Magda Hellinger was a 25-year-old Jewish kindergarten teacher when she was deported to Auschwitz from Slovakia in March of 1942. She was one of the few who survived more than three years in a concentration camp, eventually relocating to Australia, where she lived to be almost 90. During her lifetime, Hellinger shared her experiences in interviews with organizations such as the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, all while secretly writing a memoir of her experiences at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
The Nazis Knew My Name is grounded in that memoir, self-published in 2003, but enhanced by Hellinger’s daughter, Maya Lee, who has added further research and details from her mother’s oral testimonies. The result is a compelling and seamless portrait of a young woman who managed to survive and save others through cunning bravery and compassionate leadership.
At the core of Hellinger’s approach was this: “I constantly encouraged women to work together—a very simple form of resistance. A lonely, isolated woman was always more vulnerable than one who had others looking out for her.” Her determination and use of resistance tactics emerge time and again in this chronological account of her imprisonment, which lasted until the end of World War II.
When Hellinger was given the role of block leader at Auschwitz, she realized it was crucial that the prisoners under her charge avoid any behavior that would attract attention from Nazi officials. She therefore focused on trying to keep the women under her care as healthy as possible, making sure newcomers understood the rules of the camp and warning them of the most volatile guards. And while it was dangerous to challenge SS officers directly, at key moments Hellinger did exactly that, often risking her own life to win some small concession, such as replacing worn clothing for the prisoners.
The strain of Hellinger’s various roles must have taken an enormous psychological toll. At one point, she had 30,000 women under her care, yet she didn’t falter and always returned to the touchstone of cooperation. She mobilized others to improve sanitary conditions, ensure that food was distributed fairly and hide the most vulnerable prisoners to prevent them from being selected for the gas chamber. “If we could do these things, we might save a few lives, or make life a little more bearable,” Hellinger writes. “But we had to work together.”
The Nazis Knew My Name offers dreadful insights into the workings of Auschwitz-Birkenau, but at its heart, it remains an extraordinary portrait of one young woman who fought for others in the midst of unimaginable horror.