Love means different things to different people. Circumstances shape it and turn people towards each other in the most unexpected of places. Sometimes it’s fleeting, other times deeply felt. Yet, there are times when ‘love’ is a means to an end, a peculiar, complex thing that tests our very understanding of emotion. Sometimes, and for good reason, ‘love is blind’…
And that’s the only way I can describe the story of Helena Citronova and Franz Wunsch, who found themselves living through the horrors of Auschwitz, where Death’s pall hung in the air like incense… a place where the very pits of human depravity and degradation were dredged ever deeper; a place where infants were murdered alongside the infirm and elderly, their corpses burned, their belongings picked over by scavengers, their very bones and hair forming part of an obscene production process to manufacture goods.
Here, in this hell where sick, murderous savages preyed upon the vulnerable and the defenceless, here, of all places… a strange and unfathomable sort of love blossomed.
As extraordinary as that notion could be, the hammer blow really falls when you realise that these two people stood on opposite sides of the wire.
Helena was a prisoner, while Franz was an SS Unterscharfuhrer (akin to a corporal), who was not adverse to meting out vicious, death-rattle beatings whenever the temptation took hold.
Look at the photograph of Helena in her striped camp uniform; it’s not that of the typical image we associate with the awfulness of Auschwitz. She is not emaciated, nor does she look as if she will fall dead to the ground at any moment. Her eyes are not bleak pits forever scarred by the suffering she has witnessed.
No, in this image she is smiling with real joy, her face with its plump cheeks is a picture of health and happiness. The photo almost appears staged. You look at it and you think, ‘she can’t really be there’. You might be right in that supposition, because, I think the last place Helena Citronova was, in her mind at least, was in that death camp.
Romantics might say she was transported on the wings of love to somewhere far, far better. Pragmatists might look at it differently.
Israeli filmmaker Maya Sarfaty charts Franz Wunsch and Helena’s story in her documentary, Love It Was Not, which lifts the lid on a romance that is a warped version of Romeo and Juliet.
Helena grew up in the town of Humenne, in Slovakia. The daughter of the cantor, or chief chanter, in the local synagogue, she enjoyed performing and aspired to work on stage, but then came the war and in March 1942, aged 19, she was put on a train headed for Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Her first task at the camp was exhausting and dangerous – shifting rubble on the site of a demolished building – but she soon got work in the safer surrounds of a huge warehouse at Birkenau, called Canada, where Helena helped process the possessions of those condemned to the gas chambers.
As far as the Nazis were concerned every object had a value for the war effort, so a mountain of shoes here, a hill of clothing there, hillocks of spectacles, and jewellery emerged by the hour – all plundered; all pitiful monuments to stolen lives – to be sifted and sorted just as their owners were being murdered nearby.
Wunsch, who was just 20 years old himself, was the commander at Canada. Helena met him when the guards sought out a singer to perform at his birthday party. One of the tunes she sang was called Love It Was Not. Apparently, it affected Wunsch deeply as no doubt did the sight of the beautiful singer.
‘She was like a peach,’ fellow prisoner Roma Ben Atar Notkovich recalled in Sarfaty’s documentary nearly eighty years later. ‘You just wanted to pinch her cheek.’
Wunsch would have concurred with that assessment; he was smitten.
‘She was the love of his life,’ his daughter Magda told Sarfaty, who interviewed the surviving families of both Wunsch and Helena, as well more than a dozen of Helena’s fellow inmates.
Helena said she hated him at first, but then the wooing began, and it was hard to resist…
Food, biscuits, a sheet and pillow, notes… Wunsch would slip them all to her, with promises that he would somehow get her out of the hell hole in which she found herself.
While inmate-friends of Helena’s also benefited from Wunsch’s gifts, others were either furious at what they saw as her treachery, or were just plain envious.
Former inmate, Bat-Sheva Dagan, said: ‘Everyone was jealous, deeply, of the very fact that she had that chance, and we would go like sheep to the slaughter.’
Other former inmates confirmed to Sarfaty that women would seek Helena’s help and she would pass Wunsch notes which simply gave the prisoner’s number and the word ‘Help’. ‘For you, anything,’ he would say as he read the note.
When Helena caught typhoid in December 1942, the Nazi set up a bed in the warehouse, feeding her most of his SS rations, until she recovered.
‘He loved me to the point of madness,’ said Helena. In fact, later in life Wunsch would present his own daughter with a double locket containing photos of him and Helena.
‘I thought that was a bit odd. It should have been my mother in there,’ Magda told the filmmakers.
Such was Helena’s power over him that witnesses said on several occasions she was seen to grab Wunsch’s hand and make him stop when he was delivering brutal beatings to prisoners.
Her ‘love’ of Wunsch must have been something akin to Stockholm Syndrome, where prisoners and their captors developed a strong emotional bond, and one which in some cases can last a lifetime.
Kidnap victim Mary McElroy, from Kansas, Missouri, was one such a case. Abducted in 1933 when she was just 25 years old, Mary was held at gunpoint and chained. A ransom of $30,000 was paid and a little over two days later and Mary was released unharmed. Her abductors were tracked down shortly after and sent for trial.
