was a costume for a play. She said, 'I'd like you to try it on.' I said, 'Why?' She said, 'Because it's always been my dream to see you wearing it.' I said, 'But why?' She said, 'Because I wore this uniform at Birkenau.'
"After 30 years I had in front of me, not a mother, but a war criminal. And one who was not penitent. One who still said it was right. I always recall a phrase she used about the old days: in German, 'Es war so schön', it was so beautiful! Nazism was so beautiful! She was always repeating this phrase... That was her life, she was still in agreement with it. Still a Nazi. Still convinced that it was a righteous cause."
Helga refused the uniform, refused also the handful of jewellery her mother offered her, looted from victims of Auschwitz. When Helga realised what she had been given, "I pulled my palms apart, and the jewels clattered to the floor." Instead of a joyful reunion, the meeting with Traudi was a disastrous shock. Within 40 minutes she was outside the flat, promising insincerely to return in the afternoon. Instead, she boarded a train to Italy with Renzo and tried to forget the nightmare.
"Something changed in my mind," she told me. "I realised I had never had a mother. I had to come to terms with it. I had to tell myself, 'Enough, I can't have a mother, I've never had a mother, I never will have a mother, enough...' To protect your psyche you remove yourself. I didn't think about her any more."
Yet her mother was there all the time, a few hundred kilometres away over the Alps. Another immensity of time rolled by. Helga, an aspiring writer since childhood, continued to write books, which publishers continued to reject. Renzo grew into a man, Helga lost her husband to cancer. And, one day in 1988, a pink envelope bearing a Viennese postmark arrived in her letterbox.
"What on earth could be inside that disgusting pink envelope?" she writes in Let Me Go. "I wasn't expecting any post from Vienna. I had left the city in 1963, and I had lost contact with all my old friends."
The letter was from a woman who described herself as a "dear friend" of Helga's mother, telling her that Traudi, who had become "a danger to herself and to other people", had been put in a nursing home. "Your mother is approaching the age of 90," the letter concluded, "and she could pass away from one day to the next. Why not consider the possibility of meeting her one last time? After all, she is still your mother."
Once again, Helga Schneider went over the Alps, alone this time and encumbered with neither hopes nor illusions. She went reluctantly. "I didn't want to go," she says. "There didn't seem much sense in going to see one's mother for only the second time in one's life. I knew practically nothing of her life, she knew nothing of mine. But when somebody appeals to your conscience, saying, 'Look, your mother is so old...' I thought to myself, one day someone will ring up and say, 'Look, your mother is dead.' So I said, 'OK, I'll go.' I thought, let's see, perhaps she has repented at last. Perhaps she's realised she got everything wrong: the Nazi ideology, her fanaticism, the fact that she sacrificed everything for that ideology."
In the home, daughter and mother - the mother terribly changed - confronted each other again. Helga had gone there with her cousin Eva. "There, we're facing one another," she writes. "She's old, thin - unbelievably fragile. She can't weigh more than seven stone. A woman who, 27 years ago, was still a healthy, vigorous, robust woman. I can't suppress a feeling of infinite pity.
"Finally, in the depths of those pupils, something awakens - an imperceptible flicker, an uncertain flame... 'I'm your daughter.' 'No!' she says. 'My daughter died long ago.'"
Her mother was in the final stages of senile decrepitude. But the blankness and bewilderment sometimes lifted and she became lucid, especially when the conversation turned to the days when she had been one of Hitler's elect and a guard in the toughest camp in the Reich.
Traudi remembered the name Silberberg, a Jew who co-owned Eva's father's factory. And, Helga writes, that memory led to another: Silberberg dropped Traudi's name at Auschwitz "'in the mistaken belief that it might ensure more considerate treatment for his daughter, it might even save her from the rat poison!' And she cackles shrilly, winking at the bystanders."
The belief was mistaken, because it was not only her Nazi duty to suppress every taint of humanity that arose in her; it was also her profound pleasure to do so. The hardened corps of SS guards were the Nazi elite, and unflinching cruelty was their badge of membership.
There was worse to come for Helga. Through the haze of senility, Traudi detected that her daughter - like many people - had a guilty, furtive fascination with all the vile things the Nazis did; and to keep her daughter before her eyes she tossed off one appalling anecdote after another.
"'I had orders to treat [the prisoners] with extreme harshness,' she crows, 'and I made them spit blood.'
'What? Did I support the Final Solution? Why do you think I was there? For a holiday?'
'Not everyone died [in the gas chambers] at the same rate... Newborn babies took only a few minutes; they pulled out some that were literally electric blue...'
'The fourth crematorium in Birkenau had no ovens... because it was never finished. All it had was a big well filled with hot embers... 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...'"
Finally, Helga succeeded in tearing herself away, this time for ever. "I went straight home to Bologna because I felt terrible," she tells me. "And I had a panic crisis: waking up in the night, bathed in cold sweat, heart thumping, with a terror of dying..."
Helga had never given up writing, but the medicine she was prescribed to suppress the panic attacks killed off her ability to write. "I phoned my agent and said, 'Look, I'm finished as a writer, I can't work any more.' And my agent said, 'Why don't you try to write up this experience with your mother?'"
'Let Me Go: My mother and the SS' is published on 4 March (Heinemann, £9.99)
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