A Hated Inheritance

[This first appeared at The Jagged Word on June 15.]

Since high school, I’ve been interested in the genealogy of my family. Nearly all of us German Lutherans as far back as I can trace, all of those generations are part of who I am. So far, there haven’t been any shocking discoveries, but there are certainly intriguing gaps in the records. At what point did my German ancestors settle in the Austro-Hungarian Empire (my father’s side) or Russia (my mother’s side)? What is the connection between the German town of Winterstein and my family? (One interesting speculation is that our ancestors were Sinti [Christian Roma or Gypsies] who took the Winterstein name after working as tailors for the minor nobility of Winterstein).

What about that one great-uncle who was kicked out of the pastoral ministry for some form of false teaching (and later reinstated)? What about that one cousin in my mother’s family who spent nearly her entire life in a mental institution? Why, on the same census, do my great-grandfather and his family appear to live in different locations?

Those sorts of questions are normal with the gaps in knowledge that open up when those who know the answers begin to die. But what if you were born with a last name like Goering, Himmler, Hoess, or Goeth, names infamously connected to the Nazi regime and particular concentration and death camps? I don’t know why it has never occurred to me that while no one (that I’m aware) shares the surname Hitler, many of the other significant members of the Third Reich would indeed have children and grand-children and other relatives sharing their names.

The stories of those relatives and how they deal with the inheritance of names associated with some of the most horrific crimes of the twentieth century is the subject of the 2011 documentary Hitler’s Children (streaming on Amazon Prime).

Though all the names in my family are German in origin, I don’t have any twentieth century German connections. I’ve never lived in Germany; my grandparents were not in Germany during World War II; the collective guilt and distress of Nazism doesn’t haunt my family in the way that it seems to for many Germans. (Although my “German” church body felt the pressure during the world wars to prove that they were really American, by displaying prominently the U.S. flag and making English the primary language of church services.)

In Hitler’s Children, we watch the subjects of the documentary struggle not only with their names, but with their German-ness, often in conflicting ways. Bettina Goering finds distance from her past by taking her first husband’s name, moving to the United States, and then struggling after her divorce with whether to assume again her maiden name. She lives essentially off the grid in Arizona, which could be a fitting metaphor for the distance she has put between herself and her family history. Katrin Himmler, on the other hand, feels much more at home in Germany. When she travels, she hopes people take her to be Dutch or Swedish, and she learns multiple languages in order to hide her German accent.

Katrin and Niklas Frank both attempt to struggle with and conquer their dissonant feelings about their relatives (in Frank’s case, his father and mother) by writing books detailing the crimes of their ancestors. And both report that other members of their family do not at all support their accounts of that history. Frank, in particular, describes the reactions of his siblings in answer to a question about whether there is anything positive in his story. The positive aspects, he says, have to do with his wife and daughter and grandchildren. There’s nothing positive from his relationships with the rest of his family.

The denial of horrors arises often in the various family histories. Monika Goeth describes watching Schindler’s List and seeing her own father portrayed as the murderer he was and suffering the shock of discovery. Her mother had always refused to be specific about how Amon Goeth had acted in the “work camp” of Plaszow in Poland. But in a Munich bar, she meets someone who was actually in that camp, and realizes there was nothing benevolent about her father’s actions in the camp.

The meetings that take place between descendants of both Nazis and descendants of concentration camp survivors provide some of the more affecting and effective scenes. Rainer Hoess travels to Auschwitz, where his grandfather was the commandant. All the pictures he’s seen are inside the family compound, with walls and opaque windows to hide the happy family from the horrors taking place within yards of where they live. He travels with Eldad Beck, a third-generation descendant of concentration camp survivors. Both he and Hoess struggle with their relationship in light of their family histories. (Katrin Himmler describes an even more intimate example of such a relationship when she speaks of marrying a German Jew.)

While Beck and Hoess are at Auschwitz, there is a group of Jewish school children touring the camp as well, and Hoess makes himself available for questions. One girl breaks down in tears when she says that his grandfather was responsible for the murder of her ancestors. And then someone says that there is a man present who was actually in Auschwitz when Rainer’s grandfather was in charge. Their interaction is one of the most profound in the film.

Even so, Beck’s own feelings are conflicted over the entire episode. Without doubting anyone’s sincerity, he suggests that it all seemed a little to hasty and shortened to actually deal with the gravity of the history. And, with the last word in the film, he sums up the larger theme of the film: how ought people who have inherited—through no fault of their own—a horrific family story act in response? How much responsibility do they have for repairing generations-old national relationships? Who could be equal to such a responsibility?

Even on smaller scales—when there are histories of abuse, for example—we don’t always know how we should feel about tainted family histories. What, then, about epoch-, country-, and culture-defining events like Nazism? In the face of such an enormity, perhaps Eldad Beck’s final words in the film mark out the far boundary of what can be said: “This very specific story has no end.”

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