Saturday, January 31, 2009

The Horror

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.


kimbofo said...

Oh. My. God. This sounds like an incredibly disturbing read. Even Albert Speer realised in his dying days that he had to admit some kind of guilt over the role he played in the Final Solution. Have you ever read Gitta Sereny's biography of Speer; it is truly the most fascinating piece of non-fiction I had ever read.

Steerforth said...

Yes I have - a brilliant book. I remember waking up in someone's house after a particularly lively party and during a hungover breakfast conversation, I discovered that EVERYONE in the room had read Gitta Sereny's book. What are the chances of that happening?

The majority of German war memoirs seem to fall into two camps: either the 'I Knew nothing' approach or the old 'I was only acting under orders' excuse. What's shocking about Helga Schneider's mother is the sheer vitriol and lack of remorse. Utterly chilling.

The Poet Laura-eate said...

The photo of all the spectacles reminds me of the scene from 'Escape From Sobibor' where a woman with a check dress was shown undressing for a 'shower' and then next thing you saw was the check dress amidst mountains of other clothing being sorted and then hundreds of shoes, glasses etc all being sorted.

How horrendous for Helga to have not only been rejected by her mother but for such a horrific reason - she must loathe the very DNA in her body which came from her mother.

Scriptor Senex said...

Thanks for the posting - you've made this a 'must read'.

Steerforth said...

Laura - in a sense she did reject her own DNA by moving to Italy and becoming more proficient in Italian than her mother tongue.

'Let Me Go' was written in Italian.

tattyhousehastings said...

I'm still disturbed by 'The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas', its giving me the chills. Largely, I think because I struggle to think that the children really were that ignorant/innocence. And then that leads me to how it felt staying in Krakow, and visiting Auchwitz. Almost the most powerful memory I have is of thinking about the older people we met, and how it was for them, and what they did. Really chilling.

Kraxpelax said...

Ah, the Holocaust. Of course.

How did I get here? I tracked your profile, and saw you appreciate rather obscure Swedish composer Hilding Rosenberg. So do I, a composer of great formal strength. As so many, he is at his best at the string quartet. But greatest piece composed by a Swede is arguably Kurt Atterberg, Symphony no 6 C major, the "Dollar Symphony", And romanticist Wilhelm Stenhammar at top is second to none. Two almost unknown Swedish composers of exquisite quality are Edvin Kallstenius, with his marvellous clarinet quintet, and Henning Mankell with his his beautiful piano lyrics, half romantic, half neo-classical. Myself, I am immensely fond of English music, Sterndale Bennett, Stanford, Parry, Bax, Rawsthorne, Bridge, Ireland and many many more. Vaughan Williams 8th symphony shines out as a towering masterpiece, and his 5th is tremendous as well.
Ingmar Bergman? Wild Strawberries is a great film, Seventh Seal and Persona even better.

As for English litterature, my own list includes Tolkien's Tale of the Ring, Norman Mailer: Harlot's Ghost, Truman Capote: Music for Chameleons, Robert Louis Stevenson: Treasure Island, Ernest Hemingway: Short stories.

Peter Ingestad, Sweden

Steerforth said...

Hello Peter,

Good to hear from another Hilding Rosenberg fan. I discovered his music on BBC Radio Three's 'Composer of the Week' programme and have been trying to obtain recordings ever since. I don't know why Rosenberg's music isn't more well known.

I shall explore the Swedish composers you've recommended. I'm familiar with Berwald and Stenhammer, but I haven't heard the others.

Glad you like Vaughan Williams. I've read that his music is too parochial for international audiences, but that's like complaining that Dostoyevsky is too Russian.

I've seen The Seventh Seal and Persona and thought they were wonderful, but there's something about Wild Strawberries that moves me more than any other Bergman film.

John Self said...

If I remember my schoolboy German properly, 'Stück" means "pieces", which pretty much sums up Schneider's inhumanity in one word.