In a new documentary, the descendants of Nazi Germany’s inner circle grapple with atrocities orchestrated by their own close relatives.
Bettina Goring spent a lifetime coming to terms with a horrific family legacy. As the grand-niece of Adolf Hitler’s right-hand man, Goring sometimes heard of atrocities committed by her late uncle Hermann, Nazi Germany’s Luftwaffe chief and key proponent of genocidal policies.
Though Bettina was born years after her notorious uncle’s 1946 suicide, she feels a strong sense of guilt for his sins and those of other Nazi family members. Until 2004, she never spoke about being related to the portly, morphine-addicted Reich Marshal, a topic considered taboo in her family.
“Instead of confronting my dark side, I changed my last name and underwent sterilization to make sure there would be no more Gorings,” she told The Times of Israel in a phone interview from her home in the New Mexico desert, where she’s lived in a form of self-imposed exile from Germany for 35 years.
“I’ve found it easier to deal with my family’s past from a great distance,” said the self-described “healer,” whose facial features match those of Hitler’s most popular — and narcissistic — henchman.
Bettina Goring is one of five descendants of prominent Nazis featured in the documentary “Hitler’s Children,” which opens Friday in the US. Additional participants include SS master Heinrich Himmler‘s great-niece, who married an Israeli Jew, and the daughter of Amon Goeth, the vicious Plaszow camp commandant made famous by Ralph Fiennes’ portrayal in “Schindler’s List.”
To produce “Hitler’s Children,” Israeli filmmaker Chanoch Ze’evi located and met with two dozen descendants of Nazi leaders and asked their permission to include them in the film. Only five of these so-called “Hitler’s Children” agreed to participate, with most citing “family member objections,” Ze’evi told The Times of Israel.
“Some people I called said never to call again, and slammed the phone on me,” Ze’evi said. “Only a few agreed to hear more and to sit with me. Some of them felt this was the right place to expose themselves.”
One descendant of the Nazi leadership had herself sterilized. Another married an Israeli Jew
With the exception of Bettina Goring, the film’s descendants had never spoken about their Nazi relatives in public.
Appearing in “Hitler’s Children” helped these middle-aged Germans cope with a traumatic past, according to Ze’evi.
All five descendants condemn the actions and ideology of their fathers, grandfathers and uncles, and most feel some sense of shame or responsibility stemming from the Nazi branch of their family tree.
“I let this demon out of the bottle by writing a book about our relative Heinrich, and some family members cut me off,” Katrin Himmler, grand-niece of the SS chief and genocide mastermind, says in the film.
“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.”
Framing the interviews is the journey of Rainer Hoess, grandson of Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Hoess. Travelling across Poland with an Israeli grandson of Holocaust survivors, the earring-clad Hoess visits Auschwitz to see the villa built for his grandparents and young father just yards from the crematorium.
Walking through the well-preserved garden, Hoess shares Holocaust-era photographs of family life in the Auschwitz villa, including one of his father playing with prisoner-made toys, and another of what Hoess calls “the gate to hell” between the villa and Birkenau’s gassing facilities.
Rainer Hoess made the trip to Auschwitz with great reluctance, fearing people would recognize his close resemblance to his sadistic grandfather, who was hanged outside the crematorium in 1947.
Director Chanoch Ze'evi approached two dozen descendants of high-ranking Nazis for interviews, and five agreed to participate in his documentary. (Courtesy of Film Movement)
Director Chanoch Ze’evi approached two dozen descendants of high-ranking Nazis for interviews, and five agreed to participate in his documentary. (Courtesy of Film Movement)
After seeing the villa, Hoess encountered a large group of Israeli teenagers touring Auschwitz, some wrapped in Israeli flags. One student asked Hoess what he would do if he encountered his grandfather.
“I would kill him myself,” he told the group without pause. Other students shared their grandparents’ Holocaust experiences with Hoess, with many teens clearly shocked to see the grandson of Auschwitz-Birkenau’s commander standing before them.
Suddenly, a gray-haired man appears from among the teenagers and approaches Hoess. The man is a Holocaust survivor, and wraps his arms around Hoess as both men cry. “Don’t feel guilty,” the survivor tells the German man through tears.
Not all the featured descendants come to peaceful terms with the Nazi skeleton in the family closet. Niklas Frank tours Germany to lecture teenagers about his father, Hans Frank. As Hitler’s governor of occupied Poland, Frank oversaw many of the regime’s most infamous “actions” against Nazi enemies.
Niklas has written two books “against” his “slime-hole of a Hitler fanatic” father, who was hanged for war crimes at Nuremberg. Of the film’s descendants, Frank is the oldest and most outwardly hateful of his father.
“I shock the students by breaking the taboo of not loving your parents,” Frank says in the film. “I use foul language to reach the young ones, and each time I execute my parents anew.”
While Niklas has battled his father’s legacy for decades after the latter’s execution, the daughter of Plaszow commandant Amon Goeth — named Monika — grew up questioning her mother about Goeth’s affinity for shooting Jewish prisoners from his balcony. Eventually, Monika’s mother grew tired of her daughter’s questions, and whipped her with a wire.
The notion of bearing responsibility — or not — for the sins of one’s parents is probed by all the descendants, most of whom claim “going public” about their family and educating against intolerance helped them channel long-held guilt and frustration into something positive.
Asked what he’d do if he met his grandfather, the head of Auschwitz, Rainer Hoess responds, ‘I would kill him myself’
“I’m an extrovert, so when I work through something, it’s all out there,” Bettina Goring told The Times of Israel. “I’m trying to be authentic and hope to give other people courage to look at their own personal conflicts. This is something I will work on for my entire life.”
Since appearing in the 2004 documentary “Bloodlines,” Goring has received dozens of letters and photographs related to her uncle from people whose lives were affected by his actions. A doctor of oriental medicine, she is writing a memoir based on these revelations and healing strategies for intergenerational trauma.
All five “Hitler’s Children” participants use writing to transform problematic family legacies into workable personal worldviews. As grand-niece of race-obsessed SS chief Heinrich Himmler, Katrin Himmler condemns the notion that children somehow “inherit” evil traits from their parents, whether biologically or otherwise.
“If I thought this were the case, I would be confirming what the Nazis believed,” Himmler says.
For most of her life, Himmler sought to hide being German by learning to speak as many languages as possible without a German accent. “I would have been thrilled if people thought I was Dutch or Swedish,” said Himmler, who married a Jewish Israeli.
The process of uncovering a traumatic family past and constructively integrating it into one’s identity has always fascinated “Hitler’s Children” director Chanoch Ze’evi, himself the grandson of a Holocaust survivor from Warsaw. Ze’evi recently screened his film at Warsaw’s International Film Festival, where he also shared his grandmother’s original wartime diary.
“Making this film has been about telling the same story from different points of view,” Ze’evi said. “Before I could convince the descendants of Himmler and Goring and Hoess to be in this film and expose themselves, I had to convince myself I was ready to sit with them and listen. It’s important to be teaching about the Holocaust from different points of view.”