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Schneider 2004 book cover

The Trouble with Memory: How witnesses view their experience of WWII

Book Essay on: Helga Schneider, Let Me Go
(New York: Walker, 2004), 166 pages.

by V. Rio Villasenor
June 5, 2007

for Prof. Marcuse's lecture course
Germany, 1945-present
UC Santa Barbara, Winter 2007

About the Author
& Abstract
and Links
Plagiarism Warning & Links
$5 & searchable
at amazon

About Rio Villasenor

I am a Senior Global Studies major, History minor emphasizing European Studies. I have taken various history classes that focus on the European continent. I chose to write about Nazi legacies and its remembrance because I was curious how, if at all, the tenets of Nazi ideology were preserved by its party members. With my continuing study of history I intend travel the world furthering my knowledge of other cultures while pursuing a teaching position.

Abstract (back to top)

This essay focuses on the legacy of Nazism with particular interest in the generational difference between the sons and daughters SS members. The informal interview of a former Nazi party member, conducted by her daughter Helga Schneider in a convalescent home, is the setting for Let Me Go. Schneider’s account is just one of many similar ones, but it holds that the ties held to their Nazi past are strong among former Nazi party members even half a century after that party no exists. In a traumatic and detailed dialog Schneider discovers that her mother, a former Nazi, sidestepped responsibility by claiming that her actions during the war were done out of shear obedience, but with persistent investigation finds that her mother openly volunteered her participation in the persecution and execution of Jews during WWII. From this and other accounts my essay outlines the main reasons for the desire to forget the past and thereby end the possibility of repeated atrocity like that which took place in Europe during the Third Reich.

Essay (back to top)


The opening to Let Me Go, authored by Helga Schneider, informs readers that there will be a significant amount of discussion devoted to the interpersonal relationship of Helga and her mother, who as we learn is a former member of the Schutzstaffel (SS). During her service to this large security and military organization for the NAZI party Schneider’s Mother mother was a guard at the internment camp located in Auschwitz-Birkenau, but this is not revealed until later in the book. Furthermore, Schneider reveals that her relationship with her mother was marked more by its absence than by its a harsh and stormy history. When Schneider was only four years old in 1941 her mother abandoned Schneider and her brother to pursue a “political” career in the SS. As the title reveals Helga Schneider is in pursuit of one last encounter with her mother so that she may be able to sever all ties between them herself and a woman she hardly knows.

After, living with her aunt Marguerite for some time, Helga and her little brother were put in the care of their new step-mother, Ursula, and their father. However, Schneider’s new mother also proved to be a less than ideal female role model candidate. Ursula despised Schneider and forbid her to talk of her maternal biological mother. Schneider’s childhood witnessed trial after trial as she was sent from one boarding school to another at Ursula’s discretion. As it was World War II, Schneider’s father was away fighting in fighting in the German army , and Ursula held complete control over Schneider. As the book progresses Schneider reveals incremental insights into her own thoughts of her mother in attempts to surmise the motivation for leaving her children in order to become a prison guard for the Third Reich. There is relatively little opportunity left for the reader to speculate how Schneider feels about this abandonment as Schneider is at pains to determine this for herself in an upcoming visit that she will have with her ailing mother.

Schneider has had only one encounter with her mother since 1941 when they were living together in Berlin. As we learn that was 27 years ago when Schneider tracked her mother down and requested their rendezvous in Vienna in 1971. That encounter as told by Schneider was a disaster and ended with her mother’s attempt to give her gold and trinkets which she undoubtedly acquired as a prison guard. This gesture sullied their relationship once again and along with insolent bragging about rubbing shoulders with infamous Nazis crushed the possibilities possibility of a healthy relationship between the two.

The first part of the book builds up to Schneider and her mother’s second encounter where her mother’s character becomes the focus. Schneider’s credibility as an anti-Nazi does not come into question as she repeatedly voices her disgust towards the accounts of her mother’s role in the concentration camps. This meeting that takes place between Schneider and her mother is supposed to serve as a final severance of contact thereby giving Schneider some degree of closure to a n otherwise hysterical highly volatile relationship. Coming to the conclusion that this may not be possible the story ends and we learn that Schneider’s mother is quite senile. The last meeting between the two leaves Schneider less ignorant about her mother’s character, but only at the cost of shock and repulsion.

From this dialogue multiple questions arise regarding how her mother’s memory recalls actions and decisions she made decades ago and under what ideological pretenses she made them. The reader Readers is are guided into an arena where he/she is are welcomed to pose theories as to why her mother chose to leave her family, to serve the Nazi regime punishing Jews, and to help maintain the Reich’s ideological command by following order ’s shouted out barked by “the party” years after its demise.


Schneider’s disposition around in the presence of her mother in this book progresses from a disconnected and jaded former self into a curiously possessed journalistic type where she cannot help but delve deeper and deeper into her mother’s past. Although Schneider is in the beginning of this book quite despondent in the search to define her mother’s ambivalent character she develops a neurotic need to understand, which manifests itself as a curiosity; that curiosity is the product of a comes from the desire to conclude many of her speculations about the vulnerable preceding generation and is juxtaposed against Helga’s desperate attempt to forget the past and her mother’s attempt to justify it. and their adjustment to the Nazi way of life.

