Review: Let Me Go
Let Me Go, by Helga Schneider (2001)
TW: Anti-Semitism, and graphic descriptions of Holocaust camps, including medical experimentation
I read this a while ago but am only now getting around to writing a review. It's not an easy read. It's quite short, but emotionally taxing. Let Me Go is a very real, raw story, and offers a unique glimpse into the mind of an SS officer, and the chaos and turmoil left in the wake of her actions.
Schneider tells the story of her relationship, or really, lack thereof, to her mother - a woman who left the family in 1941 (when Schneider was four years old, her brother not yet two) to join Hitler's SS organization. At the time, her father was on the front fighting for Germany, so an aunt and grandmother cared for Helga and her brother. Helga knew very little about her mother, Traudi, until 30 years later, when she learned more about Traudi's work for the SS. In 1971, Helga brought her young son to meet Traudi in Vienna. Traudi showed no interest in the boy, and very little in Helga's life either. She was primarily interested in showing off her SS uniform, and also offered Helga a handful of gold jewelry, which had been stolen from victims of the Holocaust. The meeting was brief, and disheartening, and Helga swore she would have no further contact.
But this book is mainly about her second meeting with Traudi, in 1998. A friend of Traudi's has gotten in touch to share the news that she is dying, and does Helga want to see her one last time. After much trepidation, she decides to go, bringing along her cousin Eva for moral support. What follows is a two-hour conversation with a manipulative woman who has zero regret for the atrocities she helped commit. Traudi confirms that at Auschwitz-Birkenau she participated in the "extermination" of prisoners in the gas chambers, and that at Ravensbruck she worked as an assistant to the doctors that performed medical experiments. She takes pride in the duties of her job, and spends a lot of time justifying her actions as an SS guard, and also of her abandonment of her family.
In short, she's an awful person. Schneider intersperses excerpts from the 1945-46 Nuremburg Trials at strategic moments to either corroborate Traudi's musings, or refute the occasional lies about her level of involvement. (Traudi Schneider served just three years for war crimes, and was released from prison in 1948.) Schneider also talks a lot about her own feelings about Traudi - her disgust and horror at the involvement in the SS, her need for affection from a mother who abandoned her at such a young age, her desire to find something, anything to connect to - some modicum of regret, which she never uncovers.
There is no satisfactory conclusion - which is why it is so real and heartbreaking. Traudi is unapologetic. No redemption arc, no transformation or salvation, Helga is left to accept her mother for exactly what she is, and walks away knowing that she did her best to try to make a connection. The book is intense and emotional and horrible. But it's important. It's a rare, engrossing window into the traumatic events of the Holocaust itself, and of the many broken people it left behind.