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The Sins of the Fathers : IN THE SHADOW OF THE REICH By Niklas Frank , Translated by Arthur S. Wensinger with Carol Clew-Hoey , (Alfred A. Knopf: $23; 371 pp.)

September 22, 1991|Elisabeth Wehrmann | Wehrmann taught German literature in England, Germany and the Netherlands, and is a West Coast correspondent for the German weekly Die Zeit.

Father, mother and son: an image of a friendly family on an old photograph. The time is 1942, the place somewhere in Poland, presumably Cracow.

There is nothing that betrays the facade of well-dressed normalcy, no hint of the murderous reality behind the faces of these parents-- nothing but the incongruity of a display of saturated self-esteem at the time and place of the photograph. Poland in 1942 was a country divided and devastated by the German occupation; its intelligentsia had been murdered, two-thirds of its industry destroyed, art treasures plundered by the ton.

In 1942, the year of the Wannsee Conference, the "final solution" began in the extermination camps of Treblinka, Sobibor and Maidanek. While more than 2 million Jews were "liquidated" in his domain, Dr. Hans Frank, governor general of Occupied Poland and the district of Galicia, and his friendly family were residing at the Wawel castle near Cracow.

An ambitious lawyer, an intelligent, educated man, connoisseur of Western art, music lover with a special interest in Chopin, Frank had risen within the Nazi system to become Hitler's youngest minister of justice. After Poland was defeated by the German army in 1939, he was sent east to administer the new acquisition. During the following six years he truly fulfilled his duty, gaining himself a reputation as "the governor of the largest slaughterhouse in history."

In those days, his wife Brigitte was in the habit of taking one of the state limousines and a chauffeur for a trip to the ghetto, to buy some pretty camisoles and cheap fur coats. Sometimes on a Sunday, she would take their little son along. Born in 1939, Niklas grew up in the castles and estates his father had occupied. He used to eat noodle soup with the SS guards and play hide and seek around the tombs of Polish royalty.

Niklas still was a child in 1945, when his father was tried before the International Military at Nuremburg, where Hans Frank was condemned and hanged as a war criminal in October, 1946.

Forty years later, the journalist Niklas Frank sits down to write a letter to his father. In front of him is a photograph of his father's corpse: "The snapping of your neck spared me from having a totally screwed-up life," he writes. "You certainly would have poisoned my brain with all your drivel, the fate of the silent majority of my generation who did not have the good fortune to have had their fathers hanged." And yet, "that sweet-talking slimehole of a Hitler fanatic" remained a constant companion to his son: "There has never been a day in my life when you didn't pop up inside my brain with that little piggy bat-snout of yours." After years of research, nightmarish fantasies and rituals, Niklas Frank opens a second trial, his own exorcism of the devil that haunts him.

Frank's book "In The Shadow of the Reich," first published in Germany in 1987, now has been translated into English. It is a revolting requiem, one not seeking peace but rather the horrendous truth, a truth that Frank's father and all the other "heroes" of the Third Reich could not bear to confront.

Hans Frank had his one moment of honesty during the Nuremberg trial, when he admitted a personal responsibility, proclaiming that "a thousand years will pass and this guilt of Germany will not be erased"--albeit a confession quickly recanted when a Russian prosecutor asked the elder Frank's specific contribution to the mass murder of Poles and Jews.

"How do creatures like you get a start?" son Nicklas wonders. On the basis of his father's diaries, archival material, witness testimonies and his own recollections, he sets out to trace his father's career from his sentimental, nationalistic Bavarian high school days of 1918 ("I am aglow for you, my Germany") to his first assignment as Hitler's defense lawyer in 1930; from years of poverty to the intoxicating taste of money and power as Bavarian minister of justice and founder of the Academy of German Justice; from doubts and hesitations to his gradual sell-out of all principles of justice and humanity.

Niklas shows the man who fancied himself King of Poland as acquiescing in Himmler's plans for genocide; unveils his father's plans for a glorious future ("once we have won the war"), when, as far as he was concerned, the Germans could "make mincemeat out of the Poles and the Ukrainians and anyone else hanging around here." He watches Hans in his fortress, as he discusses how to "put the personal property of the Jews at the immediate disposal of the Government General" and enjoy an evening's performance of Goethe's "Faust" right afterwards.

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