Out of the Attic, Family Memoirs With a Nazi Past
By: Wall Street Journal
Berliner Katrin Himmler Was Shocked at SS Ties; Grandmother’s Connections
By LAURA SANTINI
November 7, 2007
BERLIN — As a young girl, Katrin Himmler asked her grandmother about the man in a black suit in a photograph hanging on her living-room wall. Her grandmother didn’t say much, but she cried.
The man in the picture was Ms. Himmler’s grandfather Ernst, a brother of Nazi SS chief Heinrich Himmler. The little that Katrin’s family did tell her about her grandfather, who disappeared during fierce fighting in Berlin in 1945, was that he was apolitical.
Decades later, Ms. Himmler discovered that her family’s story was untrue. Her father, long suspicious, encouraged her in 1997 to go dig in wartime archives that the U.S. had recently returned to Germany. Ernst Himmler, she learned, joined Hitler’s National Socialist German Workers’ party as early as 1931. Two years later, he joined the SS guard, the special unit responsible for carrying out many of the Nazi regime’s worst atrocities.
Now 40 years old and married to an Israeli Jew, Ms. Himmler says she was shocked when she found out that Ernst was in the SS. “It might sound strange, but I never considered this possibility,” she says.
Ms. Himmler investigated further. She unearthed records of Heinrich’s elder brother, Gebhard, and coaxed his children into sharing memories and letters. She wrote a book, “The Himmler Brothers,” about her family’s history — and the trauma involved in uncovering it.
Ms. Himmler’s book, published in German in 2005 and in English this past summer, is one of several recent memoirs by the children and grandchildren of old Nazis that aim to reflect on how the party affiliation affected their families. Another book, published this past summer in German, “Kind L 364,” tells the story of Heilwig Weger, a girl reared in one of the Lebensborn settlements the SS built for orphans and other so-called Aryan children. Ms. Weger was later adopted by Oswald Pohl, a Nazi officer hanged in 1951 for war crimes. The book conveys the pain she felt at losing him, the only father she knew, while being ostracized by other children because of his actions. Later, she hid her background from her own children.
Left, Heinrich Himmler’s brother, Ernst, on his wedding day to Paula in July 1933. Right, Heinrich Himmler, Nazi SS chief.
The documentary “2 or 3 Things I Know About Him,” released two years ago in Germany and this year in the U.S., shows how the filmmaker Malte Ludin and his siblings wrestled with the conflict of loving their father, a prominent Nazi executed after the war, while reviling what he had done.
At first, Ms. Himmler’s relatives supported her determination to explore the family’s history. But when she uncovered painful details, they balked, calling her a Nestbeschmutzer, someone who fouls her own nest. Ms. Himmler, for instance, found out that the grandmother she adored had made use of her husband’s Nazi connections, and stayed in touch with ex-Nazi officials after the war.
In the postwar period, memoirs of Nazis or their families were long taboo. Ms. Himmler has vivid memories of those years. In high school one day, a classmate asked during a history lesson whether she was related to the Himmler. When she said yes, a tense silence gripped the room, Ms. Himmler recalls, after which the teacher continued her lesson as if nothing had happened.
“I think she lost an opportunity,” says Ms. Himmler. “She could have used what happened to discuss the link that our generation bears to the past.”
Ms. Himmler, an introverted but friendly woman, who pedals around today’s liberal Berlin on a bicycle, met her future husband while studying political science at the Free University in Berlin. His family fled Poland and the Nazis in the 1930s. In the early days of their courtship, Ms. Himmler says, they raked over the past obsessively. They visited Nazi landmarks in Berlin, such as the stadium where the 1936 Olympic Games were held. They went to Krakow, in southern Poland, to see the Jewish quarter where his grandparents once lived.
Through Ms. Himmler, her husband refused requests for an interview; she declined to identify his name out of concern for protecting his privacy. She says her husband never held her family’s past against her, even as he struggled with anger over his family’s persecution by the Germans. His parents, who live in Israel, knew postwar Germany well from their own travels there and didn’t object to their son’s relationship with her.
Ms. Himmler spent several years burrowing through microfilmed wartime records and phone logs the U.S. returned to the German Federal Archive in Berlin in 1994. As she dug deeper, she uncovered painful truths about family members, including the grandmother she had loved until the old woman died in 1985.
As newlyweds, her grandparents acquired a home in a well-kept Berlin suburb. To make room for the couple, the Nazis “freed” the house of its former occupants: a union administrator, a painter and a civil engineer. Ms. Himmler never found out what became of them.
Ms. Himmler also found records of phone calls her grandmother made to Heinrich Himmler in 1944, as the Allies intensified their bombing of Berlin. Responding to her pleas to relocate the family somewhere safer, the SS chief hid them in a village in Poland.
After the war, Ms. Himmler’s grandmother again made use of her Nazi connections, as she sought to secure an income and jobs for her children. At age 15, Ms. Himmler’s aunt got work as a secretary in a factory owned by former Nazis.
Ernst vanished in Berlin in the spring of 1945, as the Allies pushed into the city. The government later informed the family that he was believed dead.
Ernst’s elder brother, Gebhard Himmler, in a written account of his life, described himself as a civil servant, barely referring to the Nazi party, and never once mentioning Hitler. During her research, Ms. Himmler discovered her great uncle had been a party member, too. In charge of licensing engineers to work in Germany, he based his decisions on the devotion candidates showed to the FÃ¼hrer.
Today, Katrin Himmler and her husband live with their 8-year-old son in an apartment not far from the Reichstag, the seat of the German Parliament. They talk a lot with the boy about the past. Ms. Himmler says she isn’t sure whether he has yet put it together that his mother’s side of the family once tried to exterminate his father’s.
Examining her grandparents’ lives has led Ms. Himmler to question whether she would have acted any differently. “I’m not sure I would have,” she says. When asked later how her husband felt about this, she replied in an email: “My husband thinks exactly as I and many other people: that ordinary people are in certain circumstances able to act in a horrible way — and to tolerate horrible crimes. And most of us can’t be sure how we would have behaved in that time (at least if we are honest and not moralistic).”
Some critics in Germany say that recent memoirs seek to profit from deplorable family histories and run the risk of apologizing for the Nazis, by offering humanizing portrayals of them as loving parents and grandparents.
“I’m definitely not apologizing for them,” says Ms. Himmler. “It’s hard to look at these people as ordinary men and women, but we really have to do this,” she says. “They were doing monstrous things, but they were not monsters.”
Write to Laura Santini at email@example.com
* Content From the Wall Street Journal supplied by Elva Ramirez:
200 Liberty Street, 12th Floor
NY NY 10281
212. 416. 4260