Just about two months ago, The New York Times published one of the most fascinating – and nontraditional – obituaries it's run in years. The headline, which looked more like the type that would accompany a news story and not a death notice, read: "A Nazi Past, a Queens Home Life, an Overlooked Death." It seems that Hermine Braunsteiner Ryan, who was a Queens housewife back in 1964 when theTimes first disclosed her infamous Nazi past, had died in April 1999 at age 79, and the paper had not gotten wind of it till December of last year.
In the belated obituary, it was noted that in 1974, Ryan became "the first United States citizen to be extradited for war crimes. She was sent to West Germany, where she was tried, convicted and sentenced to life in prison."
Back in the mid-'60s, Ryan was married to an electrical construction worker in Maspeth, where she was heralded for her housecleaning skills and her friendly personality. Neighbors who were questioned insisted that they could not believe what was being said about Ryan's "gruesome" past.
In the December "obituary," the work of Times reporter Douglas Martin, it was noted that "Survivors of Maidanek concentration and death camp, near Lublin, told of [Ryan] whipping women to death, seizing children by the hair and throwing them on trucks to take them to the gas chamber, kicking away a stool to hang a young girl, and stomping old women to death with her jackboots, among other cruelties. Her nickname was the Stomping Mare."
When first confronted, Ryan never denied that she was Hermine Braunsteiner of Maidanek, but she insisted that she'd spent most of her time in the camp infirmary. Her husband said he had not known his wife was a prison guard until the Times reporter informed them of it.
An Enthusiasm for Barbarity
I thought of Ryan often as I read compulsively through Helga Schneider's brief, powerful memoir, Let Me Go, recently published in paperback by Penguin. Schneider's mother left her family – her daughter, son and husband – to become an enthusiastic concentration-camp guard, with time eventually spent at Auschwitz. Schneider rarely saw her mother after that. Let Me Go tells of her final meeting with the elderly woman, which transpired some 60 years after she'd willingly turned her back on her family in order to obey the Fuhrer.
Though Hermine Braunsteiner Ryan had never left husband and children behind, it was her enthusiasm for barbarity that reminded me of Schneider's mother; this willing Nazi's determination and single-mindedness is one of the more chilling aspects rendered by Schneider in Let Me Go. Every time I read about how willingly she'd given herself to party politics – and how happy she was to help ensure that the final solution to the Jewish problem might become a reality – the face of Hermine Braunsteiner Ryan, pictured in the belated obituary, would loom in my memory.
Schneider was only 4 when her mother, whose name is never mentioned in the book, joined the SS. The child was raised for a time by her stepmother, then sent to boarding school. The author has lived most of her adult life in Bologna, Italy, where she worked as a freelance writer. Let Me Go appears to be the only book to her credit.
Mother and daughter met again in Vienna in the fall of 1998. This was their first reunion in 27 years, as they had seen one another briefly in 1971, after an absence of 30 years. It was in '71 that Schneider learned of her mother's membership in what she calls "Heinrich Himmler's evil organization." She had nearly another 30 years to contemplate this revelation, so when she learned that her mother was in failing health as she approached her 90th birthday, Schneider decided to confront all the difficult questions at last.
Of the 1971 meeting, Schneider writes: "I was living in Italy [then] and had a little son, Renzo; I felt an uncontrollable need to track you down. I found you. I hurried to Vienna with my son to hug you again. But you treated that grandson of yours, that boy who looked at you with such keen curiosity, with frosty detachment, denying him the right to a grandmother, just as you had denied my right, in the end, to have a mother. Because you didn't want to be a mother. Ever since we were born, you always entrusted me and my brother, Peter, to other people. And yet in the Third Reich, motherhood was obsessively praised, particularly by the Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels.
"Even Heinrich Himmler, the Reichsfuhrer of the SS – your boss – maintained that there was one principle that his members must unfailingly obey: honestly, loyalty, and fidelity toward people with the same blood as yourself. Did your children not share your blood?
"No, you didn't want to be a mother; you preferred power. Faced with a group of Jewish prisoners you felt omnipotent. A guard in charge of famished, exhausted, and desperate Jews, heads shaved, eyes vacant – what a despicable kind of power!"
Face to Face With the Truth
When Schneider at last came face to face with her mother, she was met with contradictory moods and images: At times, the elderly woman before her seemed completely senile, unaware of where she was and to whom she was speaking; then, just as suddenly, the haze would dissipate, and she was in tune with her surroundings and the people nearby – and had a remarkable clarity about the past. The old woman alternated between these two states, just as her daughter alternated between longing to have her mother's affection and feeling revolted by her presence. Her mother's ranting frightened her daughter as much as it does the reader. And this mother made it clear to her only daughter, time and time again, that she regretted nothing, and was immensely proud of her service to the SS.
Determined to get at the truth, no matter how horrible, Schneider asked her mother to speak about what she did in Ravensbruck, one of Nazism's most infamous camps. Experiments were performed on inmates there and, as the conversation continued, Schneider's mother explained that her job was to assist the doctors. And with the passage of more time, the old woman admitted that she tied the patients to the tables.
" 'Didn't you feel any compassion for those human guinea pigs?' I ask my mother. As I do so, I realize the pointlessness of my question.
"She hesitates for a second, lowers her head, and stares at her hands.
"Then she raises her eyes and declares with a kind of obtuse arrogance, 'No, I felt no compassion,' and she seems to stumble over the words, 'for "those people," because the operations were being carried out for the good of humanity.'
" 'Are you going to tell me that science doesn't always work for the good of humanity?' she asks emphatically.
" 'Those doctors were nothing but charlatans,' I reply with quiet contempt, 'they were pseudo-medical sadists and pseudo-researchers.'
"She gives a start, as though she's just been slapped unfairly for something she hadn't done. Now her eyes are staring at me with glassy stupefying clarity.
" 'How foolish you are,' she explodes, 'and how mistaken. Our doctors were outstanding professionals, and the results of their experiments were published in all the most authoritative medical journals, both in Germany and abroad!'
"She gets her breath back; her cheeks have turned strawberry-red with rage. …
" 'And I had no right to feel compassion; my sole duty was to obey. Loyalty and obedience, nothing else. Loyalty is an important virtue, believe me!' "
There are many more such outbursts before this mother-daughter reunion draws to its sad conclusion.
Let Me Go is a powerful, raw piece of writing that comes to no resolution for its human players. Though it is a brief book, it sometimes seems to go on a bit too long, mostly because of a sense of repetition. Still, it's emotionally draining and highly effective – a frightening portrait of a true believer whose last great effort at "explanation" few readers will likely forget.