Let Me Go
The extraordinary memoir of a daughter's final encounter with her mother, a former SS guard at Auschwitz
Unforgettable and deeply arresting, Let Me Go is a haunting memoir of World War II that “won’t let you go until you’ve finished reading the last page” (The Washington Post Book World). In 1941, in Berlin, Helga Schneider’s mother abandoned her along with her father and younger brother. Let Me Go recounts Helga’s final meeting with her ailing mother in a Vienna nursing home some sixty years after World War II, in which Helga confronts a nightmare: her mother’s lack of repentance about her past as a Nazi SS guard at concentration camps, including Auschwitz, where she was responsible for untold acts of torture. With spellbinding detail, Schneider recalls their conversation, evoking her own struggle between a daughter’s sense of obligation and the inescapable horror of her mother’s deeds.
Vienna, Tuesday, October 6, 1998, in my hotel
I'm seeing you again after twenty-seven years, Mother, and wondering whether in all that time you have understood how much damage you did to your children. I didn't sleep a wink last night. It's almost daylight now; I've opened the shutters. A smoky veil of light is brightening above the roofs of Vienna.
I'm going to see you again today, Mother, but what will I feel? What can a daughter feel for a mother who refused to be a mother so that she could join Heinrich Himmler's evil organization?
Respect? Only for your age-nothing else. And apart from that?
It would be hard to say that I don't feel anything. You're my mother, after all. But I can't say it will be love. I can't love you, Mother.
I'm in a state of agitation, and in spite of myself I'm thinking about our last meeting, in 1971, when I saw you again for the first time in thirty years, and I shudder to remember my dismay upon discovering that you had been a member of the SS.
And you hadn't even shown any remorse. You were still perfectly content with your past, about what you had been, about that efficient factory of horrors where you had been a model worker.
It's seven o'clock, a pale sky; it's going to rain. And I'm going to see you today, Mother, for the second time since you abandoned me, fifty-seven years ago: a lifetime. I become aware of a sense of bitter excitement, of impatience. Because in spite of everything, you're still my mother.
What will we say to each other? What will you say to me? Will I find in you any trace of regret for what we've never had? Will you have that motherly caress for me, the one I've spent more than half a century waiting for? Or will you torment me once more with your indifference?
In 1971 I was living in Italy and had a little son, Renzo; I felt an uncontrollable need to track you down. I found you. I hurried to Vienna with my son to hug you again. But you treated that grandson of yours, that boy who looked at you with such keen curiosity, with frosty detachment, denying him the right to a grandmother, just as you had denied my right, in the end, to have a mother. Because you didn't want to be a mother. Ever since we were born, you always entrusted me and my brother, Peter, to other people. And yet in the Third Reich, motherhood was obsessively praised, particularly by the Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels.
Even Heinrich Himmler, the Reichsführer of the SS-your boss-maintained that there was one principle that his members must unfailingly obey: honesty, loyalty, and fidelity toward people with the same blood as yourself. Did your children not share your blood?
No, you didn't want to be a mother; you preferred power. Faced with a group of Jewish prisoners you felt omnipotent. A guard in charge of famished, exhausted, and desperate Jews, heads shaved, eyes vacant-what a despicable kind of power!
I stare at Vienna's inhospitable sky and find myself being filled with an impulse to rebel: I regret replying so diligently to the call of a stranger; I should have ignored it, I tell myself; I should have let things drift along as they have for the last thirty years.
I was too hasty in deciding to leave.
The letter had arrived one day in late August, and for some strange reason it had filled me with apprehension even before I opened it. What on Earth could be inside that disgusting pink envelope? I wasn't expecting any post from Vienna. I had left the city in 1963, and from then on I had lost all contact with my old friends.
The writer of the letter was a woman called Gisela Freihorst, who said she had been a dear friend of my mother. That was how I learned that my mother was still alive.
Yes, she was still alive, but she had recently been transferred to a Seniorenheim, an old people's nursing home. Her condition was deteriorating: She would leave her house and get lost; she would forget to turn off the water or, even worse, the gas and risk blowing up the entire building. All in all, she had become a danger to herself and to other people.
