My mother, the death camp survivor – and saviour

Aged eight, Magda Hellinger was told by a rabbi that she was destined to save hundreds of Jewish lives. Seventeen years later, after being sent to Auschwitz, that prophecy came true. Her daughter Maya tells Kate Thompson her mother’s extraordinary story.

Women deemed ‘fitforwork’ by the Nazis in Auschwitz, 1944. Others, as Magda witnessed, were sent straight to the gas chambers
Photo: Ullstein Bild via Getty Images

It’s 1944 and in the squalor of Camp C at Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, Dr Josef Mengele is beginning his twisted selections. A cold smile plays on his lips as he saunters down the rows of emaciated women and whistles The Blue Danube waltz, swinging a stick as if conducting an orchestra. On one beat, he sends a girl to the right to continue working. On the next, he sends a girl to the left to the gas chambers.

Magda Hellinger watches as the sadistic game of life and death plays out in front of her. As a prisoner functionary, the 25-year-old has been selected by the SS guards to help run the camp. Mengele leaves, his contribution towards the Final Solution complete for today. A single guard leads two columns of girls to the front of the camp: one to be transported to wherever they are needed as slave labour: the others to be gassed. The girls do not know their fate, so there is no resistance. But the numbers of women haven’t yet been counted. Magda’s expression is impassive, but inside, her heart is thundering. The SS are coldly efficient, but there are occasional flaws in their systems as Magda has carefully observed over the past two years. She knows their weakness: arrogance. They could never imagine a lowly prisoner, even a functionary such as her, would dare to be so brazen.

‘She was always open about her time in the camps,’ says Maya of her mum Magda, here in 1948

It’s now or never. Stepping forward to the line selected for the gas chambers, she detaches a small group from the back. ‘March with me,’ she orders under her breath. ‘Don’t ask any questions.’ She can’t save everyone, but these women will live to see another day. Magda has used her position as a prisoner functionary to save lives, as she did countless times in her astonishing three years at Auschwitz-Birkenau, where she was forced into three different roles. The story of Jewish prisoner functionaries is largely untold. Now, a new book about Magda’s life, co-written by her daughter, Maya Lee, offers up a valuable contribution to the Holocaust narrative.

‘The roles of prisoner functionaries are dogged by misunderstanding,’ explains 75-year-old Maya, who lives in Melbourne, Australia. She is bubbling over with indignation that some survivors have falsely accused functionaries of collaboration, and in setting down her mother’s life story in print, she hopes to correct this myth. ‘Little has been written about people like Magda, who were prisoners themselves while also overseeing positions of responsibility as “prisoner functionaries” at the behest of the SS,’ she explains. ‘What has been written tends to focus on the German prisoners, usually hardened criminals with a reputation for cruelty. Unfortunately, this meant people like my mother were tarred with the same brush.’

Magda with her husband Béla, 1993

Drawing on a slim memoir her mother self-published three years before her death aged 90 in 2006, along with testimonies of other survivors who knew her, Maya provides a harrowing insight into the cruel laws of the camps and the ever-present shadow of death. ‘Mum walked a dangerously fine line, using every possible opportunity to save lives while avoiding suspicion from the SS,’ Maya says. ‘Through intelligence, strength and shrewd survival instincts, she was able to rise above the horror of the camps. She remained human in an inhumane world.’

Magda’s story begins in March 1942, when she was ordered to leave her tight-knit Jewish family and job as a kindergarten teacher in Michalovce, eastern Czechoslovakia. Along with 1,000 other young, unmarried Slovakian Jewish women, she was sent to Auschwitz. Just before she left, her mother Berta ran to Magda, saying, ‘When you were eight, your father took you to a famous rabbi. He told me you have a special mission to save the lives of hundreds of Jewish souls.’ She had no idea how prophetic these words would be.

The women were told they were being sent to work in a shoe factory in Germany and would return home in a few months. The truth was, they had been sold by a compliant Slovak government to Nazi Germany, as a solution to their ‘Jewish problem’. On arrival, Magda was stripped of her clothes, had her hair and pubic hair roughly shorn. She tumbled headlong into hell. Her bed was a lice-infested wooden bunk, and her only possessions were some threadbare overalls and clogs. Her dehumanisation was complete when she was tattooed on her left forearm. She was no longer a name, but a number. Prisoner 2318.

At Auschwitz, the SS soon discovered that by putting prisoners in charge of the running of the camp, they could breed hostilities. Magda was one such prisoner selected for leadership and over three hellish years served in many roles, from room helper to block leader and eventually camp leader, responsible for 30,000 women. Magda’s kindergarten experience, coupled with her fluent German, may have marked her out as suitable, but in truth, Maya doesn’t know why her mother was chosen – only that refusing would have meant instant death.

Daughter Maya today
Photo: Sophie Timothy

‘Each morning before dawn, the prisoners were forced to stand in the bitter cold at roll call to be counted,’ says Maya. ‘If the number didn’t add up, the process would start again, often lasting for hours as prisoners were beaten if they stumbled out of line or collapsed from exhaustion. Mum realised that compliance was key to their survival.’

Sticking together became Magda’s mantra. Soon after her arrival, she was given her first role as ‘stubendienst’ (room helper) and her responsibilities were to keep the room ordered and arrange food distribution. But she quickly spotted opportunities in the small measure of freedom the role granted her, and began to make contacts with other prisoner functionaries who worked in the block where prisoners’ confiscated items were taken and in the hospital barracks and kitchen. Through this, she was able to gain access to illicit supplies of medicine, blankets and extra food for those most in need.

