I watched the documentary “Hitler’s Children” last night. The filmmakers found the direct descendants of Rudolph Höss, Heinrich Himmler, Hermann Göring, Hans Frank, and Amon Goeth in order to find out how they cope with carrying the surname and legacy of such notorious and high-ranking Nazis. Has life been different for them? Do they feel different knowing that they are the direct descendants of some of the most hated men in recorded history, guilty of such atrocities and crimes against humanity?
In a word: yes.
I was fascinated by the narrative woven by the Nazis that was passed on through oral tradition to their children and children’s children. Amon Goeth, the commandant of Plaszòw made famous in the film “Schindler’s List”, was thought to be nothing more than the overseer of a work camp by his daughter. When she began to ask questions of her mother, Amon’s wife, she was beaten with an electrical cable, but she was nonetheless determined to know if her father had killed any Jews. Eventually, she found out that Plaszòw was not a work camp. It was a concentration camp, but she wasn’t able to conceptualize her father as the commandant of a concentration camp until she watched “Schindler’s List”. Watching Amon Goeth’s daughter describe how she felt watching Spielberg’s representation of her father on film was deeply disturbing for me. It was the picture of dissociation. I could see it in her eyes. After all this time, she is still trying to reconcile that her father is the Amon Goeth, most likely one of the most sadistic Nazis and the commandant of the Krakòw-Plaszòw concentration camp.
Hermann Göring’s great-niece, I believe, was interviewed in the film. She left Germany and began a new life in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She and her brother have both opted for sterilization so as not to carry on the family line. They want to remove all traces of Göring from the earth ending his bloodline with themselves. I understand this. When I was younger I was very fearful that I would be like my mother, or worse, my father. I watched my mother try to murder to my stepsisters. My father is a sociopath. Could I be like them? Would something of their character break forth in me under pressure? Would the cycle of abuse continue if I had children? As a young adult I was convinced that I would not have children. I did not want to hurt an innocent child, and I was fearful that I might simply because of my origins. I even hated that I looked anything like my parents. Hermann Göring’s great-niece looks like him, too. She struggles with it. She wants nothing to do with her family of origin which is why she changed her last name.
It is, however, Rudolph Höss’s grandson, Rainer Höss, who moved me the most. He was so honest about his life and struggles. Rudolph Höss was the commandant of Auschwitz. Can there be a more infamous Nazi than this man? He was responsible for the death of more than 3,000,000 people. Höss, in my mind, was evil incarnate. He enjoyed his position. He reveled in the power, and he got satisfaction from trying to figure out the best ways to implement the Final Solution.
An excerpt from Höss’ affidavit at the Nuremberg Trials in 1946:
I commanded Auschwitz until 1 December 1943, and estimate that at least 2,500,000 victims were executed and exterminated there by gassing and burning, and at least another half million succumbed to starvation and disease, making a total dead of about 3,000,000. This figure represents about 70% or 80% of all persons sent to Auschwitz as prisoners, the remainder having been selected and used for slave labor in the concentration camp industries. Included among the executed and burnt were approximately 20,000 Russian prisoners of war (previously screened out of Prisoner of War cages by the Gestapo) who were delivered at Auschwitz in Wehrmacht transports operated by regular Wehrmacht officers and men. The remainder of the total number of victims included about 100,000 German Jews, and great numbers of citizens (mostly Jewish) from Holland, France, Belgium, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Greece, or other countries. We executed about 400,000 Hungarian Jews alone at Auschwitz in the summer of 1944.
Bearing the Höss surname would be burden enough. Being raised by a father who grew up at the Auschwitz villa with Rudolph Höss himself? I find that hard to imagine. So it is for Rainer. He can’t imagine his own life. He hates his grandfather, and he might just hate his own father. He described his father as cold and stoic. Rainer and his siblings were beaten for showing any sort of emotion. If they cried during a beating, they were beaten more. Growing up, Rainer was not allowed to learn about Auschwitz so as an adult he decided to go. He went with an Israeli journalist who was a third-generation survivor. He had never visited Auschwitz either. Immediately, it struck me that these two people taking a sort of pilgrimage to Auschwitz together was odd. One man was the grandson of the man responsible for the imprisonment and possible partial extermination of the other man’s family. What a strange relationship, but the stage was set.
Rainer was taken on a tour of Auschwitz alone with his acquaintance, and he was allowed to tour the residence of his grandfather which was perfectly preserved. For years, Rainer had been tormented by a photograph that he found in Rudolph Höss’ chest. It was a black and white photograph of his father as a child standing just in front of a garden gate. Rainer had wondered what might lie beyond the gate. Did the heart of the concentration camp lie beyond the garden gate? Was his grandfather such an evil man that he could raise his family at Auschwitz in full view of the horrors? Was his father so cold because he had seen the atrocities as a child? He was attempting to write a narrative that made sense. When he stood in the garden and saw the gate he stopped. Once he knew the truth about what was beyond that gate, he would have to finish his narrative. He would know the true nature of his family line. He walked through the gate. Nothing but a concrete wall completely blocking the view. The second-story windows in the villa were a mottled glass that prevented one from seeing outside. The entire villa was designed to create a delusion of grandeur. It was a fiefdom built on the backs of the suffering of millions of innocent people. Rainer could not make sense of what he saw. He kept uttering, “Insanity!”
