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by Dusty Sklar
WE LEARNED through war-crimes trials at the end of World War II that most officials in Nazi organizations had no sense of shame or remorse about their barbarous deeds. They either denied their crimes altogether, or rationalized whatever moral qualms they may have felt.
That was not the case with some of their close relatives, however.
Hermann Goering’s great-niece, Bettina Goering, actually opted for sterilization so that she would not “create another monster nor produce any more Goerings.” She ran away from home at 13, lived on a commune in India, then fled to the United States. Her effort to rid herself of the Goering taint is recounted in the documentary Bloodlines, directed by Cynthia Connop, in which, Bettina spends time with Ruth Rich, the daughter of Holocaust survivors, and confronts her guilt and the fear that she may harbor in her blood the same capacity for evil that her grand-uncle bore.
Hitler’s half-nephew, William Patrick Hitler, grew up in England and later moved to the United States. He is long dead, but his three sons live on Long Island under another name, and have decided that none of them would marry or have children.
Martin Adolf Bormann, a godson of Hitler and the eldest of ten children of Martin Bormann, Hitler’s very active private secretary, became a Roman Catholic in 1947, entered the priesthood in 1953, then resigned from it and became a teacher of theology, touring schools and speaking about the horrors of the Third Reich.
Matthias Goering’s great-grandfather and Hermann Goering’s grandfather were brothers. “When times were hard,” says Matthias, “our parents would say to us, “You can’t have that, because all our money’s gone to the Jews.”
Niklas Frank, the son of Hans Frank, Hitler’s Governor General in occupied Poland -- known as “the governor of the largest slaughterhouse in history” -- always kept in his wallet a photograph of his father’s corpse, neck broken after hanging. Niklas, a journalist, confessed that each night he would execute both parents anew in his imagination. Forty years after his father’s execution, Niklas wrote: “The snapping of your neck spared me from having a totally screwed-up life. You certainly would have poisoned my brain with all your drivel, the fate of the silent majority of my generation who did not have the good fortune to have had their fathers hanged.” All the same, “that sweet-talking slimehole of a Hitler fanatic” never stopped haunting his son: “There has never been a day in my life when you didn’t pop up inside my brain with that little piggy bat-snout of yours.” Finally, Niklas Frank wrote In The Shadow of the Reich, in which he traces his father’s life from a sentimental, nationalistic high-schooler to a destroyer of humanity.
WHAT IS IT LIKE to live with a surname such as Himmler? Katrin Himmler, a political scientist who is Heinrich Himmler’s great-niece, answered that question in a 2012 interview with BBC News magazine: “It’s a very heavy burden having someone like that in the family, so close. It’s something that just keeps hanging over you.” She wrote The Himmler Brothers: A German Family History in an effort to “bring something positive” to the name of Himmler. “I did my best to distance myself from it and to confront it critically. I no longer need to be ashamed of this family connection.”
In her view, the descendants of the Nazi war criminals appear to be caught between two extremes: “Most decide to cut themselves off entirely from their parents so that they can live their lives, so that a story doesn’t destroy them. Or they decide on loyalty and unconditional love and sweep all the negative things away.” As she sees it, they all must answer the same question: “Can you really love them if you want to be honest and really know what they did or thought?”
Katrin ended up marrying an Israeli whose family was confined to the Warsaw Ghetto, which was burned to the ground on her great-uncle’s orders.
Brigette Hoess, whose father was Rudolf Hoess, the first commandant of Auschwitz, kept the family secret for forty years. She moved to the United States and became a fashion model for the Balenciaga fashion house. At 80, dying of cancer, she gave her first interview, revealing her fears for her life if her identity were to be disclosed.
Another 80-year-old, Eva Mozes, a Holocaust survivor who had been imprisoned at Auschwitz when Hoess was there, offered to adopt his grandson, Rainer, as part of her well-known effort to forgive those who wronged her when she and her twin were the victim of experiments by Nazi doctors.
