Saturday, December 14, 2019
Chanock Ze'evi | Hitler's Children
without an end there is no beginning
by Douglas Messerli
Chanock Ze’evi (director) Hitler’s Children / 2011, USA 2012
Chanoch Ze'evi's 2011 documentary, Hitler’s Children, is a film perhaps everyone should see, yet offers up a painful journey through its cinematic visions. For the Israeli director Ze’evi has tracked down the sons and daughters and, mostly, grandchildren of the worst of Hitler’s followers, Heinrich Himmler, the creator of the concentration camps throughout Europe; Rudolf Hoess, the commandant of Auschwitz; Herman Goering, the Nazi Cabinet Minister who created the Gestapo; another concentration commandant, of Poland’s notorious Kraków-Płaszów camp, Amon Göth; and Hans Frank, the governor general of occupied Poland.
All of these men, after World War II, were tried and executed or committed suicide. These were among the guiltiest of those creating a world of murderous hate, responsible for the deaths of millions of men, women, and children, mostly Jewish.
That Ze’evi even dared to look into the dark shadows of these individuals is an act of courage. And, then how do these descendants of the monsters, all of whom have kept their family names, live their lives with what they all recognize as their heritages. Some of have broken with other members of their family. Most have moved away as far as they might get from Germany, attempting to properly speak the languages of their new countries so that people might not see them as Germans.
Katrin Himmler, the Nazi’s great niece, summarizes it best, stating that she learned several languages to bury her German-language tongue, and married an Israeli Jew, the son of Holocaust survivors. She is now almost completely alienated from other members of her family.
Betinna Goering, the great niece of Hermann—openly admitting that she has also retained a great many of her uncle’s facial characteristics—has escaped to New Mexico, living, as she describes it, “off the grid” with little telephone communication, let alone water and toilet facilities. In a sense, she has gone rogue, escaping into a world where few can even find her. Both she and her brother have undergone sterilization, strangely reiterating the Nazi notion that the genes carry with them a possibility of human behavior, that blood and semen somehow determine the characteristics of the child, nature over the idea of nurturing.
Most of these generation’s-later offspring have written books to help their own healing and those of others. Niklas Frank, the son of Hans, almost tirelessly speaks to audiences, mostly made up of children, to educate them on the horrors of the “sea of blood” his father and others created. Even if the children have no knowledge of what has happened and ask innocent questions that might remind one of the Holocaust deniers, he perseveres in his attempt to help the world know the terrible things his father and other Nazis did to the human race. Surely his tireless admission of the facts is something to be celebrated.
Monika Göth, who attempts to explain her near complete unawareness of what was happening in the Polish concentration camp abutting her almost paradisiacal home, struggles, so she claims, even as a child to comprehend whether or not anyone died in the camp. Her mother and father’s statement that “a few” did, led her on a troubling linguistic search to discover what “a few” meant, how many might be included such a statement. One, two, three….well we now know that camp killed many hundreds, maybe millions. How is a child, living a basically beloved life in privilege to comprehend what hate lies within her own parents? When she describes her near breakdown while watching, in, ironically a Nuremberg movie theater, Spielberg’s movie Schindler’s List, in which her Nazi father played a major role, how can anyone with a heart not empathize with her?
Rainer Hoess, the grandson of Rudolf, maybe has the most difficult time of it, as he recalls the perfect garden and beautiful gate as a child in the home in which he grew up, abutting Auschwitz. For him, as a child, his life was near perfect, as he played in toy cars constructed, without his knowledge, by Jewish prisoners.
There is almost a kind of nostalgia overlaid his angst as he decides to join Israeli journalist Eldad Beck, to take a long train ride to visit Auschwitz. Halfway through the journey he has “second-thoughts.” Will he be recognized by visitors, trapped into a situation which he cannot bear? Beck is little help, moving this figure into the haunted space as if he were taking Rudolf himself to justice.
Hoess revisits his little garden, the magic gate still in place, astonished to see that it has been retained, and then opens himself up to a brief interview with Jewish schoolchildren, reminding us very much of Niklas Frank’s actions. Hoess, clearly, is not prepared for his role; yet an elderly Holocaust survivor, afterwords, embraces him, speaking a message of reconciliation “You weren’t there, you didn’t do it,” to which Hoess responds by breaking down in tears.
We truly comprehend Beck’s response, “It was too quick,” but we also must recognize the journalist’s lack of compassion. These are the children, who, in some ways, with their longer lives instead of sudden terrible deaths, have had to live in a kind of hell for their parent’s and grandparent’s horrific acts. Beck’s comment that there is still “no ending” is correct but also exhortative. For if there can be no end, there can also be no new beginning. Hate generates nothing, but simply festers.
Fortunately, Ze’evi’s film seems to ask, do they, these mostly younger ancestors of the monsters, deserve it: the endless guilt and hate that it implies? It is an unanswerable question.
But if you cannot forgive these children, it is still a hate—deserved or not—that continues the circle. Hitler and his kind killed not only millions of Jews, Gypsies, and gay people, or anyone else they saw as outsiders, but their own kin, their own kind.
Los Angeles, December 14, 2019
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (December 2019).