Whatever went on in Mary’s head during her short time of captivity was certainly profound because, instead of being at the forefront of calls for punishment of the men, she actually campaigned for them and met with their families.
In April, 1935, the gang’s ringleader, Walter McGee, was sentenced to death for kidnapping, which prompted Mary to write to the state’s governor pleading for clemency and stating: ‘Walter McGee’s sentence has hung as heavily over me as over him. Through punishing a guilty man, his victim will be made to suffer equally… In pleading for Walter McGee’s life I am pleading for my own peace of mind.’
McGee’s sentence was eventually commuted to life in prison, but Mary never got over the trauma of her ordeal. In January 1940, she shot herself, leaving a suicide note which read: ‘My four kidnappers are probably the four people on earth who don’t consider me an utter fool. You have your death penalty now – so – please – give them a chance.’
Mary, it seems, was willing to die for her captors, whether Helena was is open to question, but the devotion she felt for Wunsch certainly must have helped subsume the horror of life in the camp; having eyes only for him meant that she partially blinded herself to the ugly reality around her.
Fraternisation of this nature with the inmates was forbidden, and as a result Helena’s feelings for the SS man deepened with every risk he took on her behalf. ‘As time went by, I really did love him,’ she told her family. And that feeling must have been particularly strong when Wunsch managed to save Helena’s sister, Roza, from the gas chamber.
Roza had arrived at the camp with her newborn son and six-year-old daughter and was already in the queue for the gas chambers when Helena heard of her arrival.
She pleaded with the crematorium guards to release her or, failing that, to allow her to die with them, but then Wunsch arrived on the scene and managed to convince the ‘Angel of Death’ Josef Mengele that Roza would be a useful worker.
It was only as Roza was in the changing room removing her clothes in preparation for the ‘shower’ that she was rescued. Her children weren’t so fortunate, and were left to die.
It is an extraordinary image, and a heart-breaking one.
The relationship between Wunsch and Helena lasted for more than two years. It was something of an open secret, even among his immediate superiors, with one telling him: ‘Such a beautiful girl. I can see why.’
The affair came to an end with the imminent arrival of Russian forces, which led to the abandonment of the camp.
Writing in his diary at the time, Wunsch recorded the lovers’ final words as they went their separate ways: ‘…She has tears in her eyes. “I beg you, Franz, don’t forget me”. These are her last words. She embraces me one last time. We kiss long and intimately.’
Lest one think these are merely his fond imaginings, Helena backs up his diary claim. ‘I had feelings for him then, that’s for sure,’ she acknowledged years later.
Filmmaker Maya Sarfaty’s documentary reveals how, after surviving the war, both returned to their home towns, with the Nazi writing endless letters proclaiming his love and his hopes that they would be reunited.
Within a year, Helena’s ardour had more than cooled, and she married. However, so persistent was Wunsch that one of her relatives wrote to him asking him to cease contact.
She eventually moved to Israel, but the guilt of her association with him wouldn’t leave her. According to Helena’s family, she would fly into rages, smashing furniture, and claiming the family was cursed. Clearly deeply conflicted about her time with Wunsch, she would claim in her defence: ‘I saved many people thanks to him.’
The past continued to intrude, though, particularly when, in 1972, Wunsch was put on trial in Austria for his role at Auschwitz.
By then he, too, was married. Incredibly, it was his wife, Thea, who wrote to Helena asking if she would speak in Wunsch’s defence.
One can only imagine the emotional pressure that Helena must have felt. In defiance of death threats from outraged Israelis that she would speak up in favour of an SS soldier who had collaborated in the deaths of millions, she attended the trial in Vienna.
‘I had raised a family. I had fallen in love with my husband. But the past still haunted me,’ she would later say.
Wunsch denied beating any inmates to death, or to have herded people into gas chambers. Helena’s words obviously helped sway the court because he was acquitted of his crimes.
Wunsch claimed he’d been corrupted at Auschwitz. There’s no doubt about that, but it’s no defence for what he did.
His adoration for Helena may well have been a form of tunnel vision to help blind him to the reality of his own brutal actions. If so, it was something he carried with him for the rest of his life.
That photo Wunsch took of the smiling, beautiful Helena in her camp uniform also helped mask the reality of his sins. As his daughter Magda said in the film: ‘He treasured that photo, I know. He would take reproductions. He copied the picture and I know he even took the head off and put it on different clothes, on a different background.’
I can see Wunsch now with his little cut-outs, showing ‘Helena’ at home, ‘Helena’ on holiday, maybe even ‘Helena’ with a child in her arms… a whole life lived in his imagination, a life of glue and paper that he wanted to be more real than the ugly truth he had lived in Auschwitz.
Love is blind alright… it had to be.
Readers’ note: I’ve been told by someone who I regard as a pal and who is now an Israeli citizen that this post is ‘offensive on so many levels’. The last thing this blog tries to do is offend people. This story is clearly an anomaly in the horrendous brutality that occurred during the Holocaust. It certainly does not suggest that inmates fraternizing with their vicious captors was a common occurrence. Nevertheless, it did happen, albeit it being a downright bizarre turn of events. And it is these anomalies of history that this blog attempts to record. No offence is intended.