Monika’s memories of 1958 are as vivid now as they were when they happened. It had been a long day of shopping, she recalls, and she and her grandmother stopped at a coffee shop for a treat before they headed home. They were regular customers, and Monika had a special rapport with Manfred, the smiling, sad-eyed owner of the café. Today, however, when he rolled up his sleeves to wash the dishes, she noticed a number tattooed across his forearm. She had never seen someone one with an actual number before, but she knew what it meant: he had been in the camps. Manfred had been in Auschwitz.
Gently, she asked him where he was from.
“Krakow,” he answered, as if trying to repress a painful memory.
“Really,” she said, and her eyes lit up. “My father was commandant of the camp in Krakow!”
Manfred froze. The memories racing through his mind drained the blood from his face, and he began to tremble.
"Amon Göeth was your father?” he whispered.
“Yes, he was my father,” she smiled, thrilled to have finally met someone else who might answer the questions she had about her father.
But all that Manfred could bring himself to do was point to the door and tell her leave, never to come back.
Monika was just thirteen at the time, and had never even met her father. To her, Amon Göeth was little more than an album of aging photographs. Plaszów, the sub-camp of Auschwitz
that he ran, was some distant, mysterious, place. All that she could piece together was based on hints from her embittered mother and whispered stories from her beloved grandmother. She knew that her father had something to do with Jews, but to a little girl in Germany in the early 1950s, Jews were hardly more than fairytale characters, like elves and gnomes or trolls. There were no more Jews in Germany. As for her father, she had not yet heard the famous line uttered by a survivor of Plaszów: “When you saw Göeth, you saw death.” She would have many years ahead of her to search for the real Amon Göeth … and his victims. Monika is one of Hitler’s Children
Like many descendents of Nazi war criminals, the most enduring legacy that her family left her is a name that is indelibly linked to the Nazis’ crimes against Jews, against Poles, and against other Germans. A few years after she learned from Manfred about her father’s legacy, Monika encountered another survivor of Plaszów, this time in a hotel in Krakow. Monika had gone there to learn about the camp and her father’s cruelty. Jan Rozanski
, who had spent two years in Plaszów, was leading a group of Israelis there. When he learned that Göeth’s daughter was in the dining room, he blurted out, “Göeth’s daughter? I can’t believe that monster would leave someone behind!” Jan decided to confront her and tell her about her father’s crimes. Horrified, Monika ran out to pack and take the first train back to Germany, but Jan’s friends convinced her to stay. She eventually sat down with him, and soon a close friendship developed. It is a friendship that continues till today.
More than sixty years after World War II, a small group of German men and women are coming to grips with crimes of their fathers, uncles, and grandfathers, all in the name of building a “brighter future for their children.” Adolf Hitler had no children, and the Goebbels children died in Hitler’s bunker with their parents. But what about the families of Göering and Himmler and Hans Frank? How do their descendants deal with the legacy left to them by their parents? What about the children who still remember whispered conversations between their parents, and, in some instances, still remember a pat on the head from the Führer himself?
In many instances, their responses are surprising. Katrin Himmler
, the niece of Heinrich Himmler (and the daughter of a prominent Nazi in his own right), married Danny, the Israeli son of Holocaust survivors.
, son of Hans Frank, head of the Polish Government-General, hates his father and feels ashamed of what he did, but spent much of his adult life researching and writing about him. A journalist by trade, a controversial series of articles he wrote about his feelings became the basis of an even more controversial book, In the Shadow of the Reich
, addressed directly to the man 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
. The result is often a lively, sometimes bitter argument between the young people, who idealize the past, and Niklas, who experienced it firsthand. His circle of friends includes a Polish partisan, who was hunted by the Germans during the war, and the Israeli playwright Yehoshua Sobol, whom he helped to stage a play about his father at the Vienna Theater Festival. Yet even this cannot erase his past. Niklas, whose godfather was Adolf Hitler himself, sometimes wonders whether he has inherited culpability for his father’s crimes.
But the younger Frank has mellowed over the years. In 2005 he published a second book, this one about his mother, almost as if he was seeking a way to come to terms with his past. While he still scorns all that his father did, a swastika now hangs on the wall of his Hamburg apartment, not as an icon of pride but as a hint of self-referential irony. He is also a popular figure on the German talk show circuit, because Niklas Frank is one of the first to offer a more nuanced view of the past. He continues to see his father as a villain in some vast historical drama, but at the same time he breaks long-standing taboos by recognizing his father’s human qualities too. Almost single-handedly he has shifted the dialogue from a caricature of evil to the banality of it. Perhaps that is the source of his guilt.
That same sense of guilt is shared by Bettina Göering
, a lively woman who now lives in New Mexico. Like her brother, she had herself sterilized so that the Göering name would one day die out. Perhaps she should have heeded Manfred, who ran into Monika Göeth again on the street a few weeks after that fateful encounter in the Munich coffee shop: “You cannot be blamed for the crimes of your father.”
This is not a film about the past. It is a film about the present by the descendents of those people whose deeds defined an era, and the many ways they cope with an inheritance of infamy. No holds are barred in the interviews, but the focus is not on what was but what will be, between the children of the victims and the children of the perpetrators. As Jan Rozanski says, “We have to talk to one another! … We have to remember. We must never forget. But we also have to move on.”
This is not a film about forgiveness either, or even about making amends with the victims. As Manfred pointed out to Monika Göeth, these men and women cannot be blamed for the deeds of their parents. Rather, it is about coming to terms with conflicting feelings of love and hate, devotion and outrage, acceptance and shame. It is the story of a family secret that is finally let loose, but perhaps the memories are still too vivid for the release of these memories to bring real peace of mind… to the children of the perpetrators or the children of the victims.
For the first time on camera many of the participants will share what it means to live with a name that carries such an intense stigma, to be torn between feelings of love of family and hatred of their deeds. Some sixty-five years after his death, Hitler’s children are still trapped in an inescapable past. The film Hitler’s Children is an opportunity for them to break with that past and look forward with the victims of their parents to a brighter tomorrow.