‘My quest to un­der­stand the un­apolo­getic Nazis’

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - CUL­TURE STEPHEN AP­PLE­BAUM

WHEN PHILIPPE Sands was grow­ing up, the Holo­caust loomed silently over his world like an un­wanted vis­i­tor who won’t leave. “I’ve lived with it my whole life,” says the em­i­nent bar­ris­ter, when we meet to dis­cuss his role in the thought­pro­vok­ing new doc­u­men­tary, My Nazi Legacy, which is show­ing at this month’s Jewish Film Fes­ti­val.

“I grew up in a house­hold in which we didn’t have Ger­man things. My brother and I knew there were things that had hap­pened but, like many fam­i­lies, we never talked about it.”

Sands’s mother was born in Vi­enna and sur­vived the war as a “hid­den child” in France. She claims to re­mem­ber noth­ing be­fore 1945. His grand­fa­ther, who was born in Lviv in western Ukraine, never spoke about the war or where he came from. Sands later dis­cov­ered that he was the only sur­vivor in a fam­ily of 80.

“So there was no talk­ing about it, but it’s there. And it’s a big is­sue. And it in­forms and it af­fects you, and I’m sure it af­fected the ca­reer choices that I made.”

Last year, when film­ing the doc­u­men­tary with di­rec­tor David Evans, Sands found him­self in a wa­ter­logged field in Ukraine where the re­mains of most of his grand­fa­ther’s fam­ily and of hun­dreds of other Jews still lie — where they were mur­dered — to this day. With him were Horst von Wachter and Nik­las Frank, the sons of high-rank­ing Nazis Otto von Wachter and Hans Frank, whose im­ple­men­ta­tion of the Fi­nal So­lu­tion wiped out the Jewish pop­u­la­tion of Lviv and its sur­round­ings in 1942.

Thetri­o­hadal­readyvis­itedaformer par­lia­men­tarycham­ber­whereHans Frankgavea­speech­in­whichhe praisedOt­tovonWachter­for­mak­ing manyof Lviv’sJews­dis­ap­pear;andthe im­pos­ingdis­usedsy­n­a­gogue­where Sands’sfam­i­ly­wor­shipped­which theNazis­se­ton­fire.Theirnextstop broughthim­faceto­face­with­cur­rent Ukraini­anNazisym­pa­this­er­sa­t­achilling­com­mem­o­ra­tioncer­e­mony­forthe Waf­fen-SSGali­ci­aDivi­sion—the­firstSS unit­toen­list­for­eign­ers—cre­at­edby Horst’sfa­ther.

The men’s lives con­verged af­ter Sands be­came fas­ci­nated with Frank’s fa­ther — “He was highly in­tel­li­gent, high­lye­d­u­cated;how­could­some­one take the di­rec­tion he had taken?” — while re­search­ing a book due to be pub­lished next year, East West Street: On the Ori­gins of Geno­cide and Crimes Against Hu­man­ity. He wrote to Nik­las af­ter read­ing his ac­claimed book about his fa­ther Hans, In the Shadow of the Re­ich, andtheymet­inHam­burg, where they talked for hours. While Nik­las bit­terly dis­tanced him­self — psy­cho­log­i­cally, emo­tion­ally, morally —fromHansand­his­crimes,he­told Sands: “You should meet my friend Horst. They’re not all like me.”

In the film, Nik­las takes out a pho­to­graph of his fa­ther af­ter he’d been hanged­for­mass­mur­der­atNurem­berg. (He keeps it as proof to him­self that he re­ally is dead, but also to re­mindGer­mans­aboutwhat­can­hap­pen when civil so­ci­ety breaks down.)

Horst also shows Sands pho­to­graphs, but the mood is dif­fer­ent. Horst feels no anger to­wards his fa­ther, just love and devo­tion. It was the sys­tem that was wrong, he says.

Un­like Hans Frank, von Wachter was con­cealed with help from the Vat­i­can, and died be­fore he could be brought to jus­tice. If he had gone toNurem­berg,hewould­have­been ac­quit­ted, Horst in­sists. “Who would speak against him,” he asks Sands, rhetor­i­cally. “Only the Jews.”

