Auschwitz’s forbidden love: The disturbing real-life story of Jewish death camp inmate who saved her family from the gas chamber by falling in love with SS guard
Helena Citronova fell in love with SS guard Franz Wunsch at Nazi camp
He managed to save her and sister Rozinka from going to gas chambers
Wunsch: ‘Desire changed my brutal behaviour’; he escaped prison at trial
Kate Breslin’s For Such a Time portrays similar liaison but has been slated
It was the most forbidden love of them all under the rule of the Nazis.
As soon as Hitler took power in 1933, regime bureaucrats began drawing up the grotesque Nuremberg Laws banning relationships between ‘Aryans’ and Jews.
But such relationships DID exist in the Third Reich – even between its most monstrous servants and their victims.
As controversy swirls around a new novel by Kate Breslin – branded ‘offensive and upsetting’ because it centres on the fictional romance between an SS concentration camp commandant and a prisoner – the truth about complex human relationships forged in terrible times cannot be denied.
The Breslin book, For Such a Time, portrays a warped love in a warped place. And nowhere during the 12 years that the Nazis ruled most of Europe was as warped, hideous and murderous as the Auschwitz death factory in occupied Poland.
This was the place where people did anything to survive, anything to avoid ‘selections’ that would mean a one-way trip to the gas chambers.
Helena Citronova was among them and saved her life and those of her family by relenting to the affections of a hated SS guard.
Although she slept with her saviour, Wunsch, and admitted that she eventually harboured deep feelings of love for him, Helena’s forbidden relationship was only forged because she wanted to stay alive in the most terrible place on earth.
A Jew from Slovakia, she worked in the giant warehouse at the camp called ‘Canada’ where the belongings of the doomed were sorted before they were shipped back to Berlin to fuel the Nazi war effort.
There she met Wunsch in 1942. Their relationship was portrayed by the American PBS network in a programme about the death camp in which at least 1.2million people were liquidated.
‘The relationship between SS man Franz Wunsch and Jewish woman Helena Citronova is certainly one of shock,’ it said.
‘Who could comprehend that, in a place such as Auschwitz, a place full of death, pain and sadism, an emotion as pure as love could be around?
‘Had it not been for the fateful moment when Helena was asked to sing for Wunsch’s birthday, she wouldn’t have survived. She had been sentenced to death earlier that day.’
Wunsch sent her biscuits, passed her notes saying ‘Love – I fell in love with you’. He even saved her sister Rozinka from certain death.
‘When he came into the barracks where I was working, he threw me that note. I destroyed it right there and then, but I did see the word “love” — “I fell in love with you”,’ she said years later in Israel.
‘I thought I’d rather be dead than be involved with an SS man. For a long time afterwards there was just hatred. I couldn’t even look at him.’
But she admitted that her feelings for Wunsch changed over time, especially when her sister and her sister’s children arrived at Auschwitz Birkenau. Helena learned that they were to be sent to the gas chamber and her SS admirer tried to help them.
Comrades in terror: Wunsch (left) with Oscar Groening (right), a fellow Auschwitz guard who, at 94, was recently convicted of being an accessory to the murder of 300,000 people and sentenced to four years in prison
Lost souls: A pile of shoes stripped from prisoners is one of the contemporary exhibits at the Auschwitz death camp. Helena worked in the giant warehouse at the camp called ‘Canada’ where the belongings of the doomed were sorted before they were shipped back to Berlin to fuel the Nazi war effort
Helena went on: ‘So he said to me, “Tell me quickly what your sister’s name is before I’m too late.” So I said, “You won’t be able to. She came with two little children.”
‘He replied, “Children, that’s different. Children can’t live here.” So he ran to the crematorium and found my sister.’
Wunsch was able to save Helena’s sister by saying she worked for him in Canada, but he could do nothing for the children.
Helena and her sister survived Auschwitz, and although her relationship with Wunsch never developed further, she did testify on his behalf years later at his war crimes trial.
Helena, who died in 2005, said in an interview with UK filmmaker Laurence Rees: ‘Here he did something great. There were moments where I forgot that I was a Jew and that he was not a Jew and, honestly, in the end I loved him.
‘But it could not be realistic.’
In another programme made for Israeli TV called ‘A Different Love’ in 2003, she said; ‘I did not forget a minute, I remember everything… I was something different, and everyone knew this story. There was a stain on me; he was an SS man.
‘The fact is that my life was saved, thanks to him. I did not choose this, it simply happened. It was a relationship that could happen only in such a place — in another planet.
‘When I was young, I was preoccupied and didn’t deal with my past. Now the memories are returning to me, like a boomerang.’
In a review of the programme entitled Cinematic Love and the Shoah: abnormal love during abnormal times, author Yvonne Kozlovsky wrote: ‘The film’s director attempted to maintain a restrained, neutral approach, without overly prying into the survivor’s personal life.
‘He wanted to make the film to serve as a kind of platform for her difficult personal confession.
‘Nevertheless, the director leaves the viewer wondering about the conduct of the relationship between the two. How did the other Nazis react to the affair?
‘After all, any contact between ‘Aryan’ and Jew was forbidden on pain of death. How did Helena’s cellmates react? And how did the two keep in touch?
‘The nature of the relationship and its location suggest that, from Helena’s point of view, it was played out on the border between emotional attachments; she admits that toward the end of the war she had begun to harbor feelings for him.
‘She states that this was true love on his part and that he was willing to risk his life for her; for her part, she had sex with him owing to the circumstances of time and place.’
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