"The Nazis Knew My Name," Reviewed by Sara Hecht
I have been interested in WWII books since I first read The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society as a middle schooler for my mother-daughter book club. In high school, I went on to read All The Light We Cannot See, The Book Thief, and recently, Lilac Girls.The common factor between all these works of fiction is their ability to convey multiple perspectives of war, specifically women's viewpoints, whether they be American or German, ladies or little girls. However, there is less nonfiction focusing on female perspectives of the war, especially those within concentration camps. This is what drove me to pick up The Nazi’s Knew My Name, a memoir written by Magda Hellinger, a woman who survived the Nazi concentration camps.
From a young Jewish school girl to a prisoner functionary, Magda always held leadership positions. Such directorial abilities came naturally to the Slovakian-born woman, a talent which, turned tool, aided Magda in saving hundreds of lives during her three years in the Auschwitz–Birkenau death camp.
Written by mother and compiled by daughter, Magda Hellinger and Maya Lee’s The Nazi’s Knew My Name is a faithful retelling of Magda’s experience as a prisoner, but also leader, within “Auschwitz I and II” from March 1942 to April 1945. Magda shares that some Jewish prisoners were selected to be leaders because they were easy scapegoats for the cruelty the prisoners experienced, thusly preventing any sense of unity amongst them. This memoir defends Magda’s name and illustrates how, rather than consorting with the enemy, Magda used her position to manipulate and influence the camp guards and Nazi leadership.
Magda served to advocate and protect those she was in charge of, putting herself in harm's way numerous times. Magda preached unity, her mantra calling the women to look out for each other, to protect one another, and to keep their faith. While Magda practiced this daily, her story also outlines how these principles caught on throughout the camp. Emulating Magda’s kindness, women would work together and aid Magda in her “organization” efforts--scavenging food, water, and other resources or goods whenever they could. Moreover, when Magda fell ill, her block-mates hid her from SS guards, saving her life.
The community and network of helpers established within the camp particularly struck me as it shows how Magda led with both her mind and heart. She did not allow her position to harden her into a self-serving functionary. Rather, her sheer courage and strength made her a sign of hope for all. For Magda, it was all about getting through the day and helping as many other people get through theirs as well. Even the recording of her story was for the benefit of others.
As a child, Maya Lee notes how she, along with her sister, never fully appreciated their mother’s experience. After her mother’s passing, the now adult Lee was struck by the complexity of her mother’s situation, the horrors Magda faced, and her overwhelming resilience.
Magda Hellinger initially published her work in 2003. Unbeknownst to her children, Magda transcribed several drafts of what would eventually become a small, self-published recount of her time as a prisoner and leader in the camps. True to her altruistic nature, Magda published her story for the economic benefit of a charity with which she was involved, selling many copies and giving all the proceeds to this organization. In her introduction for the republication, Lee explains she is doing so to share her mother’s full story, corroborating it with extensive research. Magda originally wrote the memoir by hand and entirely from memory, one of her many impressive feats. However, there were some small inconsistencies which her daughter worked to amend in this version.
Overall, this memoir is a great read, providing insight into a unique experience few are faced with, and which even less survived. Maya defends her mother’s name and those forcibly entangled within the higher ranks of the “bizarre hierarchy” of the Nazi concentration camps. Magda’s writing, however, continues to inspire and demonstrates the power of unity, a lesson still needed to be heard today.
The Nazi’s Knew My Name
Magda Hellinger, Maya Lee
Sara Hecht is from Ridgefield, Connecticut and is studying English as well as minoring in Theatre and Political Science. She has been part of the journalist and publishing industries for several years now writing for both the online news source HamletHub since 2018 as well as serving as a Staff Writer for The Villanovan’s Culture section since her freshman year. She enjoys photography, reading, and performing. She is currently studying English at Trinity College Dublin as her semester abroad.