When Sands vis­ited Horst for the first time, the Aus­trian and his wife were liv­ing in three ground­floor rooms of their crum­bling Gor­meng­hast- like schloss. “It was bit­terly cold and he’s broke,” says Sands. Horst kept his fa­ther’s li­brary on the third floor, and the pho­to­graph al­bums he pro­duced as­ton­ished the lawyer. “Youopenthe­mandthere’sGo­er­ing andGoebbel­sandHimm­lerand‘AH’ [Adolf Hitler], and incredible images.”

One day, Horst took a black book down off a shelf. “It was MeinKampf and it was in­scribed by his mother. She’dboughti­tasa­nen­gage­ment present — ‘For our strug­gle.’ So he lives with it and he’ll say, ‘That’s in­ter­est­ing. I didn’t know that I had that.’”

Nei­ther Horst nor Nik­las hid any­thing from the film-mak­ers, and even agreed to open up their di­a­logue in a live dis­cus­sion at the Pur­cell Room in Lon­don last year, which forms part of the doc­u­men­tary. The men re­spect­fully held their po­si­tions with­out any ma­jor fire­works. And it wasn’t un­til near the end of the de­bate, when Horst proudly re­vealed that his fa­ther is ven­er­ated in the Ukraine, that the film-mak­ers knew where to go next.

“Af­ter the Pur­cell Room, Horst said, ‘well, if we’re go­ing to go to the Ukraine, let’s go on com­mem­o­ra­tion week­end and I’ll in­tro­duce you to all th­ese lovely peo­ple.’”

Dur­ing the trip, Sands be­comes in­creas­ingly im­pa­tient with Horst’s re­fusal to recog­nise his fa­ther’s guilt. In a key scene, he presents him with a doc­u­ment prov­ing Otto’s in­volve­ment in mass mur­der and is re­buffed. “His re­ac­tion ir­ri­tates me,” says Sands, “and I lose my rag.” He ad­mits he’s “un­com­fort­able” with the scene. As a bar­ris­ter, you’re “trained: don’t show your emo­tion, stay cool, be bal­anced. I’m a lawyer and I’m a hu­man be­ing and there are points where one can no longer be ex­cluded with the other.”

Al­though he never suc­ceeded in elic­it­ing an ac­knowl­edge­ment from Horst, it was im­por­tant to him to keep try­ing be­cause “there’s a con­cern that, in fail­ing to ac­knowl­edge, you ef­fec­tively take own­er­ship of what has hap­pened, and that re­ally both­ered me.”

Their last des­ti­na­tion, where newly un­earthed re­mains of fallen Waf­fen SS sol­diers were be­ing buried in a cer­e­mony at­tended by men in Nazi uni­forms, is the most trou­bling. Through­out the film there is a strong sense that the past is press­ing against and in­form­ing the present, and nowhere was this more ex­plicit. “My big theme in this is, if you sup­press stuff, it will come back,” says Sands. “It doesn’t go away. It’s my own fam­ily story of my grand­fa­ther and mum not want­ing to talk about th­ese things and nev­er­the­less it comes back. And I think that you see that in the fields in Ukraine.”

The com­mem­o­ra­tion cer­e­mony was “as shock­ing a day as I have ever had,” he says. Horst, on the other hand, couldn’t have been hap­pier. The in­ner con­flict he some­times seems to be ex­pe­ri­enc­ing up to that point ap­pears to re­solve it­self as his be­lief in his fa­ther’s de­cency is vin­di­cated by Ukrainian mil­i­tary vet­er­ans and younger swastika-wear­ing at­ten­dees. Nik­las is dis­gusted. He tells Sands he be­lieves Horst is a full­blown Nazi and vows to break off con­tact with him.

“I’m pretty care­ful who I throw that la­bel at,” says Sands, who re­gards both men as vic­tims, “and I say in the film I don’t think he’s a Nazi . But he’s an apol­o­gist, and that’s re­ally bad.”

Does he think, at a time when an­tisemitism is in­creas­ing, that the film is a warn­ing? “Yes, the film is an ex­pres­sion of my own greater con­scious­ness of the se­ri­ous­ness of is­sues that are out there for the Jewish com­mu­nity but also for other com­mu­ni­ties. Xeno­pho­bia and racism are on the rise, and an­tisemitism is part of that.

“I think David and I felt strongly that those scenes in the Ukraine were in­cred­i­bly im­por­tant. But I think the heart of it is this sense that it’s show­ing that what hap­pened then is very alive to­day. Things that are deeply buried don’t dis­ap­pear and we have to be con­stantly vig­i­lant.”

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