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An impossible family legacy

How do you get through life knowing you share your flesh and blood with the most murderous, most reviled Nazi war criminals of all?

The answer, as detailed in the superb documentary 'Hitler's Children', seems to be by shouldering a lifetime's load of residual guilt and shame for sins that are not yours.

"I probably look more like him than his own daughter does," said Bettina, great niece of Herman Goering, with a bitter laugh. "I inherited all the crap."

Bettina moved to New Mexico 35 years ago. Distance helps keep the revulsion at bay but doesn't obliterate it, which is why she and her brother made the decision early in life -- and in an ironic echo of what the Nazis did to others -- to have themselves sterilised. "It's right that the bloodline should end with us."

Monika Goeth is the daughter of Plaszow camp commandant Amon Goeth, so chillingly brought to life by Ralph Fiennes in Schindler's List.

She resembles her father, but only in the physical sense. "I am not Amon, I have nothing in common with him," she said.

As a child, Monika's mother, a fervent Nazi, fed her the line that her father was a kindly man who treated "his" Jews as one big, happy family.

He fed and clothed them, and gave them "a place to sleep". They were lucky to have him and not someone else.

As she grew older, her curiosity grew with her. She recalled asking her mother if Amon had ever killed Jews.

"A few," came the answer.

When Monika persisted in asking "how many is a few?", her mother went into a frenzy, grabbing an electrical flex and beating her around the head and body with the plug until she was black and blue.

As a teenager, Katrin Himmler, great-niece of Heinrich, was happy if someone mistook her for Dutch or Swedish.

Though her older relatives were all ardent Nazis, she said they seem "utterly insignificant" alongside Heinrich, who she calls "a monster".

Katrin wrote a book about the Himmler brothers. The rest of the family no longer talk to her. They feel, she said, "the demon should have been kept in the bottle".

In their own way, each of the women has been able to somehow manage their family legacy, if never accept it.

It's been more difficult for the two men featured in Chanoch Ze'evi's film.

Niklas Frank's father, Hans, instituted the reign of terror against Polish Jews. Niklas has written books about both his parents, who he despises, and gives talks in schools.

Each time he does so, he said, "I murder them anew."

But it's about more than just personal catharsis. "I want to find one good thing about them," he said, "one redeeming factor that could allow me to love them."

He hasn't so far.

What he has found, though, is the love of his children and grandchildren.

In a moving scene near the end, Niklas's daughter told that his obsession with the truth has in a way protected her and her children from the burden of guilt. "You are my fortress," she said.

Rainer Hoss, grandson of Auschwitz's first commandant, Rudolf Hoss, seemed the most tormented. He inherited a finely crafted wooden storage chest given to his grandfather by Heinrich Himmler. Inside, he found a collection of photographs of the Hoss family in their house, which was built in the grounds of Auschwitz, just behind the gas chambers.

The garden had an ornate gate that led into the camp. Rainer was haunted by what his father had seen -- and done -- when he walked through it. For the first time in his life he visited Auschwitz.

In a remarkable scene, he addressed a group of visiting Israeli students, many of whom had ancestors murdered in the Holocaust, and was then embraced by a camp survivor who told him: "You weren't there. You didn't do it."

It was a moment of incredible emotional release, both for Rainer and the viewer, at the end of a peerless, devastatingly powerful film.



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