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The shock of reading the files sent Helga into a deep depression. I thought of what my son might think as he grew up. I was determined to never see her again.’Twenty-seven years later, however, she did.‘Unbearable, that my mother was involved in all that. By then – 1998 – Helga was a widow of 61, her husband having died of cancer.I’ve read her book, though, and when you get inside her head – to use Polly’s phrase – it soon becomes clear that psychologically she is still, in part, the aghast, abandoned German child.Helga can clearly remember the day her mother left: how she caught hold of her mother’s long hair as she bent down to scold her for making such a fuss, her 19-month-old brother screaming in his cot as the door slammed shut behind her.As a four-year-old in wartime Berlin, Helga sobbed by the front door as her mother abandoned the family to join the SS and become a concentration-camp guard.In her 20s, Helga left Germany, moved to Italy, married an Italian and tried to throw off every Germanic element of her identity.
Feeling in need of something inexpressible – ‘I had a black hole in me I needed to fill’ – she had tracked down her mother to a flat in Vienna so that her five-year-old son, Lorenzo, could meet his grandmother.‘On the train from Bologna I was thinking, “Well, if she betrayed my father, I can forgive her,”’ she says.
Her stepmother was so devoted to the Third Reich that she arranged, via a sister who worked for the propaganda minister Josef Goebbels, for Helga to be among the group of children who in December 1944 would meet Hitler in his underground bunker in Berlin.
Helga had to spend the preceding days in the bunker, being fattened up – she ate until she was sick – and put under sunlamps so that the Führer would be shielded from the true effect of the war on Germany’s children. I can still remember the feel of his hand – it was so clammy.’It wasn’t until the war ended that Helga began to hear adults murmur about the mass killing of Jews in concentration camps, but she had no idea her mother had any link to the camps.
But to her shock, the mother she hadn’t seen for 30 years showed no interest in what Helga had been doing in the intervening years, no interest in her grandson and was almost gleeful when Helga asked where and why she’d gone away in 1941.‘She said, very proudly, “I worked at Auschwitz.
I was in the SS.” She said she’d had to go because she had sworn an oath of absolute allegiance to the SS.
Then she said, “And I’ve always dreamt of seeing this on you!