The names of Himmler, Goering, Goeth and Hoess still have the power to evoke the horrors of Nazi Germany, but what is it like to live with the legacy of those surnames, and is it ever possible to move on from the terrible crimes committed by your ancestors? When he was a child Rainer Hoess was shown a family heirloom.
He remembers his mother lifting the heavy lid of the fireproof chest with a large swastika on the lid, revealing bundles of family photos. They featured his father as a young child playing with his brothers and sisters, in the garden of their grand family home. The photos show a pool with a slide and a sand pit – an idyllic family setting – but one that was separated from the gas chambers of Auschwitz by just a few yards.
Rainer Hoess visits the Auschwitz villa where his father lived
His grandfather Rudolf Hoess (not to be confused with Nazi deputy leader Rudolf Hess), was the first commandant of Auschwitz concentration camp. His father grew up in a villa adjoining the camp, where he and his siblings played with toys built by prisoners. It was where his grandmother told the children to wash the strawberries they picked because they smelled of ash from the concentration camp ovens. Rainer is haunted by the garden gate he spotted in the photos that went straight into the camp – he calls it the “gate to hell”.
“It’s hard to explain the guilt,” says Rainer, “even though there is no reason I should bear any guilt, I still bear it. I carry the guilt with me in my mind. “I’m ashamed too, of course, for what my family, my grandfather, did to thousands of other families. “So you ask yourself, they had to die. I’m alive. Why am I alive? To carry this guilt, this burden, to try to come to terms with it. “That must be the only reason I exist, to do what he should have done.”
His father never abandoned the ideology he grew up with and Rainer no longer has contact with him, as he attempts to cope with his family’s guilt and shame.
For Katrin Himmler, putting pen to paper was her way of coping with having Heinrich Himmler in her family. “It’s a very heavy burden having someone like that in the family, so close. It’s something that just keeps hanging over you.”Himmler, key architect of the Holocaust, was her great-uncle, and her grandfather and his other brother were also in the Nazi party. She wrote The Himmler Brothers: A German Family History, in a quest to “bring something positive” to the name of Himmler. “I did my best to distance myself from it and to confront it critically. I no longer need to be ashamed of this…