Four months after her arrival, she was moved to Birkenau, a few kilometres away – and a new form of damnation. Fresh transports from all over occupied Europe were constantly arriving, overcrowding the already tight living space. Dark barracks were surrounded by a sea of filth and human excrement. There was no running water and toilets were holes in the ground. Horrified, Magda witnessed one woman topple in. A guard chose the solution that was to become commonplace. He shot her dead.

‘The guards made a game of their wretched circumstances, blowing a whistle for prisoners to return to their blocks,’ Maya says. ‘Everyone rushed to get back in time, but often got bogged down in the mud, or were too weak to get back in time. Those left outside on the second whistle were sent “up the chimney”, as being sent to the gas chamber became known.’

By 1943, as Birkenau entered its deadliest period, Magda was made responsible for
an entire block. The slaughter factory commissioned more gas chambers and crematoriums in an effort to streamline their mass murder. As block leader, Magda had to be present at every selection. By hiding the weaker girls in the middle of the rows, she managed to conceal some from the SS. In May 1943, she was the leader of experimental Block 10, Mengele’s barbaric domain.

‘Mum had to take the girls to the SS doctors for their research into sterilising Jewish women,’ Maya recalls. ‘Girls returned in terrible states, having had stinging fluids injected into their vaginas, or had their vaginas stitched up. Mum cared for them as best as she could and said, “Girls, we have to remember what we have witnessed here because after we survive, we have to be able to tell our stories.”’

Thanks to Magda, some light perforated the darkness. ‘Mum realised that two of the women in Block 10 were famous: singer Mila Potashinski and violinist Alma Rosé. Using the underground messaging system, she acquired a violin from her contact in the confiscated items block. On the nights after the SS guards had locked up and left, Alma played the violin and Mila sang for the prisoners.’ In a grey world, in which even birdsong was nonexistent, a fragile hope blossomed.

Though, not for long, as soon after, Magda learned that the SS were planning to perform experiments on the girls’ brains. One of the doctors ordered her to send 30 girls from Block 10 to a separate room and lock the door – for the next day they were being transported by train to another town where the study could continue in a sanatorium.

After dark, Magda heard a knocking on the shutter in the door of the room – it was Mila wide-eyed with terror. ‘If they want to study our brains, they’ll have to kill us first. Please let me out,’ she begged. Risking her life, Magda unlocked the door and released Mila and one other girl. She prayed the SS wouldn’t notice that two were missing. They did. Magda’s punishment was seven days in the standing room, crammed into a tiny underground bunker, just 35 x 35 inches, with three other prisoners. Magda clung to her sanity by remembering the rabbi’s poignant prophecy.

Perhaps it was this which gave Magda, on occasion, the courage to speak up to the SS. By the end of 1943, an order came for all the Slovakian functionaries to appear before a panel of senior SS officers. The women were accused of sabotage for tearing up blankets to repair tattered clothing and were sentenced to the gas chambers, but in a moment of extraordinary boldness, Magda stepped forward. ‘With respect Commander. It is human nature to protect ourselves a little. If you were in the same situation, you would do the same.’ One of the officers was outraged: ‘You insolent Jew, you’ll be first to go up the chimney.’ But he was silenced by another officer, who told him, ‘She has something in her head. These women will get new dresses.’

‘Mum had studied the SS officers,’ Maya says. ‘So, whenever she spoke back to them, she always made sure to show respect, but to stand her ground. She felt the responsibility of 30,000 lives on her shoulders every day.’

As the war ground indeterminately on, smoke from the crematorium chimneys rose all day, every day. By the autumn of 1944, the Nazis had murdered 400,000 people in just a few months at the camp. Magda was not one of them.

When the women were ordered from the camp on the death marches in January 1945, to avoid the advance of Soviet troops, things descended into chaos. Prisoners dropped dead, exhausted, by the roadside or were shot by the SS if they were too slow. In the turmoil caused by the collapse of the Third Reich, Magda managed to escape into the woods. Weak, clinging to life, but free at last.

In the following May, after spending some weeks in a transit camp in Northern Germany, she was sent back to Slovakia. But freedom had come at a cost. Her mother, father and younger brother had been taken to a ghetto and murdered, as had countless friends.

Hope came from a surprising source. There was a message from a young man called Béla Blau, whom she’d met briefly in the camp. ‘My father Béla fell in love with my mother and vowed that if he survived he’d find her,’ recalls Maya. They married in March 1946 and, disgusted by the betrayal of the Slovakian government, moved to the new state of Israel in 1949 with Maya and her younger sister Eva. Despite settling in well, Béla had reservations and persuaded her to move to Melbourne in 1956 where they found the stability they craved.

‘Mum raised us as Jewish and was always open about her time in the camps,’ says Maya who, in setting the record straight, has finally told the story her mother longed to tell. ‘She never saw herself as a saviour. She was simply someone who saw opportunities and had the fortitude to navigate the conflicting emotions of fear and hope. Not a victim, but a survivor.’

The Nazis Knew My Name by Magda Hellinger and Maya Lee with David Brewster is published by Simon & Schuster, priced £16.99*

*To order a copy for £14.44 until 24 October, go to books.mailshop.co.uk or call 020 3308 9193. Free UK delivery on orders over £20.