Let Me Go, by Helga Schneider, translated from the Italian by Shaun Whiteside (Walker, $19), is a short reminiscence of a woman's confrontation with her 87-year-old mother, who was once an enthusiastic SS guard at two Nazi death camps. The book won't let you go until you've finished reading the last page. Born in 1937, Schneider was abandoned by her mother four years later. The mother may have run off with a lover, but this shadowy affair is irrelevant. What is spotlit by this harrowing chronicle is her mother's hatred of Jews. " 'I hated those cursed Jews. A horrible race, believe me. Pfui.' " These feelings permitted -- and encouraged -- her to assist in diabolical experiments on both men and women. This is the mother, now resident in an old folks' home, telling Schneider about an incident involving two female prisoners in one of the camps: "Two filthy Jewish scum . . . were taking revenge for something or other, the whores. But of course they were found out, and they ended up in front of a firing squad. Naked. But first they had to spend a fortnight in the punishment block. They were in the dark with rats as big as cats that practically ate them alive. When they got out they were mad with terror and couldn't wait to get that bullet in the back of the neck.' "Schneider concludes this passage: "She has been speaking through clenched teeth, with hatred that still seethes inside her like incandescent lava." Whether the mother has been psychotic all her life -- and there is plenty of evidence to support this -- is not the chief concern of the author, who is caught between her loathing for a woman she knows is evil and her instinctual urge to win her mother's love.
The book opens in 1998, when Schneider and her mother met for the first time in almost 30 years -- and for only the second time since the war. The mother didn't recognize her own daughter. Did she have Alzheimer's, or was she playing tricks? It's hard to say. Gradually, the old woman, in turn spiteful, quixotic, tearful, angry, boastful (" 'I was in the Waffen-SS. I couldn't permit myself the sentimentality of ordinary people' "), became more articulate as her memory improved. She was crazy but she also capable of the kind of cruelty few could dream up, let alone perform. How do you come to terms with such a person?
Except for a handful of post-war German authors, we are rarely given such a glimpse of life on the other side.
Running Through Fire (Mercury House, $15.95) is the oral "testimony" of Zosia Goldberg, a beautiful, Gentile-looking Polish Jew who survived World War II by a combination of pluck and luck. What's troubling about her story is the tone -- flattened and uninflected -- so that, even as she describes hideous, heart-breaking incidents, she sounds as if she didn't care; she might as well have been describing a family picnic: "My father was on the sidewalk while some German soldiers looked at him and could not believe he was a Jew because he did not look like one. He gave him an order to get down from the sidewalk and my father answered him, 'No, I am not going. You can go.' . . . Then he hit my father in the face quite strongly." That's it. Goldberg moves ahead to another topic.
Even allowing for the awkward translation, this passage slides right by, without leaving a mark. There's a lot to be said for avoiding inflated language and letting events speak for themselves, but Goldberg goes so far that the horrors she endured seem trivialized.
Marjorie Perloff, author of The Vienna Paradox (New Directions, $15.95), is an echt intellectual, having written 11 previous books on weighty subjects like Ludwig Wittgenstein and Ezra Pound. Born in Vienna in 1931, she and her cultured -- and snobbish -- family fled to America seven years later. I find the author's tone annoyingly didactic and boastful (she twice tells her readers that, once in the United States, she skipped "a whole grade"). This tone makes it difficult to evaluate her book -- her personality keeps getting in the way.
In spite of her bad habits, Perloff paints a devastating picture of the way rich European Jews for so long managed to deny what was right in front of their noses. She writes, "So 'assimilated' were the Austrian upper middle-class Jewish families . . . that the Nazi takeover . . . and immediate expulsion and torture of the Jews came . . . as a terrible -- and unanticipated -- shock." Perloff's memoir jumps around in time without any seeming plan. On page 203 she mentions a husband, whom she doesn't "meet" until 10 pages later. She so frequently interrupts her narrative with take-outs on cultural history that the reader has a hard time connecting to her life. Maybe I'm one of those philistines that Perloff's family scoffed at -- they wouldn't let her see "Oklahoma" because it was "kitsch" -- but I prefer memoirs that move from the inside outward, rather than the other way around. *
-- Anne Bernays
Anne Bernays is the author of nine novels -- including the forthcoming "Trophy House" -- and the co-author of three nonfiction books.