Helena Citronova, in her prison blue-and-white striped uniform could be mistaken for Auschwitz’s most tragic souvenirs. Except for one glaring difference — she’s smiling.
It’s not the nervous smile of an inmate afraid of offending the Nazi, holding the camera at the Third Reich’s most famous death camp.
Her wide smile and happy expression make her seem content. She has a lovely, apples-cheeked appearance that is hardly influenced by the cruelty and starvation that she witnessed in her fellow prisoner.
Helena, not Franz Wunsch, the man in the photo, wasn’t actually performing.
“Yes, she was his love,” Magda, the Nazi’s daughter, says of her mother nearly 80 years later.
Helena Citronova, in her prison blue-and-white striped uniform could be mistaken for Auschwitz’s most tragic souvenirs. Except for one glaring difference — she’s smiling
“He loved that picture, I’m sure. He was willing to make copies. He would copy the image and even put his head on other clothes.
Not surprising that Wunsch would want to remember when and where the photograph was taken. Helena and his romance are undoubtedly some of the most extraordinary stories from World War II.
It’s the main focus of Maya Sarfaty, an Israeli documentary called Love It Was Not. It provides a fascinating insight into a tale about forbidden love.
The interview features Helena’s former inmates as well as the surviving families. There is also a never-before seen home video from the SS man that clearly explains the relationship.
Helena, daughter of the town cantor — the man who led the chanting and singing at the synagogue — in the Slovakian town of Humenne, had hoped she was destined for a career on the stage.
She was instead, at 19 years old, put on a train along with 1000 other Jewish girls to be deported from Auschwitz-Birkenau.
She was first assigned to the kommando (or work detail) to destroy partially destroyed buildings.
They could not flee falling masonry because guards prohibited them. Helena, who died before Helena’s death, said that she was not allowed to run and that the wall fell.
These carnages continued for many weeks. In their desperate attempt to survive, they would force each other into the lead. Helena noted, “Very quickly… we had transformed into animals.”
The realization that she had to survive was a reality for her. She learned from a friend about Canada. Canada is an enormous warehouse located at Auschwitz’s second location near Birkenau. This place houses the possessions of Jews, prisoners, and others brought into the camp. They were then processed and sent to the nearby gas chambers.
Her wide smile and beautiful apple-cheeked eyes make her seem happy. This is despite the fact that her face shows very little of the cruelty that she suffered from, starvation, and other cruelties. Helena, not Franz Wunsch, the man who held the camera, wasn’t actually performing for it.
Canada was a highly sought-after country and those who were sent there could find warm clothes or food in their suitcases. Helena succeeded in appropriating the uniform of a Canada worker but, after her deception was rumbled by a guard, she faced being sent to the penal kommando — which was an almost certain death sentence.
But then, fate intervened. It was reported that Canadian commander had asked the guards for help in finding a singing talent to sing at his birthday. Helena had an excellent singing voice. The other girls noted that she was likely to get a permanent position at Canada if she makes a good impression.
She stated, “I thought, ‘I’m better off singing than dieing.'”
Helena had limited German song choices so she chose Love It Was Not. It is a touching ballad about an unhappy love affair, which was not appropriate for this occasion. She was overcome with emotion as she sang the song, and the 20-year old Austrian birthday boy Wunsch asked her to sing the same song again for him.
Helena was shocked. She later said that she heard the voice of an individual and not animals. ‘I hear the word ‘please’. With tears welling up in my eyes, I glance up and see a uniform. I wonder, “God, where are the eyes for a murderer?” They are eyes that belong to a person’.
Wunsch was gazing at a young girl in her teens. Her eyes were dark and large, but she had an innocence that could have made her stand out among the darkness. “She looked like a peach.” Roma Ben Atar Notkovich, another prisoner, recalls that she wanted to just pinch her cheek.
Helena, it was not surprising, stayed in Canada. After hearing that Wunsch had been a prisoner, Helena said at first she couldn’t bear the thought of him. He was a hateful man at first. ‘He had the evil qualities of all the SS. As time went …’
Surreptitiously, the Nazi slipped food and biscuits to her, followed by notes with messages like, “Don’t worry. I’ll get your out of here.”
Canada’s other inmates noticed the growing attraction between them.
His only communication with her was to talk and sing. One time he bought her a blanket and pillow for her frozen dormitory. He would often watch as she fell asleep and he would even stand there to help. Helena stated, “He loved my to the point that he was mad.”
Wunsch kept a journal and documented how Helena was infected with typhoid in December 1942. It proved to be fatal in Auschwitz. He made a bed for Helena on top of the shelves of the Canada warehouse, and gave her all of his SS rations as well as the ‘care package’ he received from his mother.
Helena worried that the camp would learn about their relationship from other guards and inmates.
They could both have been sentenced to death for having had sexual relations with an Untermensch (an inferior person) which was a grave violation of SS racial purity laws.
Both of them survived the war — Wunsch’s last act was to give the sisters furry boots for the frozen, forced ‘death march’ away from Auschwitz — and returned to their home towns
Helena was not the only one who received the food and kid-glove treatments. Other inmates were angry at her behavior or envying how she managed to avoid the same gnawing hunger as the rest.
Bat-Sheva Dagan, another ex-inmate said that everyone was deeply jealous of her chance and that they would follow her lead to slaughter.
Helena said that these women were bitter and had a right to be so. Some of the women she spoke to would abuse Helena or, if given the chance, even beat her. Helena and Wunsch had a long-lasting relationship that lasted more than two decades. Helena admitted she was sometimes conflicted by the situation at times. She defended herself by saying that he saved so many lives.
She would receive help from women who would approach her. The note would be read by him and he would tell her: ‘For your, any.
