When grandpa was a monster

  • June 9, 2011
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Descendants of Nazis delve into past to try to understand
By KIRSTEN GRIESHABER Associated Press

BERLIN — Rainer Hoess was 12 years old when he found out his grandfather was one of the worst mass murderers in history.

The gardener at his boarding school, an Auschwitz survivor, beat him black and blue after hearing he was the grandson of Rudolf Hoess, commandant of the death camp synonymous with the Holocaust.

“He beat me, because he projected on me all the horror he went through,” Rainer Hoess said, with a shrug and a helpless smile. “Once a Hoess, always a Hoess. Whether you’re the grandfather or the grandson — guilty is guilty.”

Germans have for decades confronted the Nazi era head-on, paying billions in compensation, meticulously teaching Third Reich history in school and building memorials to victims. The conviction Thursday in Munich of retired Ohio autoworker John Demjanjuk on charges he was a guard at the Sobibor Nazi death camp drives home how the Holocaust is still very much at the forefront of the German psyche.

But most Germans have skirted their own possible family involvement in Nazi atrocities. Now, more than 65 years after the end of Hitler’s regime, an increasing number of Germans are trying to pierce the family secrets.

Some, like Hoess, have launched an obsessive solitary search. Others seek help from seminars and workshops that have sprung up across Germany to provide research guidance and psychological support.

“From the outside, the third generation has had it all — prosperity, access to education, peace and stability,” said Sabine Bode, who has written books on how the Holocaust weighs on German families today. “Yet they grew up with a lot of unspoken secrets, felt the silent burdens in their families that were often paired with a lack of emotional warmth and vague anxieties.”

Like others, Hoess had to overcome fierce resistance within his family, who preferred he “not poke around in the past.” Undeterred, he spent hours at archives and on the Internet researching his grandfather.

Rudolf Hoess was in charge of Auschwitz from May 1940 to November 1943. He came back to Auschwitz for a short stint in 1944, to oversee the murder of some 400,000 Hungarian Jews in the camp’s gas chambers within less than two months. After the war, Hoess went into hiding on a farm in northern Germany; he was eventually captured and hanged in 1947.

“When I investigate and read about my grandfather’s crimes, it tears me apart every single time,” Hoess said in an interview at his home in a Black Forest village.

As a young man, he said, he tried twice to kill himself. He has suffered three heart attacks in recent years as well as asthma, which he says gets worse when he digs into his family’s Nazi past. Today, Hoess says, he no longer feels guilty, but the burden of the past weighs on him at all times.

“My grandfather was a mass murderer — something that I can only be ashamed and sad about,” said the 45-year-old chef and father of two boys and two girls. “However, I do not want to close my eyes and pretend nothing ever happened, like the rest of my family still does. … I want to stop the curse that’s been haunting my family ever since, for the sake of myself and that of my own children.”

Hoess is no longer in contact with his father, brother, aunts and cousins, who all call him a traitor. Strangers often look at him with distrust when he tells them about his grandfather — “as if I could have inherited his evil.”

Despite such reactions, descendants of Nazis are increasingly trying to find out what their families did between 1933 to 1945..

Tanja Hetzer, a therapist in Berlin, helps clients dealing with issues related to their family’s Nazi past. While there are no studies or statistics, she said, many cases indicate that descendants of families who have never dealt with their Nazi family history suffer more from depression, burnout and addiction.

Some grandchildren of Nazis find a measure of catharsis in confronting the past. Alexandra Senfft is the granddaughter of Hanns Elard Ludin, Hitler’s Slovakia envoy who was involved in the deportation of almost 70,000 Jews. After Ludin was hanged in 1947, his widow raised the children in the belief their father was “a good Nazi.”

In her book, “The Pain of Silence,” Senfft describes how a web of lies burdened her family, especially her mother, who was 14 when her beloved father was hanged. “It was unbearable at times to work on this book, it brought up fears and pain, but at the same time I got a lot out of writing it all down,” Senfft, 49, said.

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