Growing up the child of two Auschwitz survivors, I was only mildly aware of my mother’s and father’s Holocaust experiences. Mum was positive. Her survival and fulfillment was possible despite all the suffering and stress she endured at Auschwitz–Birkenau. My mother didn’t allow her experience to impact my sister and myself, and we grew up unburdened by the tragic times she lived through.
Which is not to say she didn’t try to tell us what she’d been through. Mum would sometimes talk to us about her experiences in Auschwitz, where, over the course of three and a half years, she served at various times in prisoner functionary roles such as Stubenältesten (room leaders), Blockältesten (block leaders) and Lagerältesten (camp leaders). The stories she would tell were mainly about how she was able to help save many lives using her position, but after a while, we just didn’t listen and said, “That’s O.K., Mum.” She did not think we were interested, so she did not pursue it further.
It was only later that I realized how much she wanted to tell her story—and how much of a difference that story could make.
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The women in Auschwitz who had held functions after the war were commonly called Kapos. They were responsible for managing labor groups inside and outside of the Auschwitz complex. These were notoriously brutal and cruel. And as one of the few survivors who were up close to the murderous, evil commanders and guards, my mother—who was anything but cruel—was often approached by historians, academics, teachers and writers. They wanted details and more information about what took place in the Auschwitz-Birknau concentration camp and the Nazis’ roles and actions within them.
When she died, I discovered a box with her correspondence and photocopies of her responses. She replied in detail. She told them how she often compromised her own safety to protect the women in her barracks, how she distracted the Nazis’ attention from the sick and vulnerable, how she successfully redirected women being led to the gas chambers, and how she was able to use her connections in the kitchen to smuggle extra food for the women struggling with malnutrition.
My mother was convinced that they would share her story. However, each time, she realized they weren’t writing about her. They used her information to conduct their research.
She decided to tell her story, unbeknownst of me and the rest the family. She was a previous video-testimonial to Yad Vashem, Jerusalem, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington, D.C., the Melbourne Jewish Holocaust Centre, and the Shoah foundation. She was then 86 when she started writing her story and editing it by hand. In 2002, she began to write the story again. This project was launched by her own, she sold some books and donated the proceeds to charity that she knew. As if she had no need to live through her trauma anymore by writing her memoir.
Here is where I began my journey.
In 2014, I received a call from a stranger living in Perth, Western Australia, who had seen my mother’s testimony on YouTube and was an admirer of her unique story. When I sent him my mother’s original memoir, he brought my attention to a mistake in the text. My mother referenced a newspaper article that was said to be in the book when, in fact, it wasn’t. I was certain which article he meant.
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This article was written by Dr. Gisella pearl, a New York Gynecologist. She was also a former prisoner at Camp C. Új KeletIt was August 1953. The headline read: ‘‘Magda the Lagerälteste of Camp C.” I knew my mother intended to include this article in her book, as I specifically remember her having it translated into English, but for whatever reason, it was left out. The article was included in the book, so I sent it to professional editors. The editor finished the manuscript and told me the story was amazing, but that it didn’t have primary sources.
However, the material was readily available. I started from that article, which provided a firsthand account of my mother’s role as prisoner functionary. Other articles were also available, along with every written and oral testimony Mum provided. My mother was one of many survivors that were at Auschwitz-Birkenau along with me. They testified about what they did and how it saved their families.
It is not just an account of daily life at Auschwitz-Birkenau or a counterpoint to stereotypes regarding camp workers. Historical evidence backs it up. It also provides a glimpse into the human condition and resilience, and shows how one can overcome the worst conditions. My mother’s role as Blockälteste and Lagerälteste allowed her to assist many women and help them to survive. My research revealed that she believed in what she could do at camp. She did not allow fear to dominate her existence, however, she wrote, “Occasionally in a quiet moment I found myself reflecting on the times I had found the chutzpah and courage to speak up to the SS.” She remained human in the most inhumane place on earth, Auschwitz-Birkenau.
My mother always found a delicate balance in following Nazi orders and still helping women. She couldn’t save everybody, but she did the best she could. In finishing the project she began, I am sharing the story she wanted to share with the world— a story that, at a time when denialism and anti-Semitism is rising again, is still just as crucial as it was when she tried to tell it all those years ago.
Maya Lee is a coauthor The Nazis Knew my Name: A remarkable Story of Survival and Courage at Auschwitz Magda Hellinger’s child.