My name is Helga and I was born in 1937 in Silesia, which was part of the Third Reich at that time. My parents were Viennese but lived in Berlin, where I spent my childhood with my brother Peter.
In 1939, Germany entered the war and in 1941, while my father was at the front, my mother abandoned our family: I was 4 and Peter was 19 months old. My grandmother came from Poland to take care of us.
During a brief leave from the army my father Stefan met Ursula, a young woman from Berlin with whom he began a relationship before returning to his Wehrmacht unit. My beloved paternal grandmother went back to Poland and my brother and I went to live with our new stepmother. Ursula loved Peter very much, but began to push me away early on. She abandoned me in a Nazi correctional facility for “difficult children” in order to get rid of me, and I was so unhappy there that I fell very ill. Ursula was asked to come and get me and shortly after she decided that my second exile would take place in a Kinderheim in Oranienburg-Eden, where things went better. The operators were strict, but humane and the building was surrounded by greenery, seeing as fruit-growing is one of the area’s main activities.
In September, 1944, I was brought back to the capital and spent the rest of the war in a cellar because of the constant bombing and violence, up until the Red Army’s final assault and the battle for Berlin. For Peter and I, this portion of the war was interrupted only by a visit to the Führer in his bunker underneath the New Chancellery, seeing as Hilde, our acquired aunt, worked with Joseph Goebbels in the Reich’s Ministry of Propaganda.
After the war, my father came back and in 1948 we left Berlin for Austria, his native country. When I was 17, I ran away from home because of the constant state of tension and disagreement my stepmother created. In Salzburg, I worked as a dishwasher to support myself during my studies. When I was 20, I moved to Vienna and tried to build myself a future, running into disappointment and failure on numerous occasions.
In 1963 in Verona, I met Elio, a boy from Bologna. I kept travelling through Italy and visited Florence and Rome and on my way back, I stopped in Bologna because Elio wanted to show me his hometown.
I didn’t go back to Vienna and I married Elio.
In 1971, after thirty years had gone by, I discovered that my mother was still alive. I left for Vienna with Renzo, my five year old son: during that trip, I first learned about my mother’s past as a member of the SS and as a guardian in Auschwitz-Birkenau.
I learned Italian very quickly and started to collaborate with «il Resto del Carlino», a national newspaper based in Bologna. I wrote a few novels that publishing houses weren’t interested in up until 1994, when Adelphi decided to publish The Bonfire of Berlin: A Lost Childhood in Wartime Germany. Later on, Adelphi also published Let Me Go (which then became a movie) and L’usignolo dei Linke.
I then published more books with Rizzoli, Einaudi, Salani and Oligo, some of which were translated into other languages. I have won numerous literary awards, such as the Premio Rapallo in 1996, the Premio Elsa Morante Ragazzi in 2003 with Stelle di cannella, published by Salani and the Premio Ceppo per l’Infanzia e l’Adolescenza in 2015.
My new novel is published in November 2023 by Solferino/RCS Group.