The first Jewish convoy to Auschwitz, the Nazi officer and his prisoner: true story of a taboo love

The picture is astonishing: it looks like a holiday picture, except that it was taken in a concentration-extermination camp, and that the young beauty who is taking a break is kept trapped there. Helena Citrónová was one of 999 women on the first official Jewish convoy to Auschwitz in March 1942. In her striped dress, she shines with a radiant smile. The full cheeks, the robust body, the proud posture and the carefully combed thick hair raise questions. Could one be trapped, happy and healthy in Auschwitz?

It was a Nazi officer who took the shot. He wants to make dozens of copies and cut Helena’s head out to put it on postcards – in the mountains, by the sea, on a trip, with the family and imagining the life that could have been theirs. For in 1942, Austrian Franz Wunsch fell madly in love with Helena when he heard the sound of her voice, like a sailor from The Odyssey led to his downfall by the song of the sirens.

In this astonishing portrait, Helena Citrónová, captured in Auschwitz, shows a dazzling smile. She was taken by her lover, the Nazi officer Franz Wunsch. He will keep it and make dozens of copies of it until his death. | Cinephil

An SS man was celebrating his birthday that day, and the young women employed in Canada, the name of the sorting warehouse for goods from deportees from the extermination camp, were invited to come and sing or dance to entertain the group. One of Helena’s friends, who knew her talent for singing, pushed her forward. She chooses a sad German song, “Liebe war es nie” (“It was not love”, prophetic choice?). At the end of her performance, a young man approached her and asked her to start over.

It was, she later confided in the Shoah Foundation, founded in 1994 by Steven Spielberg, the first time a member of the SS approached her with respect. “Suddenly I heard a human voice and not an animal roar. I heard “please”! I saw the uniform and thought, “My God! They are the eyes of a man, not the eyes of a murderer. “

For the insane

Franz Wunsch is 20 years old. Helena is still a teenager, “a real peach you felt like pinching his cheeks”, will testify about her friend Roma Ben Atar Notkovich. Wunsch is a killer, Helena knows that. “At first I hated him. He was just as devilish as the other SS men. But over time …” He wins her affection by protecting her, bringing her and her friends food or blankets. He discreetly slips away her little words (“Don’t worry, I’ll get you out of here.”).

Wunsch watches over her without hiding from others, obsessed. When she got typhus, synonymous with a certain death in Auschwitz, he treated her so she slept, gave her her food rations. “His love bordered on madness”, Helena agrees. She trembles: both risk death by this ultimate transgression. What if someone reported them? It happens eventually. Both are tortured but resist: they will never confess.

Helena is jealous, sometimes offended, distrusting all her peers in misfortune. “But in the two and a half years this relationship lasted, I was able to save several lives”, she will justify herself. Including his own sister, Ruzinka (Roza). When she hears in 1943 about the arrival of her sister and her two children, she hurries. Doctor Josef Mengele, the angel of death, stops her just as she is about to enter the gas chamber to join her sister there. Without thinking, Wunsch, who never takes his eyes off her for very long, rushes, tackles her to the ground, and invokes his case to Mengele: it is one of his workers (“There are not many left of those numbers.”).

Mengele’s indifference allows him to protect her. Then he goes in a crazy move into the Crematorium and manages to recapture Ruzinka. She is already naked, like her children, unconsciously waiting to be gassed. Nine-year-old Aviva holds her baby brother in her arms and watches in horror as her mother walks away. “It’s going to be okay, I promise you.” She is unaware that no child survives Auschwitz, that only twins can survive – only to be exposed to Josef Mengele’s experiments. Ruzinka will never forgive her sister for the death of her children.

The gray areas of history

Director Maya Sarfaty learned about Helena’s story from one of her nieces, who happened to be her acting teacher. Fascinated by the unfathomable complexity of the story, she has dedicated two documentaries to it. It is more specifically the ambivalence of the characters that she has tried to highlight.

“I was someone else and everyone knew this story. I was spotted, he was an SS. But the thing is, he saved my life.”

Helena Citronova

She explains that from her point of view, Franz “was not a pure monster. He was undoubtedly a sadistic SS officer. But he was also romantic, tender, capable of pure love and compassion. Helena is also not the classic victim one could imagine: She is a strong “woman, endowed with a strong survival instinct, ready to do whatever it takes to save herself and her sister. The gray areas between monstrosity and purity are what drive me to tell this story.”

The gray areas … In 1972, Helena, who lived in Israel, received a letter from Franz’s wife asking her to help her by coming to testify during his trial. The last time Helena saw the Nazi officer was at their farewell was when he gave her and Roza fur-lined boots so they could survive their death march in 1944. She will agree to testify, just like Roza. Wunsch will be acquitted.

On the other planet

Helena was repeatedly questioned by the media as to why she was testifying instead of trying to forget. In the Israeli television program “A Different Love”, in 2003 she found the courage to confide. “I was someone else and everyone knew this story. I was spotted, he was an SS. But the thing is, he saved my life. I did not choose, it happened. It’s a story that could not have existed. elsewhere than there, on this other planet.

In 2016, Maya Sarfati’s first documentary dedicated to the story of Helena and Franz, The most beautiful woman, received an Oscar for best foreign documentary directed by a student. As the director relentlessly pursued his research into the archives of Yad Vashem (International Institute for the Remembrance of the Shoah) in Jerusalem and the archives of the Shoah Foundation, the director subsequently discovered several testimonies – including those of Franz and ‘Helena himself – as well as traces of the protagonists’ families and relatives.

To Do not love itshe exchanges with Franz’s daughter: “He was the love of his life”confirms this. “If we had won the war, everything would have been different”, he lamented in front of wife and family, thinking of his lost love. Franz Wunsch’s compulsive photo montages inspire the director: She then reconstructs scenes from the past using characters carved from the archive’s visual images. The narrative process is both powerful and unsettling – the almost childish innocence in these paper games creates a breathtaking contrast to the violence of historical facts.

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We regret that no release date is yet planned in France, however Do not love it is available online. Seventy-seven years after the end of the Holocaust (May 8, 1945), Maya Sarfaty reproduces with finesse, without falling into the ultimate taboo, the sensationalism, the maelstrom of emotions of the survivors who make their voices heard – and through those of the millions of disappeared.

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