Word spread to a group of Jewish students that the commandant’s grandson was in Auschwitz. Rudolph Höss’ grandson was there. The Jewish students were in Auschwitz to pay homage to loved ones who had died. They had been walking the grounds with Israeli flags. Candles were lit. Rainer walked into a hall where they were all gathered, and, even on film as an audience member, you could feel something settle in the room. It was like time regressed. Höss himself stood before the Jewish people. Some of the students looked almost terrified. Others were indignant. Rainer simply looked ashamed and nervous. He wanted to put himself out there and do something. A girl stood up and almost accused him, asking, ‘Why are you here?” He stammered, “I’m trying to help,” or something like that. I don’t know if Rainer knew entirely why he was there. Another girl stood up and tried to speak. “Your grandfather exterminated,” she tried to say, but she could hardly stand. She wept and trembled, but she stood up anyway. “Your grandfather…exterminated my family.” She said it. Rainer looked profoundly affected. “What would you do if he were here today?” She looked like she was pleading with him. This is one reason people go to Auschwitz. To make sense of it. To find peace. I suspect that when they get there and see first hand what was done, they realize that there is no peace to be had because you cannot make sense of it. Rainer responded to the girl, pleading back, “I would kill him! I would kill him!”
Something washed over the group as he said those words. Rainer went on to say that he carried such a burden because of what his grandfather did. He was so sorry for what happened. He looked desperate to be free of the burden he carried. He felt so personally responsible for the suffering in that room. Watching this man attempt to fix what his grandfather had done was profoundly painful. Watching these Jewish students look at Rainer for some sort of answer as to why his grandfather was such a monster was equally painful, but there was hope. An older man appeared from the back of the room. He approached Rainer, stood in front of him, grabbed his arms and told him that he was a survivor of Auschwitz. He had been there. The room fell silent. He looked Rainer in the eyes and said, “You are not guilty. You did not do this. You are not him. You are free from this.” And it was then that Rainer cried. It took a survivor of Auschwitz doing the equivalent of releasing Rainer from the legacy of his bloodline to free him of that terrible burden. Once that proclamation was made, the Jewish students began to gather around Rainer and touch and embrace him. Rainer embraced them as well. Something passed between them. Something of healing. Something of understanding. Something of closure. A release of toxic anger and a permission to enter into something like pure grief.
I was profoundly moved watching it. To witness such a thing in real time captured on film seemed almost miraculous to me, and I think we can learn something from this. We all carry legacies that we would reject. If we are victims of abuse and our abusers are family members, then it becomes even more relevant. We can do as Göring’s great-niece did and run from ourselves. I don’t judge any of her choices. To live with something like that defies my imagination. I am speaking metaphorically here. Metaphorically speaking, however, denial is always an option, but where is the redemption or hope in that? We can do as Amon Goeth’s daughter and face it head on. Stir the pot. She struggled terribly for a while. She wrote a book. She dealt with it. Katrin Himmler, Heinrich Himmler’s great-niece, married an Israeli Jew and also wrote a book. When asked why she wrote the book, The Himmler Brothers, she explained,”When my husband and I had our son, it became clear I had to break with the family tradition of not speaking about the past. I wanted to give my son as much information as possible, so that when he starts asking questions about my family, at least I can answer him.” For many victims of abuse or even people hailing from dysfunctional families, loyalty to the family code is king. What Himmler did in breaking the family’s code of silence was courageous. She created a new example of what it means to be a human for her son. She proved that she is, in fact, not like her family specifically not like Heinrich Himmler, the architect of the Holocaust, and she paid a price. She has lost relationship with members of her family.
This is the path of recovery and healing, I think, when it comes to building an identity. For Hitler’s Children, they have had to go to extremes to forge an identity that makes sense to them, and that makes sense because they come from a family line founded upon the most extreme events in recorded history. To deny that these events occurred in certain countries in Europe will land you in a prison cell!
Genocide is an extreme. There is no denying that, but even the families of Nazis have found a way to remain loyal to them. It’s these people in this film who have rejected their lineage and spoken out. It’s hard to imagine loving a Nazi, isn’t it?
But, incest is also extreme. Long-term abuse is also extreme. It’s one thing to beat a kid once, right? We can overlook that. Can we overlook beating a child for years? Can we overlook Uncle Ron touching little Jenny that one time because he was drunk? What about Uncle Ron touching Jenny every time he comes to visit. It’s just that he’s been down on his luck for such a long time, and he just loves little girls so much. Sure, Mom yells a lot. She’s just Irish. You know how the Irish are. You know she loves you. She doesn’t mean it when she calls you those awful names. Toughen up. People can justify anything to write a story that they can live with. We all do it at one time or another. To heal our identities, however, is risky, and oftentimes we must do as Amon Goeth’s daughter did and begin asking questions. Begin pursuing the truth with passion no matter how much it costs us. She was beaten, but she didn’t give up. Rainer Höss faced the demon of his grandfather and even his father at Auschwitz and found a measure of healing. Katrin Himmler forged an entirely new path. Were her great-uncle alive, her son would be exterminated simply for having a Jewish father. These people are working out their identities and laying a path for themselves and their children because they pursue truth and tell the truth.
The truth is the most powerful tool in our hands where our identity development is concerned. The Nazis manipulated it as do abusers, and it’s up to us to reclaim it, edit our narratives, and rewrite them so that we know the correct story about our past and present. When we do that, our futures are in our hands no longer controlled by others.
Watch “Hitler’s Children”. Your life will be enriched for having seen it (Pssst! It streams for free on Netflix).