Books & Literature

Book Review: The Nazis Knew My Name, by Magda Hellinger & Maya Lee, with David Brewster

BIOGRAPHY: The extraordinarily moving memoir by Australian Slovakian Holocaust survivor Magda Hellinger, who saved an untold number of lives at Auschwitz through everyday acts of courage, kindness and ingenuity.

A lesson in leadership from an inspirational woman who survived the world’s most terrible place.
4.5

It’s no easy task for any author to compose an account of their most painful memories. In the late Magda Hellinger’s case, the undertaking must have been especially challenging given the nature of her past. For Magda was a survivor and former Lagerälteste (camp leader) of Auschwitz.

Based on Magda’s personal account, as well as extensive research completed by her daughter Maya LeeThe Nazis Knew My Name tells her remarkable story. The 25-year-old Magda was first deported from Slovakia with the other unmarried Jewish women of her town in 1942. They were told that they were being taken to work in a shoe factory. Instead, they were sent via cattle train to Poland, where they would be interned in a camp of slave labour and death. 

During her time at Auschwitz-Birkenau, Magda was selected for several leadership roles within the camp network. In some ways, these made her life easier than that of the average prisoner, owing to access to certain privileges, authority over the other prisoners, and even a reasonable reputation among the SS guards. However, the leadership roles also burdened Magda with immense pressure—she was now in the position to save some lives from the Nazis’ brutal regime.

Readers get a detailed account of Magda’s three years at the camp, during which she cleverly used her positions of authority to save other prisoners and even manipulate the SS guards from time to time. We are told not just what happened to Magda as she risked her life to save and bring comfort to others, but also what happened to the sea of faces that entered her story during the war. This helps readers to begin to grasp that the people affected by this tragedy were and are infinite.

The book provides a fascinating look into how the camp actually worked at a logistical level. It is general knowledge that Auschwitz was one of the most terrible places in existence, but Magda’s story gives us the intricate details, from how one obtained more nutrients by scooping their soup from the bottom of the pot where the vegetables were, to the administration work that went into managing the inventory. 

Among the most interesting elements are the accounts of Magda’s personal exchanges with notorious figures whose names still cast a shadow of terror, such as Dr Josef Mengele, known as the Angel of Death for the cruel medical experiments he forced on prisoners. The descriptions of Irma Grese, perhaps one of the most infamous female SS guards, are particularly fascinating. They show the acquaintanceship that emerged between Magda and Irma, exploring the humanity that Magda observed first-hand in one of the evilest women in history. 

Regardless of how impossible Magda’s situation inside the camp seemed, she never gave up–a testament to the prevalent theme of leadership. She always remained a vision of strength for those who depended on her. Like any great leader, she made personal sacrifices for the wellbeing of those in her charge, literally risking her life to sway the SS guards around her.

After the war, Magda was resented by some for the authority she held, and accused by others of collaborating with the Nazis. The testimonies of other Auschwitz survivors which are included here reinforce how much good Magda achieved and help to provide a balanced view of her involvement in the camp.

This is an excellent read for those interested in a more detailed history of the Holocaust. The rare and fascinating personal accounts of infamous SS guards and personnel help to make The Nazis Knew My Name unputdownable, while Magda’s enduring choice to save who she could will hopefully inspire kindness and selflessness in another generation.

Reviewed by Vanessa Elle
Instagram: @vanessaellewrites

Distributed by: Simon & Schuster
Released: 1 September 2021
RRP: $32.99

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