Wow. What an emotional programme (BBC2, 23 May 2012, 9pm). Maybe because it was about the sins of our fathers, and because it said something universal about guilt and atoning for our forefathers, or how much we, as children, should feel responsible for or fear that the bad traits our parents had will pass on to us. Add these complex feelings to a programme about the Holocaust and throw in some Holocaust survivors and Wow. I defy anyone to watch this programme and not to have, at least, a lump in their throat at the end.
Despite the title, this is not about Hitler’s children. It is about the descendants of Hitler’s deputies. It follows 5 such descendants, all of whom have renounced the actions of their ascendants. But the programme makes clear that there are many descendants who have done the opposite – either becoming/remaining Nazi sympathisers themselves, or denying the Nazi history of their family. It’s a brave thing to announce publicly that you’re a descendant of a leading Nazi general, as these 5 have done.
So they are:- The grandson of Hoess, the Auschwitz camp commander; the daughter of Amon Goeth, the Plaszow camp commander (famously played by Ralph Fiennes in Schindler’s List); the great-niece of Himmler; the son of Frank, the Governer-General of occupied Poland; and Goering’s grand-daughter.
Frank and Himmler have written books about their ascendants and are perhaps the most considered and circumspect about their situations. Frank is still fearful about German nature, wondering if the economic crisis gets worse whether similar arguments about ‘jobs for real Germans’ would gain more traction. Frank tours Germany giving talks from his books about his parents, eager to explain how ‘evil’ they were to teach new generations. He obviously still feels guilty and responsible for his parents’ actions, but has a nice conversation with his daughter who explains that his books and his work has, at least, taught her that ‘evil’ does not run in the family and been able to put a barrier between her and her grandparents’ history. Himmler considers how one loves a parent, whom you also despise and renounce. And, hey, not to make light of the subject matter, but isn’t this something lots of children have to contend with – distancing yourself from your parents’s actions, yet also wanting to love and be loved by them?
Goering’s grand-daughter, meanwhile, lives in a remote area near Santa Fe. She has no running water and makes her own electricity. Though distance has allowed her to come to terms with the past, she and her brother both decided to sterilise themselves to stop the ‘Goering’ line. It seems that all of these descendants, whether first or second generation, were brought up by parents who occluded much of their Nazi history from them. The daughter of Goeth had hardly any idea about her father’s cruel history when she was growing up (he was executed when she was one). Even when she had read more about him, she still didn’t understand the horrors. She recounted a story where she used to know a barman whom she quite fancied. One day she saw his branding, marking him out as a concentration camp inmate. She asked him where he had been held, and he said that she wouldn’t know it. When she pressed, he told her he had been at Plaszow. And poor, naive, girl, she got excited and said “You must have known my father then!”. It was only when she told him who her father was and saw his reaction, that she began to realise…
Most of the programme was spent with Hoess’ grandson, Rainer. His father had grown up in a house in Auschwitz whose boundary wall was shared with the concentration camp. Rainer had photos of his father, uncle and aunts, playing happily in the gardens of this house, perhaps oblivious to what was going on next door. However, Rainer was estranged from his father, who was a Nazi, and he wanted to visit Auschwitz himself to see for himself and to atone for his father and grandfather. Rainer was accompanied to Auschwitz by a journalist, a third-generation Holocaust survivor. They visited the house where his father had grown up, and saw the gate that led from the house to the camp, and how very close to it all they were. And then they went to the camp itself, and met a group of Israeli children. Rainer agreed to take their questions. When one girl was in tears as she explained that his grandfather had ‘exterminated’ her family, you thought about the continued pain those memories hold, but this moment was turned around when an Auschwitz survivor came up to the front and shook hands with Rainer. They hugged, and he told him: “It’s not your fault”.