The Nazis Knew My Name: a remarkable story of survival and courage in Auschwitz

January 5, 2022 by J-Wire
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This book is about Magda Hellinger. It is an amalgam of materials both from writings and stories shared by Magda as well as those she recounted through the oral histories programs of both Melbourne’s Jewish Holocaust Centre and the Visual History Foundation [often described as the Spielberg project].

Maya Lee is Magda’s daughter and the basis of this book was brought together after Magda’s death.

I am sure that many readers have reached a point with conflicting feelings. The first is “not another holocaust book” with the question of what can I learn from this that I don’t already know. The other feeling is the opposite where each story recounted is important for no two stories are the same. This book creates such a dichotomy in the reader.

Of course, putting the word Auschwitz in the title also creates with any reader a mixture of feelings and images. I know it did for me!

Having read the writings of Viktor Frankl, who posited the theory that what enabled many of those who survived the camps was because they believed that there was some reason, perhaps even an existential force, which wanted them to survive and that belief gave them the drive to survive this book and the testimony of other survivors like Lotte Weiss [z”l] who was a guide at the Sydney Jewish Museum brings into question Frankl’s very premise.

Magda was on the second transport from (then) Czechoslovakia to Auschwitz- it contained nearly one thousand Slovakian women. The book tells of the many different events [it would be dangerous and wrong to describe them as adventures] whereby she survived some three years in that time when much of the world lost its moral compass.

She describes how some of the women carried, both physically and spiritually, others when they were sick for otherwise they would have been murdered. There were occasions when somehow avoided being ‘selected’.

The book makes a distinction between blockalteste who was a designated leader appointed by the Nazis from among the prisoners and the kapo who the book describes as a (German) prisoner who developed a reputation for cruel, nay sadistic, behaviour to other prisoners.

Recognising that the book should be viewed primarily not as a historical text but the voice of a witness is a challenge. It presents Magda, the blockalteste as one who continually tried to save the lives of those who fell under her command. This may very well be true. In a sense it must have been for after the war, on four occasions, Magda was accused of being a collaborator and on each occasion the accusations were dismissed.

When Lord Jakabovits was resident scholar in Sydney in the 1990s he made an observation about Holocaust Museums that most seemed to stop telling the story by the end of 1945, of the Jewish people in general and the survivors in particular, as if nothing happened after that date. The nice thing about this book is that the story continues first with Magda settling in the new State of Israel and then joining other members of her family in Melbourne which is where Maya was raised.

At the back of this book are two sections which many will skip- each is useful. The first tells what happened post-1945 to many of the players in the book- friends and foes. The second is an excellent glossary of terms.

The family found David who is a Melbourne based freelance writer who specializes in memory writing.

Some Holocaust testimonies are hard to read. That is not true of this book. It is worth the time.

Jeffrey Cohen is associated with the School of Medicine (Sydney), University of Notre Dame Australia as well as on Staff at St. Vincent’s’ Private Hospital, Sydney. He has previously held academic appointments at UNSW Sydney and St Louis University. He also served as CEO of the Sydney Jewish Museum for 5 years and as Senior Consultant to Museum Planning Services.

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