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Book Review : Living With the Sins of Their Fathers

February 04, 1988|JONATHAN KIRSCH

Born Guilty: Children of Nazi Families by Peter Sichrovsky, translated by Jean Steinberg (Basic Books: $17.95; 178 pages).

"Of course I knew that there had been concentration camps and that 6 million Jews had been murdered," says a German woman named Anna in Peter Sichrovsky's "Born Guilty: Children of Nazi Families." "We had been told about it in school. But I had also been told fairy tales in school, stories like 'Little Red Riding Hood.' And we learned about the Crusades and . . . the French Revolution. But who, for God's sake, had ever told us that our own parents had been there?"

Anna is one of 14 men and women whom we meet in Sichrovsky's "Born Guilty," each one the offspring of Nazi parents who were among the makers of the Holocaust. Sichrovsky, an Austrian-born Jew whose parents escaped the Holocaust and then returned to Vienna after the war, has already written about the children of Holocaust victims. Now he has profiled the children of their Nazi oppressors--or, more accurately, he has allowed these troubled men and women to profile themselves in a series of seamless monologues based on Sichrovsky's conversations with them. What these children of Nazi families have to say is sometimes anguishing, sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes enraging, but invariably compelling.

Sichrovsky (and, significantly, the men and women whose voices we hear so clearly and so vividly) rarely describe the horrors of the Holocaust in detail, although one man recalls how his father, when drunk, talked about "how terrible it had been, that time they had to shoot the children one by one with a hand gun because those idiotic soldiers had aimed their automatic weapons too high above the heads of the adults."

Tantalizing References

Nor do we learn the identities of the Nazi parents and their offspring, although we are tantalized by their oblique references: Who was Stefanie's grandfather, the war criminal who ended up on the gallows? And who was Rudolf's father, the Nazi whose name Rudolf found again and again in the history books that he studied to learn his father's secrets?

More often, we glimpse the Third Reich through the prism of a child's eyes, a child's memory. "I know him from pictures," Stefanie says of her grandfather. "He really looked great. The black uniform, the boots, what a guy! I bet they were afraid of him." Rudolf, by contrast, is haunted by nightmares of his father's crimes: "Always at night they come and get me. Always the same dream. They drag me from bed . . . the door closes behind me. Do I have to tell you what room it is? There are showerheads on the wall. . . ."

Each of the 14 men and women is presented as an archetype of the "new" Germany, the generation born after World War II and now burdened by the moral legacy of the Third Reich. Anna, for instance, is "The Decent One"--"As I get older, I often begin to wonder whether we, my husband and I, are really so different," she muses. "Can wolves turn into sheep in the space of a single generation? After all, we are the products of the same parents, the same grandparents, the same teachers, the same priests."

Rudolf is "The Guilty One," a tortured soul who uses his homosexuality as a weapon to punish his parents for their war crimes. "There is Argentina, with my blond hair and blue eyes, I was a hit. I could have anyone I wanted," Rudolf recalls. " 'Back home they would have pinned a pink triangle on you,' my mother shouted at me. I caught them unawares and they collapsed. . . . It was all over for German honor."

A Tortured Soul

Stefanie, "The Proud One," is the most unsettling but also the most illuminating of all--indeed, she shows herself to be a bored, embittered, and otherwise unremarkable mediocrity who inadvertently allows us to understand how the Holocaust happened in the first place.

"Every year the same business in school. Movies about concentration camps, pictures of concentration camps, I'm telling you I can't stand it anymore," she whines. "Look at the Jews today. They say none survived. But today they're again all over the place. . . .You know, sometimes I wouldn't mind being one of those poor little Jews. At least today, not back then of course. But now? Everybody would feel sorry for me, always the big victim."

Sichrovsky is intrigued with the ironic tendency of the criminal to see himself as a victim. "Perhaps the greatest insight I gained was the fact that the members of the postwar generation had never had the experience of seeing their parents in their heroic Nazi roles," he explains. "The parents saw themselves as victims, and when they were young, the children accepted that view. However, once they became old enough to learn something about the actual role their parents played during the war, the children themselves often became victims--the victims of the parents."

A Necessary Confrontation

The encounter between parent and child over the crimes of the past, Sichrovsky suggests, is an expression of Germany's collective national struggle with its memory, its honor, and its conscience. The confrontation between "old" Germans and "new" Germans may be personally anguishing, but Sichrovsky views it as morally healthy and historically necessary. "A new German generation that does not question its parents would be the ideal matrix for a new fascism," he concludes. "In this instance, love of parents, the cornerstone of civilized life . . . must almost turn into its opposite. For the children of Nazis, the unconditional love of parents is an indulgence they cannot afford. History has condemned them to find out what their parents did, why they did it, and above all, why almost none of them ever felt guilt or shame after the war ended."

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