Documentary details legacy left by Nazi fathers to their sons

by Bob Brown
Posted 11/13/15, 08:28 am

Remembering the Holocaust takes on a whole new meaning when your dad helped cause it.

The new documentary What Our Fathers Did: A Nazi Legacy sets truth and loyalty on a collision course. International lawyer Philippe Sands interviews two sons of high-ranking officials in Germany’s Third Reich. But even though both Niklas Frank and Horst von Wächter were born in 1939 and lived with their fathers in Poland during World War II, they judge their fathers’ deeds very differently.

As governor-general of occupied Poland, Hans Frank superintended all Nazi activity on Polish soil. At the Nuremburg trials, the “Butcher of Poland” was convicted of ordering the starvation deaths of 1 million Poles and the murders of 3 million Jews. Niklas was 7 years old in October, 1946, when his father was hanged. He snidely describes his boyhood self as the “prince of Poland,” but he feels only disgust and hatred for the “king.” Niklas always carries a photo, taken shortly after the execution, of his father’s corpse.

“He wasn’t my father,” Niklas declares, “[except] biologically.”

Horst, on the other hand, denies his father was the type of man who would knowingly permit genocide on his watch. But the history books tell another story.

Otto von Wächter was one of Hans Frank’s principal deputies, governing Poland’s Kraków district and later the Galicia district in Ukraine. Von Wächter was indicted at Nuremburg for mass murder but eluded capture with help from the Vatican, according to Sands. He died in hiding in 1949.

Horst argues his father had no authority over the police or SS, who were under the direct control of Heinrich Himmler. He even claims his father tried to halt or slow the extermination operations. But Sands produces documents establishing Otto’s direct knowledge of and consent to the systematic murder of Jews and Poles. Sands also points out Otto von Wächter’s role as a mere political administrator does not absolve him of guilt. The evidence, however, does not budge Horst.

Viewers might be curious about why the sons turned out so differently, but the documentary barely touches on their lives after their fathers died. Instead, the film seems to evolve into a case against Horst von Wächter. Like a prosecutor methodically laying out the evidence, Sands—who specializes in cases involving genocide and crimes against humanity—focuses on Horst’s refusal to denounce his father’s crimes. The camera records long intervals of Horst standing in silence or stumbling over his words, grasping at improbable rationalizations for his father’s evils.

Sands eventually discloses his connection with the two men’s fathers. Walking with Niklas and Horst through a cavernous Zhovkva synagogue that has remained empty since the Nazis set fire to it in 1941, Sands reveals his grandfather’s family worshipped there regularly. But on March 25, 1943, the Nazis marched 3,500 Jews to sand pits outside the city, which was under Otto von Wächter’s jurisdiction, and murdered each one with a bullet to the head. Only one of Sands’ 80 relatives from Zhovkva survived the war.

The unrated documentary, which opens today in select theaters, includes brief language and brief nudity. Sands makes a powerful visual point with little use of concentration camp images. He repeatedly interweaves video footage from the ghettos of smiling Jewish children with Frank and von Wächter home movies.

Now matter how they regard their fathers’ deeds now, genocide will always be part of their family photo albums.

Bob Brown

Bob is a graduate of the WORLD Journalism Institute’s mid-career course.

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