Once back home in Bologna, Helga contacted the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Vienna, which documented Nazi atrocities, and asked to see the files on her mother. SS guard Traudi Schneider, she learned, had been so efficient at her job in Sachsenhausen, Ravensbrück and Auschwitz-Birkenau, herding women and children into the gas chambers, then shovelling their bodies into the crematorium ovens, she’d been promoted to a position reserved only for the most hardened: tying inmates on tables so that the Nazi camp doctors, led by the infamous Dr Josef Mengele, could perform their grotesque medical experiments.For instance, two prisoners would each have a leg amputated and the doctors would then swap the legs and observe the effect of various drugs on the transplant process. I felt like an accomplice – as if I, too, was guilty of genocide, guilty of the death of many people.Within a year Helga’s silent, uncommunicative father had remarried.Ursula, an icy woman who loathed Helga, forbade any talk of Helga’s mother.The shock of reading the files sent Helga into a deep depression. I thought of what my son might think as he grew up. I was determined to never see her again.’Twenty-seven years later, however, she did.‘Unbearable, that my mother was involved in all that. By then – 1998 – Helga was a widow of 61, her husband having died of cancer.She remembers recoiling as a little chain, the sort small girls are given for their birthday, spilled out of her mother’s pale bony fingers, realising it must have been ripped from a child on her way to the gas chamber. ” I told her, “You didn’t want me as a daughter and now it’s me who doesn’t want you as a mother!
Helga had to spend the preceding days in the bunker, being fattened up – she ate until she was sick – and put under sunlamps so that the Führer would be shielded from the true effect of the war on Germany’s children. I can still remember the feel of his hand – it was so clammy.’It wasn’t until the war ended that Helga began to hear adults murmur about the mass killing of Jews in concentration camps, but she had no idea her mother had any link to the camps.These events have dominated Helga’s life.‘I have not one happy memory of my mother,’ Helga tells me.‘Since the age of four I have spent just a few hours with her, but she has haunted me all my life.’ Beautifully groomed and with a warm, energetic manner, she looks every inch the Italian she has tried to become.Her efforts didn’t work, and in her 60s, after decades of feeling haunted, traumatised and unlovable, she wrote a short, shocking book – which became a worldwide bestseller – about the repercussions of having ‘the worst kind of Nazi’ for a mother.It is this book that has inspired Polly’s film.‘Films don’t tell women’s stories enough.