From the beginning Schneider would like the reader s to believe a key element of her mother’s character—even if she herself did not know or did not want to know who exactly her mother was at first—to be obedience, a stereotypical trait demonstrated by Nazi proponents. that she demonstrates a stereotypical trait of the Nazi proponents, obedience. As she comments, Heinrich Himmler, who headed the SS, maintained that his member ’s must be unfailingly honest, loyal and respect their blood relatives (Schneider, 2). This, as readers are to understand, is a doctrine which Schneider’s mother swore an oath to and is the reason for her unfailing allegiance to her duties. Her career at the Birkenau camp is her sole main source of pride, along with followed closely by “her faith and her iron convictions” (Schneider, 137).

This allegiance continues to surface with each interaction between the two. Schneider’s mother consistently brings up her relationships with influential Nazis (i.e. Auschwitz commandant Rudol f ph Hoess and his wife) to show her success as an SS member. But it is not her mother’s status that is significant to the story , but rather the fact that she feels her daughter will be impressed with her connections to Nazi high society. Likewise, when Schneider asks Fr äulein Inge , a trusted friend of her mother’s, if her mother made attempts to conceal her past from others she was told “Nothing of the sort…but it isn’t a problem” (Schneider, 22). Her mother spoke freely and admirably about her past still referring to the National Socialist party simply as “the party” giving it the same importance as she did half a century before. Inside the convalescent home, i t appeared as though her mother’s concessions evaporated as the harmless banter of a senile old woman. Conversely, these stories told by her mother had a much more profound effect on Helga.

The fact of the matter is Nazi Germans and their ideologies like many self-fulfilling doctrines do not readily prove their merit and durability; as the last few days of the war in April/ May of 1945 were starting to emerge like the Allies from the beaches the people were still implored and seemingly forced to feel that there was still a chance and that they were eternally just in their mission to conquer Europe. As Reichskommissar for the defense of Berlin and Nazi Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, “[threatened] anyone who dared to raise a white flag” and place the Nazi regime possibly risk the Nazi regime being placed in the path of a barrage of accusations; if the Germans had been successful in their “Final Solution,” th e an apologies would not have been necessary , Schneider’s mother explains (132). But the Nazis did not win and they were required to make many apologies.

As the visit continues Schneider becomes increasingly aware of her mother’s crimes, consequently increasing the level alienation between the two. But for a reason unbeknownst to her, Schneider continues to probe into her mother’s past as if driven by some subconscious force she refers to as a demon. Schneider’s cousin, who accompanies her on this visit , is opposed to this inquisition, and her dismay is recognized by the mother. For instance, Schneider’s mother freezes up after retelling a particularly incriminating memory and Schneider is invoked to “apply a little pressure” by some “dark force [that] drives [ her me] implacably onward” (Schneider, 72). She discovers that her mother assisted in experiments carried out on prisoners, which ranged from muscle regeneration to the study of viruses’ effects on the body after intentional infection.

It is memories such as these that lead men and women to conclude that the horrors carried out in World War II Germany are best left forgotten. As Jeffrey Herf suggests in his book, Divided Memory: The Nazi Past in the Two Germanys, most “believed that the best way to overcome Nazism was to avoid a direct confrontation with it…too much memory would undermine a still fragile popular psyche” (Herf, 225). This view, although perceptive , does not help Schneider come to an understanding with her mother, nor does it allow a society to truly reconcile their with its past. The logic behind this argument is that public discussion of Nazi practices would demonize the German people as a whole and possibly spark new nationalistic tendencies. So, the p Postwar Germanys employed two different tactics to forget the past: Konrad Adenauer attempted to reintegrate former Nazis into a democratic West Germany, whereas Walter Ulbricht thought East Germany should impose a dictatorship over a dangerous people and similarly keep a period of silence about the Nazi past turn them into communist resistors.

This avoidance is exactly why generational conflicts exist today between those sons and daughters of Nazis who ask fruitless questions and those Nazis who do not believe that their answers can be fully understood. The consistent explanation that people like Schneider’s mother give is that they were part of a unit that revered unquestionable obedience; ergo personal interpretation of their tasks is unnecessary. The fault with this explanation lies within the testimonies of Schneider’s mother. She originally tells Schneider that her tasks at the internment camp were performed only because she was ordered to perform them, that they were not of her own volition. Schneider is not content with these answers and her continual investigation elicited this diatribe from her mother:

If you want to know the truth, I hated those Jewish women. They gave me an almost physical feeling of repulsion; it turned my stomach to see all those perverted faces, the faces of an inferior race… Yes, my little Mausi, I hated those cursed Jews. A horrible race, believe me (138).

Schneider was in search of this statement from her mother all along. It was the means she needed to be able to free herself from her bindings to her mother. Moreover, Schneider had been able to suppress her fear of the past so that she could get her mother to admit her voluntary role as an SS member and thereby “bring her to some acceptance of reality” (Schneider, 133-134).