That grandson, Rainer Hoess, never knew his grandfather, who was executed for his crimes eighteen years before Rainer’s birth, but he knew his grandmother and other family members who remained devoted to Nazi ideology, and he has seen photos of his father as a child playing in the garden of his villa -- which was separated from the Auschwitz gas chamber by only a few yards. His father’s toys were built by prisoners; his mother would tell her children to wash the strawberries they picked, because they smelled of ash from the ovens. “It’s hard to explain the guilt,” Rainer confessed to the BBC News magazine. “Even though there’s no reason I should bear any guilt, I still bear it. I carry the guilt with me in my mind. I’m ashamed, too, of course, for what my family, my grandfather, did to thousands of other families. So you ask yourself . . . Why am I alive? To carry this guilt, this burden, to try to come to terms with it. That must be the only reason I exist, to do what he should have done.” His father never abandoned the ideology he grew up with, and Rainer no longer has contact with him. Now 51, Rainer was an invited guest at the 2015 commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. He lectures about the terrible history in which his family was complicit, and has a Star of David and the prison numbers of several Auschwitz inmates tattooed on his body.
ADOLF EICHMANN’S son, Ricardo Francisco Eichmann, said that his father would have made it easier for his family if he had shown remorse over his deeds instead of claiming that he was just following orders.
On the other hand, Eichmann’s daughter-in-law, Carmen Bretin Lindemann, was censured after declaring in a television interview, “The history that you know is not the real one, the TV that you know from movies and books is written by the Jews, and all the world accepts that history. He wasn’t a bad person, he obeyed orders and did not personally kill anyone.” She referred to him as “grandpa.”
Of the children who tried to whitewash their past, one of the most striking is Gudrun Burwitz, Heinrich Himmler’s daughter. He nicknamed her “Puppi,” Little Doll. Almost seven decades after the war, she wrote of the marvelous time she had visiting her father at Dachau. Now in her eighties, Gudrun is considered the godmother of far-right women’s groups. The organization Silent Help is partly run by her to help prominent Nazis, such as the former death-camp guard Erna Wallisch, avoid prosecution. They helped Gestapo chief Klaus Barbie, the Butcher of Lyon, and Erich Priebke, the SS murderer of Italian partisans. She still holds on to her cherished memories of the years when the Nazis were in power.
Wolf-Ruediger Hess, son of Hitler’s deputy and architect, Rudolf Hess, spent his whole life trying to clear his father’s name. He proudly announced to his father in jail that his second grandchild had been born on the Fuehrer’s birthday.
Fanny Fritsch, the widow of Auschwitz prison camp leader Karl Fritsch, had no difficulties explaining the atrocities of which her husband was accused. She simply decided that they’d never happened. According to her, nobody died at Auschwitz.
Ruth Irene Kalder, the long-time lover of SS Captain Amon Goeth, portrayed in “Schindler’s List” by Ralph Fiennes as the brutal leader of Poland’s Plaszow Concentration Camp, has crowed about her relationship to that monster. “It was a wonderful time. We enjoyed each other’s company. My Amon was king. I was his queen. Who wouldn’t have relished that?” Her only regret was that it was all over. And his victims? “They weren’t people like us. They were so filthy.” (Kalder committed suicide in 1983; her note made no mention of Goeth.)
In 2011, an Israeli-German documentary film, Hitler’s Children, was shown all over the world. It shows five descendants of Nazi perpetrators wrestling with their childhood admiration for their kin and their disgust at learning of their unspeakable actions. The five are Bettina Goering, Niklas Frank, Monika Goeth (the daughter of Ruth Irene Kalder), and Katrin Himmler. In the ultimate scene, Niklas asks his own daughter if she is ashamed of her grandfather’s horrible acts. “No,” she says “You’ve defeated him for me. You are my fortress.”
Dusty Sklar is a contributing writer to our magazine and the author of Gods and Beasts: The Nazis and the Occult, as well as numerous stories and articles. Her most recent article for us was about American, Canadian, and international volunteers who fought for Israel’s independence in 1948.