Most of us were raised by loving fathers. As we aged, our eyes enlarged enough to see their faults. Not that we still didn’t love them; on the contrary, we did despite their faults. Some of our best and closest moments can be with our fathers, not just as a toddler adoring daddy, but even as adults (perhaps with a toddler or two of our own), sharing precious experiences with dad.
But what does one do when dad turns out to be a vile and infamous war criminal?
I recently read about and watched video clips of children, grandchildren, and other relatives of top World War II Nazis. How did these unfortunate heirs deal with having a direct bloodline to names like Rudolph Höss, Hermann Goering, and Martin Bormann, or to lesser known but even more complicit murderers?
Bettina Goering, the great-niece of Hermann Goering, fled decades ago to New Mexico. She and her brother were sterilized. “We both did it,” she said, “so that there won’t be any more Goerings.”
Some converted to Judaism. The son of an SS officer became an Orthodox rabbi and moved to Israel. A story circulates about a relative to Hitler by marriage who converted and lives in Israel. One convert undertook a mikveh, a ritual bath that symbolized spiritual cleansing. “I almost drowned myself in the place,” he said, “because I felt there was just so much inside me that I needed to wash away.”
Martin Bormann, Sr., was one of Hitler’s confidants, an architect of the Holocaust who disappeared after the war. Decades later, at a memorial march at Auschwitz, a journalist described the following scene: “The presence of an elderly German would hardly raise eyebrows among the thousands assembled for the March of the Living . . . but the old German, now in his seventh decade . . . had come to Auschwitz to atone for the sins of his country, for the sins of his father.”
The elderly German was Martin Bormann, Jr., 16 years old when his father was sentenced to death, in absentia, at Nuremberg.
Another time at Auschwitz, young Israelis watched an old man, an Auschwitz survivor, embrace, and be embraced, by Rainer Höss, the grandson of Rudolph Höss, commandant of Auschwitz (who was hanged there after the war).
“So you ask yourself,” said Rainer, “they had to die. I’m alive. Why am I alive? To carry this guilt, this burden, to try to come to terms with it. That must be the only reason I exist, to do what he should have done.”
Maybe not the offspring of Nazis, we’re all still heirs of sin, the far end of 6,000 years of DNA unraveling at the joints. Guilt, fear, shame, if not exactly bequeathed to us, are so tightly wired within that we don’t need the bequest. We generate enough of our own.
Hence, the gospel: “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8).
At the cross, Jesus took our guilt and shame, because, like “Hitler’s children,” we can’t atone for what we haven’t done any more than for what we have done.
Clifford Goldstein is editor or the Adult Bible Study Guide. He is working on a book tentatively titled Baptizing the Devil: Evolution and the Seduction of Christianity.