As Herf points out in Divided Memory, i International politics and the pursuit of the national interest had a major impact on memory of the Nazi past. In other words, the suppression of subversive topics and discussion would yield a smooth running nation but not necessarily one that had come to terms with its past. As two different Germany ’s each practiced their version of putting the past behind them , an entire German people were suffering for it. The tragedy of the Holocaust did not fit into any optimistic theory of history or postwar policy of reconstruction , and the possibility development of a prosperous East or West Germany was not possible with an evil past (Herf, 392). Even if their respective governments restored the quality of life and paid all their debts, the German people would still be burdened by a stigma that held them as a people that attempted to exterminate ano ther.

Her final meeting with her mother is a metaphor for society’s battle dealing with the history surrounding World War II Germany: there are many problems that must be dealt with in the search for a way to express opinions while exploring new interpretations of how we feel and remember shared events. For both the adult and child generations of World War II if the option was available they would rather pull their own teeth than openly relive their experiences.

This discussion between Schneider and her mother has created a mutual curiosity to discover new and more accurate truths of the pasts of Nazis that were too outrageous to accept in such close proximity to their performance. Only through this discussion could their relationship be reconciled. If they employed a strategy that sought to hide the truth and mask their wrongdoings as the actions of a victim victims th e an they would be sidestepping any guilt responsibility and overlooking the importance of how influential this ideology was.

Bibliography and Links (back to top)(links last checked 6/19/07)

Book Reviews:

  • Let Me Go: My Mother and the SS. “The New Review.” Reviewed by Kara Keller Bell. April 30, 2005.
    <http://www.laurahird.com/newreview/letmego.html>. Bell thinks this is a “terrifically powerful book written with courage and honesty” and feels that this book has combined an emotionally evocative narrative with an informative historical document.
  • “The lost mothers.” Let Me Go: My Mother and the SS. Reviewed by Penny Hueston. May 29, 2004. Hueston finds the account of Schneider and her mother’s dueling interaction “compulsory.” She says that exchanges between mother and daughter “combine to make great drama” within an historically necessary piece.
  • “My Mother was a guard in a Nazi death camp.” Let Me Go: My Mother and the SS. Independent, The (London). By Peter Popham. Feb 24, 2004. Popham gives a detailed summary of the most important events of the book mainly championing Helga’s independence from her mother as the goal of the book.

Books and Articles:

    • Stephan and Norbert Lebert, My Father’s Keeper: Children of Nazi Leaders--an Intimate History of Damage and Denial (Great Britain: Little, Brown and Company, 2001), 256 pages. Amazon 0316519294. This book based on the 1959 interview, conducted Norbert Lebert and written by his son Stephan, of children of esteemed Nazi officials posits that “antisemitism” is being prolonged by the offspring of the Nazis. Most of the interviewees defended their parent’s actions and gave the Leberts their primary argument. (Hist 133c review by xx, by Katie Ritchie)
    • Peter Sichrovsky, Born Guilty: Children of Nazi Families (New York: Basic Books, 1988), 192 pages. ISBN 0-456-00742-2. This book accounts Sichrovsky’s interview with children of Nazi’s. Sichrovsky approaches this subject by first the enlightening of the children to their parents crimes whilst they were working for the Third Reich and then by asking for their opinions on those crimes. Finding that most of these children were intentionally kept in the dark and sometimes directly lied to Sichrovsky uncovers the struggles of this generation of children to establish themselves separate from their past.
    • Jeffery Herf, Divided Memory: The Nazi Past in Two Germany’s (Harvard University Press, 1997), 527 pages. UCSB: D 804.3.H474 1997. This book provides a look at how West and East Germany experienced different legacies of Nazism with respect to each countries’ type of adaptation during the Cold War.

Web Sites:

    • O. W. Klüwer, “Nazi Children: A Short History” (April 2001). <http://www.nazichildren.org/history.html>, accessed: May 27, 2007. This article briefly introduces what the world had in store for the children of Nazis after World War II in both West and East Germany. It also conveys a few simple reasons for either defending their parents or opposing them.
    • BBC Journalist, “Nazi ‘master race’ children meet” (Nov 11, 2006). <http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/6117744.stm>. This article is about the reunion of Nazi children decades after the fall of Nazi Germany who were the product of the “lebensborn” or “Front of Life” program. These people were often given to the SS elite and other high-ranking Nazi officials and often faced much prejudice about their origins which were sketchy at best.

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Any student tempted to use this paper for an assignment in another course or school should be aware of the serious consequences for plagiarism. Here is what I write in my syllabi:

Plagiarism—presenting someone else's work as your own, or deliberately failing to credit or attribute the work of others on whom you draw (including materials found on the web)—is a serious academic offense, punishable by dismissal from the university. It hurts the one who commits it most of all, by cheating them out of an education. I report offenses to the Office of the Dean of Students for disciplinary action.

prepared for web by Harold Marcuse on 6/13/07; last updated: 6/19/07
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