Happy Father’s Day: Hitler’s Children

This is Rainer Hoess, the grandson of Rudolf Hoess. In case your history was atrocious, or some other things came in the way, Rudolf Hoess was the commandant of Auschwitz. He was responsible for the deaths of at least 1,200,000 people.

Rainer Hoess with a family photograph of Rudolf, his wife, and his children--including Rainer's father.
Rainer Hoess with a family photograph of Rudolf, his wife, and his children–including Rainer’s father.

I remember reading a very lengthy biography of Hitler in 8th grade. I think it ran upwards of 800 pages.

Despite all those words, it never answered what I most needed to know: how is it that anyone can be so unspeakably cruel and, at the same time, so petty, so ordinary? How is it that we create these monsters and how is it that we don’t notice who and what they are?

But Holocaust narratives were the first place I really saw my own world reflected. That told me, whether we want to see it or not, whether we find it possible to understand or not, monstrous men walk around in the ordinary world, hold down jobs, pick their noses, read the funnies just like everyone else does. They are here with us. And we don’t even know what they are.

If Eichmann was real, my father could be too.

I watched Hitler’s Children last night, a documentary about Rainer and other descendants of prominent Nazi war criminals and their struggle to come to terms with their family’s histories.

And it made me think I was not just my father’s victim, but his descendant. Half of my genes are his. I might resemble him, just as Bettina Himmler resembles her grandfather. But I don’t really know. I saw a photograph of him not long ago. I didn’t recognize him.

But I read the paper with him on Sundays. I ironed his shirts. I made him sandwiches and coffee. He taught me how to use a saw and the difference between a phillips and a slot-head screw driver. I’d like to think he has nothing to do with me. As far as I am concerned, he might as well be dead. He might as well have never lived.

But I was his daughter. I am his daughter. Like Rainer, I need to make sense of that too. And maybe the sense he has made out of it can help me as well.

At the end of the film, Rainer asks himself, “Why am I alive to carry this guilt, this burden to struggle with it?” He answers that question this way:”I think that must be the only reason I exist. To do what he should have done.”

Maybe he simply means to feel guilty, but I take it to mean he exists to make things right again.

And maybe that is also why I exist. To be kind when my father was cruel. To treat others with dignity when he lived to degrade them. To have compassion when he had none. To be decent when he was monstrous.. And in that way to make things a little more right again.