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.)

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.

Frank offers no variation on the fascinating-facism theme but rather a penetrating look deep into the ugly ordinary obscenity of his family and their comrades in crime. He reveals their dirty tricks (fraud and deception) before and their growing greed for power and possession after 1933 (collecting fur coats was his mother's obsession; stealing art his father's passion). He peers into their joyless master bedroom, reports some sweaty extramarital affairs, and shows them in the company of servants and rivals, as well as with Himmler and Hitler, in moments of triumph and fits of fear.

While Niklas chronicles his father's misdeeds, he keeps talking to him, imploring him to change directions: to join the socialist, the communist or even the Catholic underground movement, for instance, to poison Himmler ("with a bit of stryamine in his wine when he visited you in Cracow"), or to simply stop shouting " Ja, mein Fuhrer " ("What you should have said was 'Kiss my ass, mein Fuhrer ' ").

While he keeps searching for something "that lets me love you," he consigns his father to a Catholic hell, lets him sit in a boiling caldron and indulges in desperate fantasies of punishment. He daydreams about his father being hoisted up the flagpole of the castle, about him being sent alone into one of the gas chambers: "You howl in pain . . . and I'm filled with an unspeakable joy . . . an insane sense of satisfaction that you are going to feel with your own body at least a taste of that nameless horror we caused millions of others to feel."

The unbearable tension between the child's need to love and the adult's raging desire for revenge culminates in the last chapter. The author sees himself as a child sitting between the judges at the Nuremberg trials. When to everyone's surprise, Hans Frank makes his one confession of guilt, the child gazes at him with love--and waits, "sitting here year after year ever since. . . . " Instead of more confessions, he gets "nothing but German cowardice, German bellyaching and whimpering."

Then, "crouching inside you, becoming you, seeing myself as you there," he is overcome by torrents of embarrassment, of shame. The arm of God reaches down into his father's body and turns it inside out until its bloody beating heart is just in reach of the avenging son. He bites and swallows the heart, leaving his father as "a horrifying mass of tattered flesh on the witness stand," while the son, "an eternal zombie," leaps away: "I will be trying to leap away from you for the rest of my life."

When Frank's book was first published, it scandalized the German audience; readers and critics called it tasteless, disgusting, and argued that the son was no better than the father. While the translated version has been purged of some of the more provocative scenes, it may still shock an American public.

By depicting his father's legacy in a repulsive way, Frank evokes the evil, the insanity, the perversion of language and ideals that accompanied a nation's fall from grace. Whoever experienced, skin-deep as he did, how easy the destruction of the Jews and worship of the arts could be combined, he must have deep doubts about the hypocrisy that can hide behind a facade of the good, the true, the beautiful.

Niklas Frank explores the murderous reality, the evil behind the facade--his father's, his country's, his own. He invites the reader to share a look into that mirror. Only by recognizing the destructive forces within ourselves can we hope to overcome them.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
59°