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‘The Nazis Knew My Name’ tells heroic true story of a woman who saved lives at Auschwitz

When Magda Hellinger was 87, she sat down and wrote a slim book about surviving for three years at Auschwitz during the Holocaust. Her beloved husband, Bela, who had also endured three years in the camp, had died at 92 the previous year and Hellinger put pen to paper to provide lasting evidence of what the Nazis had done.

“My mother’s purpose in writing the book was to stop denial of the Holocaust and to help fight anti-Semitism,” says her daughter, Maya Lee. “Their struggle was beyond human imagination. What the Nazis did was evil and inhumane. She wrote about it because she wanted to the world to know so people would learn.”

Hellinger had told her daughters these horrific truths when they were children in Israel and then Australia (where Lee still lives), but eventually they did what all children do to their parents – they rolled their eyes and asked mom to stop telling the same old stories.

“She always wanted to tell her story but when we were children we weren’t really listening,” Lee says.

And like so many children, Lee belatedly began to appreciate what her mother had to say – and she also recognized the historical importance. So when Hellinger wrote out her saga, Lee offered to help edit it. “After ten pages, she lost patience and said that’s enough,” Lee recalled recently in a video interview. Hellinger printed a small batch of books and sold them to raise money for a charity.

But after Hellinger’s death in 2006, Lee decided her mother’s story deserved both a fuller recounting and a wider audience. She has brought it to life in the richly detailed and grimly compelling book, “The Nazis Knew My Name,” which credits mother and daughter as co-authors.

“She would have been very proud; this is what she wanted,” Lee says.

The book tells an intensely personal experience of the death camps while simultaneously documenting how the Nazis operated, using the Jewish prisoners for labor while also developing, as Lee says, “a systematic and normalized” approach to murder (even as Nazi officers would also torture and kill on a whim without punishment).

Lee fleshed out the original book, and she kept the narrative in her mother’s voice by listening to oral histories Hellinger had provided in the 1980s and 1990s to Holocaust museums in Israel, Australia and America and to Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation. Those testimonies all offered facts and stories that were left out when the aging Hellinger wrote her story down. Lee also discovered that her mother had frequently done interviews with academics and writers by mail… and had photocopied all her responses, providing another trove of information.

“It was great to find all these letters with more details,” Lee says.

But Lee knew she needed to fortify her mother’s story as well: because Hellinger, who was raised in Czechoslovakia, spoke fluent German, she spent most of her time at Auschwitz as a functionary with responsibility for overseeing hundreds or thousands of women at once.

“She was in this place and she had no choice – the only choice was to survive,” Lee says.

A natural leader and a kindergarten teacher who knew how to nurture and get people working together, Hellinger constantly broke rules and challenged authority, keeping her cool even at gunpoint. “My mother had to be wary not to do anything that might get herself shot but she had chutzpah and showed no fear,” Lee says. “She also knew how far she could go.”

The title derives from the Nazi dehumanization technique of tattooing numbers into prisoners’ arms and referring to them only by that number – Hellinger was 2318, yet because of all she accomplished many Nazi higher-ups knew and addressed her by name.

After the war, many people who held positions of power in the camp were accused of being collaborators. Lee’s research found that Hellinger herself had faced several hearings, but that each time there was testimony demonstrating that not only was Hellinger not a collaborator, but she had also risked her own life countless times to improve or save the lives (in some cases only temporarily of course) of thousands of women.

“She knew she’d done the right thing,” Lee says, but to ensure the reader understood what had really happened Lee bolstered her mother’s story; a cousin gave her testimony from survivors she had interviewed about Hellinger and Lee found further evidence in the museums’ archives. She also included excerpts from articles, such as the one published in 1953 in Tel Aviv by Dr. Gisella Perl, a Romanian Jewish gynecologist, who proclaimed Hellinger “a righteous person…Someone who, everywhere and at all times, helped us with kindness, defended us and saved us.”

“I wanted to include those in the book because I wanted my mother’s whole story told and verified,” Lee says. “I wished I’d had the sense to ask her about all of this when she was alive. I only know about what happened to her because of my research.”

Lee adds that one of the most remarkable aspects of her mother’s story was that her ability to survive was matched by her ability to keep her eyes on the present and future. “When she left Auschwitz, she left Auschwitz behind and moved forward,” Lee says, adding that Hellinger even made her daughters visit cousins who had denounced Hellinger after the war for slapping them at Auschwitz when they were behaving in ways that would have gotten them killed. “She just didn’t carry the trauma. She was an incredibly strong and pragmatic woman.”

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