At first she had been looked after by her local mental health service: She had to attend the day hospital for the elderly three times a week, and the rest of the time she was visited by various kinds of social workers. She always sent them away with a flea in their ear: Clearly the years had done nothing to sweeten her character, which had always been suspicious, confrontational, and rebellious. But in the end the decision had been made to remove her from her apartment, to put her in an environment where she could be monitored day and night.
"Your mother is approaching the age of ninety," the letter concluded, "and she could pass away from one day to the next. Why not consider the possibility of meeting her one last time? After all, she is still your mother."
Those words, at once direct and bureaucratic, disturbed me profoundly. After my bruising encounter with my mother in 1971, I had buried her memory in a dark recess of my mind. For many years I was convinced that my virtual burial of her had somehow become real. I imagined my mother interred in one of those haunting cemeteries in Vienna, the city where both she and my father were born. That same Vienna where I had lived as a girl, at school, lonely and resentful; the city that I had admired but never loved. Vienna with its ancient imperial pride: rigorous, polite, green, clean, frosty Vienna.
That Vienna which even today, from a distance of twenty-seven years, I still observe with a kind of suspicious fascination.
And I had been fooling myself all along. That letter in its disgusting pink envelope dragged me out of my cozy conviction that my mother was dead and that I would never again have to confront torments and pain on her account.
It is twenty past seven, and it's starting to drizzle. The gloomy sky is aggravating my unease.
I'm becoming more and more convinced that I should have ignored the letter. I would have been unsettled for several days, and then I would gradually have buried it along with all the rest, slipping once more toward some semblance of tranquillity. And yet I didn't. I allowed myself to be overwhelmed by the news, by Frau Freihorst's sad words. Or perhaps it was just my own curiosity: What would my mother look like today?
Or was it rather a small and foolish hope that was awakening in me? Perhaps she would have changed; perhaps her great age would have softened her heart; perhaps she would even be capable of some kind of maternal gesture. Curiosity, hope, and a kind of dark attraction. I had succumbed, and as though afraid of changing my mind, I had immediately informed Frau Freihorst of my impending arrival.
My heart is pounding. What am I going to say to you? And if, as happened in 1971, you want to talk only about yourself and your past-so gratifying to make yourself heard after the collapse of Nazism, as though you had been simply erased? Will you try, as you did then, to praise your former comrades, some of whom, you told me, were "irreproachable family men"?
I remember you mentioned the name of Rudolf Hoess. You bragged about having known him well and also of having known and socialized with his wife and their five children. You said that Hoess was the best commandant in Auschwitz and that you were very sorry when he was transferred. You could no longer visit Frau Hoess in her charming little house in the SS estate beyond the electrified perimeter fence-the same one that so many prisoners tried to hurl themselves against, hoping for a quick and liberating death. You could no longer recover your strength in the Hoess family's idyllic little house; you couldn't shake off the exhaustion which, from time to time, prostrated even such a robust guard as yourself.
I have subsequently had the opportunity to read the memoirs that Hoess wrote in the months leading up to his trial and execution; and I found myself thinking once more, with a mixture of dismay and disbelief, about the grandiloquence of your account of things. But perhaps you've changed now. Perhaps we'll finally be able to talk like a mother and a daughter who haven't seen each other for twenty-seven years-who have not spoken to each other for a lifetime.
From a sworn affidavit by Rudolf Hoess, member of the SS and Auschwitz camp commandant from May 1, 1940, until December 1, 1943, who was tried and sentenced to death by a Polish court:
The mass executions using gas began in the summer of 1941 and lasted until autumn 1944. I personally oversaw the executions in Auschwitz until December 1, 1943 ...
The "final solution" of the Jewish question meant the extermination of all the Jews in Europe.
In 1942 I received the order to make the executions in Auschwitz more efficient. At the time there were already three other extermination camps in occupied Poland: Belzec, Treblinka, and Wolzec. Those camps were under the command of the Security Police and the SD, the Reich's security and espionage service.
I traveled to Treblinka to inspect their method of extermination. The commandant of the Lager told me that over the course of six months he had liquidated 80,000 people, most of them Jews from the Warsaw ghetto. He employed carbon monoxide, but in my opinion the method was not very efficient. So when I established the extermination process in Auschwitz, I used Zyklon B, a crystallized Prussic acid which was thrown into the gas chambers through small openings. Death took between 3 and 15 minutes. When the cries of the people could no longer be heard, we knew that they were all dead.
