The Nazis Knew My Name: A Remark­able Sto­ry of Sur­vival and Courage in Auschwitz

Maya Lee, Mag­da Hellinger

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By – March 14, 2022

As she hap­pi­ly taught kinder­garten dur­ing the ear­ly 1940s, Mag­da Hellinger was unaware that she would soon have a new job: assist­ing Nazis intent on exter­mi­nat­ing her peo­ple. But in March 1942 she was one of a thou­sand women round­ed up and sent to Poland in its sec­ond trans­port of young Slo­va­kian Jew­ish women; the Slo­vak gov­ern­ment was turn­ing over its Jew­ish cit­i­zens to Ger­many, pay­ing per head to deport them per­ma­nent­ly for reset­tle­ment and train­ing.” In her mem­oir The Nazis Knew My Name, Mag­da describes bid­ding her par­ents good­bye, nev­er to see them again.

A nat­ur­al orga­niz­er, Mag­da helped her fel­low Jew­ish pris­on­ers as best she could dur­ing the trans­port — and would con­tin­ue doing so through­out the three and a half years she cir­cu­lat­ed with­in Auschwitz – Birke­nau, where she served pri­mar­i­ly as a pris­on­er func­tionary,” or Lageräl­teste, to the SS over­seers. Magda’s unwant­ed job was to help keep the camps run­ning effi­cient­ly. In a place where effi­cien­cy meant send­ing peo­ple up the chim­ney,” her deter­mi­na­tion to help her fel­low Jews avoid that fate as best she could in her role of lim­it­ed author­i­ty bal­anced on a ful­crum in which tip­ping into dis­cov­ery would mean her own death.

Click­ing her heels to her supe­ri­ors and fac­ing lines of starv­ing, tor­ment­ed fel­low Jews, Mag­da played a role that those who grew to know her under­stood was just that. For oth­er Jew­ish women who watched with­out com­pre­hend­ing how she maneu­vered to ease their lives even a tiny bit, Mag­da was a traitor.

In her detailed nar­ra­tive, Mag­da recalls how some of her charges viewed her and oth­er Lageräl­testes: Many of the Hun­gar­i­an women saw me run­ning around the camp, car­ry­ing my stick and rais­ing it at times, speak­ing harsh­ly to some peo­ple and, occa­sion­al­ly, slap­ping some­one in the face to bring them into line. These women did not under­stand that it was pos­si­ble for things to be so much worse…They couldn’t see the small improve­ments we were able to make to their lives.” 

Magda’s efforts at var­i­ous times includ­ed procur­ing replace­ment gar­ments and blan­kets, max­i­miz­ing the star­va­tion rations sent from the kitchen, and help­ing sick women dis­guise their con­di­tion to avoid being killed upon detec­tion. This she accom­plished in large part by being keen­ly attuned to any oppor­tu­ni­ties that arose.

After sur­viv­ing the war, Mag­da was accused by a few sur­vivors of com­plic­i­ty with the Nazis. Every case was dis­missed. In fact, many who knew her in the camps came to Magda’s defense. Among these elo­quent tes­ti­monies was that of Gisel­la Perl, a Roman­ian Jew­ish gyne­col­o­gist, who wrote in part, I thank prov­i­dence that our Mag­da was… Some­one who…helped us with kind­ness, defend­ed us and saved us — some­times with harsh­ness and some­times smil­ing or frowning.” 

Magda’s unusu­al per­spec­tive is fas­ci­nat­ing not only for its insight about how the SS ran the camps, but in how she occa­sion­al­ly glimpsed the unof­fi­cial side of mon­strous Ger­mans, whether it was Irma Grese fond­ly recall­ing her life on a farm or Johan Schwarzhu­ber ran­dom­ly sug­gest­ing that Mag­da fly with him to Switzer­land as the Allies drew near (both Nazis were exe­cut­ed for their war crimes).

As co-author Maya Lee, Magda’s daugh­ter, con­cludes, Mag­da nev­er want­ed thanks or praise from those whose lives she saved — just acknowl­edg­ment that she had done what­ev­er she could in a tru­ly hor­rif­ic time…” . Read­ers of this com­pelling mem­oir will join those who mar­vel at the scope of Mag­da Hellinger’s bravery.

Amy Spun­gen, a free­lance edi­tor and writer, has a BS in jour­nal­ism from Vir­ginia Com­mon­wealth Uni­ver­si­ty and an MA in Eng­lish from North­west­ern Uni­ver­si­ty. She lives near Chica­go in High­land Park, Illinois.

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