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.