During a recent visit to a charity shop, I discovered this paperback memoir, published in 2004:
The sensationalist title and Mail on Sunday recommendation were almost enough to put me off, but the blurb on the back was fascinating:
'When Helga Schneider was four, her mother Trudi abandoned her to pursue her career. In 1998, Helga received a letter asking her to visit Trudi, then 90 years old, before she died. Mother and daughter had only met once before, on a disastrous visit where Helga first learnt the terrible secret of her mother's past.
Trudi was an extermination guard in Auschwitz and Ravensbruck and was involved in Nazi 'medical' experiments on prisoners. She had never expressed any remorse for her actions, yet Helga still hoped that at this final meeting she would find some way to forgive her mother.'
I have read a number of books about the Holocaust, beginning with Primo Levi's If This is a Man and thought that I had become pretty unshockable. However, in this short memoir, there is more horror than some of the most harrowing concentration camp memoirs. It is not just Trudi Schneider's lack of remorse that shocks the reader, but also her undiminished hostility towards the Jews:
'Those Jewish whores had to understand where they were and why...they were always tired and difficult, and at night they whined for the children they had lost along the way...'
Today, we are familiar with the horrific photos of mass graves and emaciated prisoners standing behind barbed wire fences, but few compare to this image in its ability to convey vast, industrial scale of the camps:
Astoundingly, in the midst of this genocide, Trudi and her colleagues were having the time of their lives:
Trudi's proud recollections of her work in the camps make this a harrowing enough read, but there is one element of horror that makes this book particularly shocking, in a way that no Holocaust memoir can match:
'How long did it take for the victims of the gas chambers...' I can't go on.
'The gas took between three and fifteen minutes to have its effect,' she replies in a detached and technical tone.
'And is it true that after a certain point the exposure time was shortened?'
'Well, they had to get through 12,000 Stück a day; they'd raised the quota.'
'So it was possible that when you opened the doors of the gas chambers, there might have been some people who weren't quite dead?'
'Of course! It often happened with the children. Sometimes those little bastards were more resistant to the rat poison than the adults were,' she adds with a sarcastic chuckle.
Earlier, Trudi is asked if she ever felt sorry for the children:
'And why should I have? A Jewish child would have become a Jewish adult, and Germany had to free itself of that loathsome race. How many times do I have to repeat that?'
Holocaust memoirs take the reader to the edge of death, but they are written by survivors. Let Me Go is a harrowing but vital account of what happened to those who didn't live to tell the tell.
The charitable view of Helga Schneider's mother is that in order to maintain her sanity, she could allow no room for doubt and compassion. Before going to the camps she underwent a 'dehumanisation' process and it could be argued that Trudi was brainwashed into participating in these atrocities. However, the fact remains that Trudi Schneider was a volunteer, abandoning her young children for the greater glory of the Third Reich.
For Trudi Schneider there is no redemption and as their meeting draws to an end, Helga knows that she will never return.