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Authors examine exclusive club of "Nazi kids"

| Sunday, Sept. 23, 2001

'My Father's Keeper: Children of Nazi Leaders - An Intimate History of Damage and Denial,' by Stephan and Norbert Lebert; translated by Julian Evans; Little, Brown, $25.95; 243 pages.

Hate the sin, not the sinner: When Niklas Frank, son of Hans Frank, the Nazi governor-general of Poland who was responsible for millions of deaths, wrote in a German magazine about his hatred of his late father, he was swamped by hundreds of protesting letters. No matter what your father may have done, the letter writers said, as your father he must always be honored.

Norbert Lebert, a German journalist, died in 1993, leaving behind a series of interviews he had conducted with the children of Nazi leaders in 1959. When his son Stephan, also a journalist, inherited his father's files and discovered the interviews, he decided to re-interview the same people 40 years later.

It turned out that Niklas Frank's attitude wasn't typical of 'Nazi kids,' and his respondents' attitude was typical of the German populace. None of the other 'children,' all by this time in their 60s or 70s, felt anything like Niklas' outrage, nor do Germans in general believe they should.

However, the Leberts - meaning, principally, Stephan, since he has the advantage of greater distance - are not out to prescribe how the children of Nazi leaders should feel about their paternity (though there are hints) or chastise their fellow Germans. They are engaged in an intricate examination of guilt and denial and repression, all within the parent-child relationship.

Besides Niklas Frank and his brother Norman, the other interviewees were: Gudrun Himmler, daughter of Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS; Edda Goering, daughter of Hermann Goering, creator of the Gestapo; Wolf-Ruediger Hess, son of Rudolf Hess, Hitler's deputy; Martin Bormann Jr., son of Martin Bormann, Hitler's powerful secretary; and Klaus and Robert von Schirach, sons of Baldur von Schirach, head of the Hitler Youth.

Each 1959 interview is followed by Lebert's later interviews with them, or - in the case of Himmler and Goering, who refused second interviews - discussions of their situations. Other chapters take up such questions as the unfairness implicit in a perpetrator of an evil act being able to lie about it and lead a fairly normal life, while the victim of it suffers anguishes of guilt over surviving.

It is an exclusive club, that of 'Nazi kids.' They have occasionally been seen together - and why not• Who else shares what they do• - such as the funeral for Rudolf Hess' widow, at which Bormann, who entered and later left the Roman Catholic priesthood, preached.

Niklas Frank aside, none of the children vilifies his or her father. Klaus von Schirach, in fact, condemned Frank's outburst. Bormann, befitting perhaps his priestly background, takes a studious and philosophical attitude toward the issue.

Himmler, who in 1959 wanted to rehabilitate her father's reputation, is known to be active in the 'Silent Help' group that assists aging Nazis. Lebert says none of the other Nazi kids likes her.

Goering, a pet of the Nazi media from the time of her birth in 1938, said in 1959 she never felt her surname to be a hindrance. She feels a great wrong was done her family when her father's fortune (which he had stolen) was confiscated at war's end. She loathes any ideals associated with the United States.

As for Hess, he's quite a piece of work: a fierce defender of his father's reputation, an ardent admirer of Hitler, and a disbeliever in the Holocaust. He is an anti-Semite on the where-there's-smoke-there's-fire principle: Why would the Jews have been persecuted by so many for so long if there wasn't something wrong with them•

Then there's that other father-child pair, the two authors. Stephan Lebert writes that his father, who was a member of the Hitler Youth (as were most boys), admitted that if the war had not ended when and the way it did he could easily have become, and prospered, as a Nazi.

'Until the day he died he was imbued with, and haunted by, the realization that one cannot trust oneself, that one is capable of anything, even the most wicked acts, when external circumstances call them forth.' It's a line of reasoning that Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal also took.

Had that been the case, Stephan Lebert says, he hopes he would have had the strength to break with his father. 'Though I'm nowhere sure of myself.'

These accounts have a casual tone, rather rambling and unfocused, which may be the result of the translation or more likely of the German/European style of interviewing. The tone is not a failing. The Leberts have made a good start at examining, among other things, an uncertainty that should be felt by us all.

Roger K. Miller is a Janesville, Wisc., free-lance writer for the Tribune-Review.

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