"Ask them if they still want to kill in their dreams as I still want to die in mine," an Israeli student, whose mother survived the Nazis, asked Dan Bar-On as he set off on his first trip to Germany. But after he had finished his two-year mission of interviewing a different strain of the Holocaust's children--the children of its perpetrators--he found that in their dreams, they too wanted to die.
Dreams are memory, blocked. Many of the sons and daughters of SS generals, concentration-camp doctors and high Nazi officials grew up largely ignorant of what their fathers had done. When revelation came--it came late and imperfectly--they coped in a dislocated mixture of pain, anger, rationalization, denial and profound shame.
Theirs has been a life not of guilt--they were not killers--but of guilt's silence. Knowing the worst is terrible but, as Bar-On finds in this powerful and compassionate book, not knowing it is even more terrible. With persistence and an odd tenderness, he explores the psychic wounds of silence and suppression.
"Legacy of Silence" is a journey as much as a study. Bar-On traveled with personal trepidation and on a dangerous intellectual borderline. When the daughter of Himmler refused, by telephone, to give him an interview, he writes: "I am not sure which of us felt the most relief." His father, a prescient German Jewish doctor, fled the Beast in 1933 when Bar-On was a baby. Interviewing the Beast's children is scary.
But the borderline is scarier. He writes in his preface that the Holocaust was an absolute evil. But psychological and cultural profiles of those who participated show no particular difference from those of the "rescuers"--those Germans who made their repugnance clear, and helped their Jewish neighbors.
Looking at things in black-and-white terms is correct so far as judgment goes, he argues, but it is dangerous as well: It ignores the possibility that many of us, given the circumstances, the society and the pressures, could succumb as well. Gray is a vital area for therapeutic study; and what could be more truly gray than those who, innocent themselves, knew evil as their father?
Bar-On located 58 children of what he calls the perpetrators--figures who played active and responsible parts in the Nazi terror. Only nine of these refused to be interviewed; of the rest, he selected 13. Among these are the nephew of Heydrich, the butcher of Czechoslovakia, and children of a top deputy to Himmler, an SS general in charge of repression in the Baltic, several concentration- camp doctors, and the daughter of one of Hitler's closest associates. Like most of the perpetrators, this man is not identified by name, but it becomes clear that it is Goering.
Gerda, the daughter, is an academic, respected by her colleagues for her quiet integrity. Like many of those interviewed, she is at least as nervous as her interviewer. Gradually she warms to him; finally, she is calling him "my therapist."
But about her father--Goering--she is frozen out of judgment. He was impulsive, affectionate, "a real human being" ("er war so ein Mensch"). In the early days--she was born in 1922--she would drive with him at night from party meeting to party meeting. Never, she insists, were the Jews discussed at home. Pressed by Bar-On, she says that her father had no "direct responsibility" for the slaughter; pressed further for a judgment on the Third Reich, she says it is too painful for her.
Bar-On is convinced that she wants to speak and cannot; that she suffers a true disability. She cannot be free of her father. The only way she manages a kind of criticism of the treatment of the Jews is by quoting her father as saying toward the end of the war that "we will never be forgiven for what we did to them." She also produces a ranting final testament written before his suicide at Nuremberg, in which he simultaneously insults the Jews and proposes that Germany, not Palestine, become their homeland.
Gerda is the spookiest of the lot. Monika, whose father was an SS general hanged by the Russians in Riga, has spent her life working toward unsparing judgment. As a child, she accepted her mother's rosy picture of him; as an adult, she tracked down his role as the executor of the 1938 Kristallnacht pogrom. He never had told her mother about this; in fact, when she expressed her horror, he agreed that it was awful. It was this dissembling, above all, that enraged Monika and left her free to judge him.
Manfred, a professor, also has been freed by hearing the truth. His father was a doctor who took part in the death-camp selections and killed himself in 1947, when Manfred was 8 months old. His mother never dissembled to him; she was harsh in her condemnation both of the Nazis and of her husband. As with Monika, Manfred's story suggests that it is not the bad news about a father that cripples; it is not knowing it.
Two of Bar-On's subjects turned to religion to break with the past. One, the son of an SS officer, became an Orthodox Rabbi and moved to Jerusalem. The other, whose father was an associate of Himmler and lived a privileged life among the party elite, became a Catholic priest.
In their interviews, both are curiously unrevealing; they speak in religious generalities. As another interviewee told the Rabbi, whom he knew: "You've never really confronted the thing and dealt with it. You just drew a line, threw everything away, made a new start and that's it."
The speaker is the subject of the most extraordinary of the portraits. He is Thomas Heydrich, nephew of the man who, as Hitler's viceroy in Czechoslovakia, was the arch-symbol of Nazi atrocity, and was assassinated for it.
Heydrich, a big, bearded, vociferous man, has made an art and a vocation out of confronting his past. He is a cabaret performer, and one of his specialties is reciting the work of Jewish poets such as Heinrich Heine and Walter Mehring. He tells Bar-On that his ambition is to appear in Jerusalem. "A Heydrich in Israel reading Heine in German . . . they would kill him," Bar-On reflects. He is attracted to Heydrich's openness, and he is made uneasy by his theatrical flamboyance.
So are we; could this be an inverted form of denial? But bit by bit, Heydrich--part buffoon, part tragedian--takes on a near-saintly aspect. His memories of childhood are grotesque and, in a way, heartbreaking. Lucidly and unsparingly, he tells of his life as a Nazi crown prince. His father was an SS official; his uncle was sheer Nazi royalty. He recalls visiting the uncle in Hradcany Castle in Prague. He was 8, and an actor even then; he put together a kind of royal costume and basked in the guards' salute as he descended the great staircase.
His father--who loved his murderous brother and was his antithesis--committed suicide in 1944, fearing discovery. With the power of his SS position, he'd forged 100 passports to get Jews out of the country. And in 1945, at 14, transformed from crown prince to grand penitent, young Heydrich began to study the Nazi record. In years in which few Germans were saying much about it, he denounced it loudly, and, eventually, theatrically.
Theatricality is transcended. At the end of the piece, Bar-On goes to hear Heydrich recite a Mehring poem about two Jewish children and a Nazi butcher. Afterwards, he goes backstage and finds Thomas weeping. "This Heydrich will follow me to the last days of my life," he says. Bar-On weeps too and embraces him.
While he was making his trips to Germany, Bar-On writes, his step-son, Yariv, was dying of lymphoma. "Why are you doing this?" the youth asked him on one of his last visits; and then answered his own question:
"I know why, you are looking for hope, for them and for yourself . . . You once told me that for you, the quest for hope has to do with confronting the truth."