Behind the Headlines: Children of Prominent Nazi Officers Find It Difficult to Reconcile Past

The children of former Nazi leaders lead lives that are in many cases still marked by the crimes and memories of their infamous fathers, according to an article in an Italian magazine that traced several such children.

Some of them have tried to atone for the sins of their fathers, while others have tried to forget. Some have found themselves attracted to Judaism and the Jewish culture their fathers sought to destroy, while others have tried to disassociate themselves from the past.

All, according to the article in Gente magazine, grew up with the paradox of trying to reconcile memories of loving parents with the knowledge of their overwhelming crimes.

One son, Martin Bormann Jr., now 63, told Gente he turned to religion. During the war, he was an enthusiastic member of Hitler Youth, but lived protected and under a false name in a peasant village in Austria.

There he read of the war’s end in a local newspaper.

“I could see the photos of the liberation and of the concentration camps. It was as if the world around me crashed down on my head,” Bormann said.

This sudden knowledge set off a profound personal crisis, which led him to Catholicism. In 1947, he converted and began studying for the priesthood. He eventually became a missionary in Zaire, where in the 1960s he and other missionaries were captured and tortured by rebels.

He was rescued and returned to Germany in 1967, but the experience had turned him from the priesthood.

Bormann married and taught religion.

“It was the only way I had to contribute to educate young Germans to understand and overcome the past, a past in which my father had formed a tragic part,” he said. “Together with my students, I always analyzed the texts of Nazi propaganda.

“I helped them identify the linguistic subtleties which for years had tricked young Germans, manipulating their minds. I wanted to ‘vaccinate’ my students, to put them on their guard, so that they would not fall into traps the way I did,” he said.

HESS’ SON STILL BLAMES JEWS

Wolf Hess, the 55-year-old son of Hitler’s deputy, Rudolf Hess, works as an architect in Munich and has remained proud of his father and his father’s memory.

Rudolf Hess parachuted into England in 1941 in what he said was an attempt to negotiate peace with Winston Churchill. He was convicted of war crimes by the British and remained in prison until his suicide death in 1987.

Wolf Hess refuses to believe his father killed himself.

“He did not commit suicide,” he told Gente. “He was killed by the Allies because, despite his age, he was a disturbing witness whose mouth had to be closed forever.”

Hess remains something of an apologist for the Nazi regime.

“I have come to the belief that if I had been 20 years old in 1920, I would have acted exactly like my father,” he told Gente.

“Concentration camps were not invented by Germany. During the Second World War the Americans, for example, closed into camps all the citizens of Japanese origin, even if they had been residents for decades.

“It was a form of defense against a potential enemy. And the same way we Germans had to defend ourselves against the Communists dominated by the Jews,” Hess said.

Two of the people interviewed by the magazine have developed an interest in Judaism.

One is Thomas Heydrich, 62, nephew of Reinhardt Heydrich, one of the architects of the “Final Solution,” who was assassinated in Prague in 1942.

Only at the age of 16, he told Gente, did he realize what his uncle had been a part of in his career.

NAZI’S SON BECAME A RABBI

“It was a terrible, shocking experience, impossible to describe in words,” he said. “Someone, a person who carried my own name and who had my own blood, had devised and committed terrible atrocities.

“My uncle transformed himself before my eyes into a devil with a human face,” Heydrich said. “And all at once I felt responsible for his actions, a feeling which accompanied me for 20 years of my life. In the end, I found the way to liberate me from these terrible ghosts: I became an actor — the theater was my refuge,” he said.

But ultimately he found this a false refuge.

“I left the theater, quit acting,” he said. “I decided instead to consecrate my life to the protection of and to the popularization of Jewish literature, that is, to the culture that Nazism had wanted to eliminate from the face of the Earth.”

“Thus,” he told Gente, “little by little, I have been able to regain faith in myself. Today, I am no longer ashamed of my name.

“I intend to act in my way so that the past does not return,” he added.

Wolfgang Schmidt, son of SS officer Edmund Schmidt, who survived the war, went even further in his reaction against the deeds of his father.

Schmidt, born in 1940, converted to Judaism and became a rabbi, the magazine said. Today he is known as Aharon Shear-Yashuv and teaches at Tel Aviv University.

“I began my reflections on ‘the Jewish question’ when I was 14 or 15,” he told Gente. “I understood quickly that anti-Semitism had been the basis of all the Nazi ideology and actions.

“I arrived at this conclusion thanks to my school — certainly not from my family, seeing that this was a taboo subject,” he said. “My father-remained faithful to his principles until his death in 1986.”

Shear-Yashuv said he first decided to become a Protestant minister, but his main interest was in Judaism and in the Jewish people.

So he enrolled in Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati in 1967 in a doctoral program. With this, he made a clean cut between his life and his origins.

“It was a real catastrophe for my father,” he told Gente.

“Even more so two years later, in 1969, when I decided to convert to Judaism and move to Jerusalem. I never saw my father again.

“I took my own course, independent of the actions of my father,” said Shear-Yashuv.

“My conversion was the fruit of a long theological and spiritual reflection,” he said.

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