More than sixty years after World War II, a small group of German men and women are coming to grips with the crimes of their fathers, uncles, and grandfathers. Israeli director Chanoch Zeevi engages us with the descendants of the most powerful figures in the Nazi regime, who were left a legacy that permanently associates them with one of the greatest crimes in history.
Adolf Hitler did not have children. Joseph Goebbels and his family died in Hitler’s bunker. But what of the families of Hermann Göring, Heinrich Himmler and Adolf Eichmann, to name a few? How have their descendants dealt with the legacy left by their notorious families -- those who still recall whispered conversations between their parents and, in some instances, still remember a pat on the head from the Führer himself?
In his documentary film Hitler’s Children, the descendants discuss the delicate balance they have reached as they negotiate between the natural admiration that children have toward their parents and their innate revulsion of their crimes. We not only hear their stories but we witness their rapprochement, and the fact that their family names alone evoke horror.
What is it like for them to have grown up with a name that immediately raises images of murder and genocide? How have they coped with the fact that they are the murderers' children?
Till now, they have lived quietly, trying to rebuild their lives without the constant reminders of what their ancestors did. Only now are they ready to bare the scars that their legacy has left them.
Niklas Frank, son of Hans Frank and godson of Adolf Hitler, despises his father’s past and spent much of his adult life researching and writing about him. A journalist by trade, he composed a controversial series of articles about his feelings which later became the basis of an even more controversial book, In the Shadow of the Reich, addressed directly to the man (his father) he describes as a “slime-hole of a Hitler fanatic.” Today he lectures about his infamous father to young people in the former East Germany, some of whom are falling under the influence of local neo-Nazis.
Bettina Göring, a descendent of Hermann Göring, lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico where she practices herbal medicine. Her neighbors on either side are Jewish, and because they are constantly quarreling with one another, she is often called in to use her charm and humor to reconcile them. Who would have thought sixty years ago that a Göring would use ‘charm and humor’ to resolve the differences between feuding Jewish neighbors? Both Bettina and her brother had themselves sterilized so as not to pass on the Göring name.
Katrin Himmler, the grand-niece of Heinrich Himmler, married an Israeli Jew – a child of Holocaust survivors.
These are but a few of the descendants that agreed to speak on camera in the compelling film that remains in production. Through email correspondence, Shalom Life contacted director Chanoch Zeevi to discuss his film.
How did this project come to fruition?
The meeting in Munich, on that particular Friday in April 1999, was undoubtedly an event that changed my life. Within the framework of the research for “In the Shadow of the Fuhrer” which I directed, I found myself standing opposite Traudl Junge’s front door. For many years she had been the personal secretary of Adolph Hitler. For years she had refused to talk about what she had seen and experienced at Hitler’s side during the war and then, surprisingly, she had agreed to meet me, an Israeli director at her home. I remember that as she opened the door, I immediately noticed an old typewriter on a round table covered with a lace table cloth. So many thoughts went through my head, such as “Who knows what instructions and orders had been printed on that machine?” After several tense moments, the conversation became businesslike. Junge told me much about Martin Bormann, the subject of my film, and she gave me names and exact addresses of ex-Nazis who could tell me more about the man, all of which paved the way to the filming which followed.
What was it like discussing this delicate subject with her?
I remember that during the meeting Junge stopped for a moment mid-flow while talking about Hitler’s inner circle and showed interest in where I lived in Israel and if I had any children. I found myself taking out photos of my daughters to show her! During our extended meeting, when Junge boasted to me, showing me a photograph of her beside the Fuhrer, I understood that she could not hide her admiration for that man, not even from an Israeli Jew who had come to meet her 55 years later.
This is a difficult subject for anyone, even more so for those in the Jewish community. How were those involved dealing with this intense subject matter?
I believe that it is fate that causes a person to be born as a child of a war criminal -- someone who is responsible for the deaths of so many. To live with the conflict of this man being, on one hand “my father,” and on the other a heinous murderer. It is also fate to be born a child of a Holocaust survivor, with all the significance that that brings.
In the course of the different films in which I have been involved, we were concerned with the children of the second generation of the Holocaust on both sides, the perpetrators and the victims. I found fascinating similarities between the two. Neither wanted to talk. The Germans for obvious reasons because of their desire to start new families, without reference to the shady pasts of their families and without removing the skeletons from the closet. On our side, the children of survivors had grown up in homes of people who “had been there” and they too were silent. Their parents had often chosen to bring up their children without the weight of the Holocaust and its atrocities on their shoulders.
I believe that this is the impetus for our project. Over sixty years on and after many years of not wanting and refusing to be filmed, there are children of senior Nazis, from Hitler’s inner circle, who are speaking and who are baring their souls in front of the camera. Through the investigatory journey of finding out about the pasts of their fathers, some of them met Holocaust survivors who told them, first hand, their painful point of view about a side of their fathers they had never known.
The film is currently in production and is seeking support for completion. To view a segment of the unfinished film or to support the filmmakers, please click here.
Reprinted with permission from Shalom Life