Mothers come in all shapes and persuasions: this one enthusiastically joined the Waffen SS, abandoned her children, and embraced her tasks at Auschwitz, as gloomily recounted in her daughter’s memoir.
Frau Mutti Schneider left her family in 1941, when Helga was four years old. Duty called: “Did I support the final solution? Why do you think I was there? For a holiday?” These words confront the author as she makes a last visit (only the second since 1941) to her mother, now living in a nursing home, shrunken and ancient at 90. “Senile and pathetic, cruel and romantic,” muses her daughter. “That was how Himmler’s blackshirts were, including women like herself, the SS in skirts.” Their final encounter includes moments of tenderness and pity on Schneider’s part—she is still, reluctantly, helplessly, a daughter, and that matters—but they are swamped by the utter venality of her mother’s words. “The fourth crematorium at Birkenau had no ovens . . . all it had was a big well filled with hot embers. The new commandant in Auschwitz found it terribly amusing.” Frau Schneider is touchy and arrogant, mocking in her selective recall; she drops bombshells of memory. “You were stubborn and disobedient,” she tells her daughter. “You were clever and rebellious. And you used to like hopping on one leg.” Schneider dissolves, moaning, “She can twist me around her little finger.” But not so fast. A violent sense of reality slaps the author awake, and she remembers she has made this hurtful rendezvous to discover some arc of meaning in her mother’s acts. But Mutti’s dehumanization training endures: “Well, my daughter, like it or not, I have never regretted being a member of the Waffen SS, is that clear?” It’s as awful as that.
Survivor’s tales come in as many shapes as mothers. This one, from the dark side, is as affecting as a kick in the stomach.