The Holocaust has left its mark as one of the darkest moments in history. However, even during the darkest of times, there was still love. Here, Casey Titus tells us about a love story between a Nazi concentration camp prisoner and an SS Guard at Auschwitz.
In September 1935, the Reichstag (the parliament during the Third Reich) voted unanimously to for the passing of the Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honor, otherwise known as the Nuremberg Laws that not only excluded German Jews from Reich citizenship but from marrying or having sexual relations with people of “German or related blood.”
Persons accused of having sexual relations with non-Aryans faced public humiliation and those convicted were “typically sentenced to prison terms, and (subsequent to 8 March 1938) upon completing their sentences were re-arrested by the Gestapo and sent to Nazi concentration camps.”
Even with the punishments for forbidden affection severe, especially for Nazi soldiers, that was not enough to stop Auschwitz SS officer Franz Wunsch from falling in love with a Jewish Slovakian prisoner named Helena Citronova. Across the world, Auschwitz concentration camp has become a symbol of genocide, terror, war, and the Holocaust.
However, after 70 years, PBS in America as well as an Israeli television brought to life the forbidden romance story between an SS guard and a Jewish prisoner at Auschwitz that highlighted the complexity of human relationships in the most horrifying of world events.
In 1942, Franz Wunsch was serving as a 20-year old SS guard in charge of the gas chambers of Auschwitz. On his birthday, March 21, his Nazi comrades brought in a Jewish girl, Helena Citronova, to sing him birthday songs. Helena was imprisoned at Auschwitz from Slovakia and was forced to sort all of the incoming prisoners’ belongings before they were shipped to Berlin to fuel the Nazi war efforts.
Helena and her sister Rozinka had both been sentenced to die in the gas chambers earlier that very day so Helena attempted to sing the very best she could, melting the heart of the SS guard. When Wunsch realized she wouldn’t be alive the next day, he hurried and managed to postpone the execution of both sisters.
Helena would say years later in Israel, “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". 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.”
Over time, though unclear of exactly when, Helena succumbed to her feelings for Franz, especially after her SS devotee rushed to prevent her sister and her sister’s children from being sent to the gas chambers.
“'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." Helena later recalled.
'He replied, "Children, that's different. Children can't live here." So he ran to the crematorium and found my sister.'
Helena admitted she had slept with her rescuer and at times had even forgotten who he was and came to terms with the romance. Wunsch would provide Helena with food, clothing, and protection. Though their relationship would not develop any further, Helena would repay him years later for risking his life to protect a Jewish prisoner on the pain of death.
When the war ended, the SS guards fled the Allied advance, even destroying parts of the concentration camps to cover their war crimes. Helena and her sister Rozinka attempted to return home with other displaced people through an Eastern Europe that contained violent and raping Soviet soldiers. Both sisters avoided being raped when Rozinka claimed to be Helena’s mother and defended her. Following the founding of Israel in 1948, Helena moved there while Franz returned to Austria.
Thirty years following Nazi Germany’s defeat and the end of World War II, in 1972, Wunsch was put on trial in Vienna, accused of being cruel towards prisoners by beating men and women alike and operated at the gas chambers to insert the lethal gas. Testimonies include camp survivors describing Wunsch as a “natural Jew hater” and sometimes participated in the selection of inmates all over occupied Europe to live or die. With more than enough evidence for the guilty verdict, life imprisonment and death most likely would have awaited him.
In a twist of events, Helena and her sister defended Wunsch at his trial. Even with ‘an overwhelming evidence of guilt’ as the judge commented in Wunsch’s participation in the Nazi’s largest concentration camp’s mass murder, Wunsch was acquitted of all charges due to the statute of limitations over war crimes in Austria.
“Desire changed my brutal behavior,” Wunsch said. “I fell in love with Helena Citronova and that changed me. I changed into another person because of her influence.”
Citronova died in 2005. Wunsch died in 2009.
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