Her fellow prisoner, who confirmed this is true, pointed out that Wunsch ignored infractions for which other guards could have beat them to death. One prisoner recalled that she once had typhus, and 40-degree fever. She was then left to fend for herself amongst the clothing she was meant to be sorting. If Wunsch had not pretended to not see her, she would have ‘never survived’.
It was not to impress Helena. One survivor also testified that Wunsch was an ‘absolute sadist…like a totally different person’ in his treatment of male prisoners. He would beat them savagely whenever they tried to get clothes packages.
Witnesses said Helena saw him perform these beatings on several occasions and would grab his hand to stop him. Helena said that Helena was in love with someone in October 1943. She was then taken to a cell, where she could barely curl up on the ground, and thrown into a jail cell. She was held for five days and interrogated on Wunsch. In between, she would be pushed against the wall and warned that she was being shot.
She remained true to her story and pleaded innocence. Amazingly, she was not executed. During five days of interrogation, Wunsch repeated the gesture. However, after he was brought before an SS court, he gave the Nazi salute and the judge smiled at him before releasing his release.
But, the encounter with death did not break them apart. They continued their love affair, though more secretively. Other survivors claim that the affair did not occur, and point out that all three inmates were sleeping in single bunks.
Bat-Sheva Dagan said that it would have been impossible to get sex.
However, there were other possibilities. Wunsch later acknowledged that his immediate supervisors had turned a blindeye to the affair. He confided: “Such an exquisite girl. It’s easy to see why.
Helena acknowledged that he had been infatuated with her right from the beginning, but her feelings for him grew as she witnessed him risk his life repeatedly for her. “Eventually, over time, I realized that I loved him,” she stated.
One incident in particular transformed her feelings — he saved her beloved sister Roza’s life. She knew that many of her relatives had been murdered at Auschwitz and was shocked to hear Roza arrived with her 6-year-old girl and newborn son.
Ignoring a curfew, Helena ran to the crematorium where, under the command of Josef Mengele — the notorious Auschwitz doctor dubbed the ‘Angel of Death’ — the SS had already put the trio in the queue for the gas chambers.
Helena told guards that she wanted to be with them, despite unsuccessful pleas for their release. When the SS men appeared to be about to grant Helena her wish, an inmate alerted them. He made a big show beating Helena for violating curfew and whispered: “Quick!” Is that your sister? Înainte de assuring Mengele Roza was a valuable worker.
Roza was changing her clothes in the change room, as she had promised to get a’shower’ when she was taken away.
Unfortunately, her children were not able to escape. Except for the twins Mengele experimented on, it was not possible to save her children. The Nazis did not want any children and they sent the little ones into gas chambers.
Inmates were able to hear the guns of Russians by January 1945. The SS guards were dispatched to help at the front, and inmates were then evacuated. His diary records how Wunsch said goodbye to his “proud, race conscious Jewess” in the otherwise empty barracks.
“I have loved you deeply.” He wrote: “Now, she has tears in the eyes. ‘I beg you, Franz, don’t forget me’. These were her final words. One last embrace from her. Our kisses are long and deep. Helena later admitted that she had felt for him at the time.
Both of them survived the war — Wunsch’s last act was to give the sisters furry boots for the frozen, forced ‘death march’ away from Auschwitz — and returned to their home towns.
Following the cessation of hostilities, he began to search for his wife and wrote endless letters in an attempt to reconnect with her.
He exclaimed, “Then, we’ll be together, and keep all the promises we made to each other,” adding, regretfully, that it wouldn’t have been the same if we’d won the war.
After a year of freedom, she married an activist from Zionism. Helena’s relative wrote to her requesting that Wunsch cease. It was strictly prohibited to contact ‘Nazi criminals.’ He also stated that the blood of two of the children he allowed to be gassed “will never be removed from your hands.”
Friends claim Helena was scared Wunsch might find out, so she and her husband moved to Israel. He wouldn’t have dared go.
The trauma that she experienced in Auschwitz did not leave her. The documentary makers heard from her three children that their mother suffered violent rages, in which she would smash furniture up and claim their family is cursed.
One last extraordinary twist was to occur in the tale of star-crossed lovers. Austrian court tried Wunsch in 1972 for gassing Auschwitz prisoners and murder.
His wife Thea was already married by that time and pleaded with him to allow her to be his witness.
Helena admitted she was in a difficult situation, but she ignored death threats by Israelis, outraged that she could help an SS murderer, and attended the Vienna trial.
“I’d raised my family. He was my best friend. However, I was haunted by the ghosts of my past.
Witnesses at Helena’s trial noticed that Thea Wunsch was only dressed in make-up and was not wearing any clothes. Helena didn’t look at Wunsch as she testified that he was always kind and helpful to her. However, Helena said that he used to beat male prisoners.
After one beating she said she had once been asked by him to do his hand, which he refused. She then told him that she would not bandage the hand of her brothers. Wunsch wept during her testimony.
Although he claimed that he was corrupted at Auschwitz, he denied beating anybody to death or herding them into gas chambers. He said he preferred to be at the front.
He was acquitted — as most Austrian Nazis were — and Helena’s friends say she never spoke about him again.
This could not be said for Wunsch. A 2003 home video shows him explaining to his family without embarrassment his relationships with Helena at the death camp.
Magda, the daughter of his father, said that her father had told Magda when she was 16 that he hadn’t felt love as intensely for her since he left her in 1945. It made her feel “a bit uncomfortable”. After that, he presented her with a double locket which contained photos of Helena. “I found that a little strange.” Magda stated to filmmakers, “It should have been my mom in there.”
The love story between Auschwitz’s inmate and the SS guard was not surprising.