Helga Schneider was just a little girl when her mother Trudi left her during the war – but it was not until later in life that she searched for her, only to discover the woman she had lost was a Nazi war criminal
Helga Schneider still remembers her mother’s words. Suitcase in hand, she bent down, looked her in the eye and said: “Mummy has to go away. Be a good girl, don’t cry.”
With that, Traudi shut the door on the family home, leaving Helga alone with her 19-month-old brother. It was 1941 in Berlin. And Helga was just four.
Shunted between homes and put into an institution for problem children, Helga grew up yearning for a mum to comfort her through the horrors of war.
It was 30 years before she finally found her again, and then she unearthed a truth that would scar her for ever: the mother she had pined for was a volunteer for Hitler’s Nazi Waffen-SS – and a guard at Auschwitz -Birkenau.
While Helga had been crying for her mum, Traudi was “proud” to be working at the worst death camp in history, where over a million Jewish, Roma and Polish men, women and children were gassed, starved and worked to death.
And worse still, she had no regrets – maintaining to the end that “Nazis were just, Hitler was great and the Jews needed to be exterminated”.
“I was so shocked” Helga, now 80, recalls: “Because after 30 years, when a mother tells you ‘I was with the SS and a guard at Auschwitz’, and she is ‘proud, not repentant’, you are speechless. It was terrible, terrible.
“I’d wanted to find a mother, so when, instead of a mother you find a woman who says, proudly, she was a guard at Auschwitz. Can you imagine that?”
The trauma of her discovery became the subject of a bestselling memoir and has now been made into a film, Let Me Go, by British director Polly Steele and starring Juliet Stevenson as Helga.
Helga’s father Stefan was away fighting when Traudi left their home in Berlin. Helga was looked after by relatives until her father remarried a year later.
Through stepmother Ursula, whose sister worked under Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, Helga met Hitler in 1944. She says: “Hitler, he wasn’t unpleasant, he was nice to us.”
Hitler seemed unwell following the assassination attempt earlier that year, she recalls. “He was very pale. He looked ill and a bit sweaty. And he couldn’t walk properly. But his gaze, I don’t know how to explain it, it was fixed, resolved.”
At 16 Helga ran away to Austria, where she studied to be an actress. On holiday in Italy she met her future husband and went to live with him in Bologna, where she still lives. She wanted to forget Germany: her mother, the war, the language. Even now she prefers to speak Italian, as German is too distressing.
It was after her son Renzo was born that she decided to search for her mother. She had assumed Traudi had left the family for a man, and was ready to forgive her. She wrote to six women with the same name and, in 1971, found Traudi in Vienna.
“When she opened the door it was very emotional – she looked so much like me,” says Helga. “We hugged at first. I was so happy. But after 10 minutes she told me with pride and without repentance that she had worked at Auschwitz.”
A phrase she repeated haunts Helga: “‘But the Nazi regime was beautiful’.”
Traudi asked her daughter to try on her Auschwitz uniform and even gave her a handful of gold jewellery, which Helga soon realised would have come from people at the camp. “I opened my fingers and the jewellery fell to the ground,” she says. “I said to her: ‘How could you? How could you take children to the gas chamber?’.”
Helga asked if she felt guilty taking Jewish babies from their mothers to be killed. “They would have grown up to be Jewish adults,” Traudi told her.
Traudi also felt no remorse for leaving her as a four-year-old in war-torn Berlin.
Traudi’s duties at the camp had included herding women and children to the gas chambers and restraining the victims of the camp doctors’ notorious medical experiments.
She was jailed as a war criminal for about two years after the war but her commitment to the regime had not wavered.
“She told me, ‘Once the Fuhrer died I felt nothing’,” Helga says. “Life no longer had meaning. She had based her life on Hitler and Nazi ideology and when it ended she felt erased.”
Helga’s reunion with Traudi lasted just 45 minutes. Helga says: “I had grown up thinking of her, imagining a kind woman, sweet. Instead I found a war criminal.”
Helga tried to forget her. Three decades passed, her husband died of cancer and her son grew up.
But then she received a letter saying her mother was in a nursing home and might die any day. Helga hoped she had repented. “After all that time, I thought surely she’d have realised she was mistaken, that the ideology was evil?”
This second meeting is the focus of the new film, which tells how she returns to confront Traudi along with her granddaughter, played by Lucy Boynton.
In real life, when Helga returned to her mother in 1998, she found a pathetic and pitiful old woman. “The tragedy was that there was no change,” she says.
Suffering dementia, Traudi did not recognise Helga at first. But she had moments of lucidity during the two-hour meeting, in which she talked in grotesque detail about Auschwitz .
“She said to me, ‘Newborn babies took only a few minutes; they pulled out some that were electric blue’,” says Helga.
She also told her daughter: “I had orders to treat [the prisoners] with extreme harshness, and I made them spit blood.”
While Helga has forgiven her mother for abandoning her, she says she doesn’t “have the right to forgive her mother for what she did at Auschwitz”.
Helga has devoted herself to spreading peace, where her mother spread hate. She has spent 20 years giving school talks and meeting Auschwitz victims and their children.
Now as far-right groups gain support across Europe, she hopes people will learn from the past.
“It is more important to keep alive the memory of the Holocaust now than ever,” she says. “With this book and film I hope I have done my duty.”
Let Me Go is released in selected UK cinemas and digital download by Evolutionary Films.