Our students watched the film Hitler’s Children during a recent session of the Research Forum and had the privilege of discussing the film with the director and producer Chanoch Ze’evi. The film is a dialogue with the descendants of some high-ranking Nazi officers such as Rudolph Hoess’ grandson, Hans Franks’ son, Amon Goeth’s daughter, Heinrich Himmler’s great niece, and Herman Goering’s great niece. The film explores how these descendants grapple with the Nazi past of their close relatives. Ze’evi became interested in telling the story from a perpetrator perspective after he interviewed Hitler’s secretary. Prior to making this film he had always focused on the victim’s perspective. Ze’evi stated that he had three goals for the film: first, he wanted to preserve the memory of the Holocaust and make it relevant for youth today; second, he sees it as an answer to Holocaust survivors and evidence to combat Holocaust deniers; finally, he views he film as a message of hope because it shows that hate is not passed on through the genes to one descendants, but rather each individual can choose to be good.
Ze’evi shared that it was very difficult to convince the protagonists in the film to be a part of the project. He had wanted to interview some descendants who are neo-Nazis and share the beliefs of their relatives but none agreed. The difficulty in getting theses 2nd and 3rd generation “perpetrators” to speak reminded Ze’evi of the silence that sometimes exists in victims and their descendants. Ze’evi stated that there are similarities in how both groups grapple with their Holocaust past although they approach it from opposite standpoints. The descendants of the perpetrators in the film struggled with issues of guilt, shame, and responsibility although none of them were involved in the events. Franks’ son faced the difficulty of refusing to honor and love his parents in spite of the fourth commandment. Goering’s great niece shared that she and her brother had chosen to be sterilized so there would not be any more Goerings in the world. Himmler’s great niece spoke about her shame at being German and hoe thrilled she is when people think she is Scandinavian.
One of the most moving scenes in the film is when Hoess’ grandson goes to visit Auschwitz for the first time with an Israeli who is a 3rd generation survivor. They visit the villa next to the camp where his father and grandfather lived. He brings family photos that show his father and his siblings playing in the large and beautiful garden with toys made by prisoners in Auschwitz. It is shocking that the camp commandant raised his family so close to the death factory that was Auschwitz. The villa is not part of the Auschwitz State Museum but a private dwelling inhabited by a Polish family. After touring the villa Hoess’ grandson speaks with Israeli students visiting Auschwitz. In this emotionally charged scene the students confront Hoess by asking him why he is there and what he would do if he could meet his grandfather. Hoess responds that he would kill him himself. A survivor of Auschwitz in the crowd embraces Hoess and tells him not to feel guilty for the crimes of his grandfather. The film has allowed for a small but significant act of reconciliation. The film was a fascinating look at the Holocaust from the unique perspective of the descendants of key perpetrators. Our students enjoyed seeing the film and hearing the director and producer share insights on its production.
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