Another improvement over Treblinka was the construction of gas chambers which could accommodate up to 2,000 people, while the ten gas chambers in Treblinka had a total capacity of only 200.
The method of selection of the victims was this: in Auschwitz two doctors were entrusted with the task of examining the new prisoners, who arrived at frequent intervals. The prisoners each had to pass in front of one of the doctors, who indicated his decision by nodding his head. Those who were fit for work were sent to the camp, and the rest were immediately dispatched to the extermination building. Young children were, without exception, exterminated as unfit for work.
One final improvement on Treblinka was the following: while the victims of Treblinka almost always knew that they were going to be exterminated, in Auschwitz we sought to deceive them by making them think they were going to be disinfected for lice. In many cases, of course, they guessed our true intentions, and consequently we had to suppress a number of revolts. Mothers would often attempt to hide their little children under their clothes, but they were easily found, and sent immediately to the gas chambers. We should really have carried out the extermination in great secrecy, but the foul and nauseating stench from the ceaseless cremation of the bodies permeated the whole area, so the people who lived in the surrounding villages became aware that a process of extermination was under way in Auschwitz.
It's an unbearable thought, those little children being separated from their mothers to be sent on their own to the gas chambers.
An unbearable thought: that my own mother was involved in all that.
Sluggish and desolate rain; the tarmac on the road in front of the hotel flickers uncertainly in the light from the streetlamp, which is still lit.
Gradually I start to become aware that I am extremely tired, but my mind is wide awake, with disturbing thoughts running through it. I could do with a coffee, a good strong Italian-style coffee.
The prospect of seeing you again opens up a great gulf in the pit of my stomach. Twenty-seven years have passed since we last met. Will there be anything to salvage? Surely there's something we can do-even if it's only to try to understand, to forgive, to attempt to forge an appallingly belated relationship between mother and daughter, however flimsy it might be.
"Hold your hands open," you said. I'll never forget that. You had pulled me by one arm, as though to tell me a secret, into the bedroom of the little apartment in the suburb of Mariahilf; and you had opened a little box: It's a standard gesture, one that usually heralds a present of some kind.
"Hold your hands open." And then you filled them with rings, bracelets, cuff links, pendants, brooches, a watch, and a handful of necklaces, large and small. For a moment I looked uncomprehendingly at all that gold. Then I understood, and it was as though my hands were on fire. I pulled my palms apart, and the jewelry clattered onto the floor. You stared at me, puzzled.
"I wanted to give you a present," you said finally, with frank ferocity. "They might come in useful on a rainy day; you can never tell where life will take you."
"I don't want them," I replied.
Then you started to gather them all up, one by one, sadly and fastidiously. When you delicately picked up a little chain, my heart plummeted.
It was one of those chains that you give to little girls on their fourth or fifth birthdays, a slight little thing but precious nonetheless. At that moment, with icy clarity, an image superimposed itself over the sight of you picking up all your gold: the image of you driving the little girl who had owned the necklace into the gas chamber. And in that moment everything was decided. I was sure of one thing: I didn't want this mother.
The mother who had never gone in search of me, and who was now ignoring my son, sitting alone in the living room with a coloring book.
I still remember your vexed disappointment: How could I, your daughter, refuse a gift like that? But really, did you think you could compensate me for your long absence with a handful of gold?
"Are you really sure you don't want it?" You tried one last time. Such obtuse, exasperating insistence! "No," I said again. I didn't even try to explain why. There would have been no point.
I'm ready. Eva, my cousin, is waiting for me down in the lobby. She's come specially from Germany to be with me today. I'm suddenly tempted to cancel my visit. But it wouldn't be fair to try to make her an accomplice of such an act of childish cowardice. She has a sweet nature, but she's extremely predictable in her actions.
Eva is the daughter of my father Stefan's sister; we met again a few years ago after a very long separation.
Before we were reunited several years ago, I had not seen her since 1942 in Berlin, where her parents had a magnificent villa frequented by the crème de la crème of the capital.For the duration of these pages, the old, mad Germany that we had thought dead comes to life again. (J. M. Coetzee)
A deeply personal, heartbreaking story. (The Women’s Review of Books)
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