The strikingly different paths taken by a pair of childhood friends are documented by a Jewish human rights lawyer, whose film of their unusual journey premieres in Jerusalem next month.
Both Niklas Frank and Horst von Wachter are the sons of high-ranking Nazis.
Hans Frank, Niklas’ father, was the governor of Nazi-occupied Poland. Tried in Nuremberg, he was sentenced to the gallows. Otto von Wachter, Horst’s father, served as governor of Galicia, a region that straddled eastern Poland and western Ukraine. He was indicted after the war but never tried.
Both Niklas and Horst were born in 1939, a few months before the great world war began and within a month of one another. Their families were good friends, and they would spend summer holidays together. Until the age of 6, when the world as they knew it came crashing down around them, they both led lives of great privilege.
And that’s where the similarities end.
Niklas cannot forgive his father, famously known as “the butcher of Poland,” for the atrocities he carried out against the Jews, whereas Horst cannot stop exonerating his.
Enter Philippe Sands, a prominent international human rights lawyer fascinated by their strikingly different responses to the same chilling legacy. A British Jew, Sands also has a very personal connection to these two particular children of the Third Reich: More than 80 members of his own family were murdered in the Polish territories under the jurisdiction of their fathers.
“A Nazi Legacy: What Our Fathers Did,” a documentary set to have its Israeli premiere next month at the Jerusalem International Film Festival, focuses on the unusual encounter between these three men as they embark on a journey back in time. This encounter ultimately breeds a strange alliance between the Jewish lawyer and the son of a notorious Nazi bigwig, both infuriated by the other Nazi son who refuses to find fault with his father.
“My father really deserved to die at the gallows,” remarks Niklas Frank in an early conversation with Sands. When he retrieves a photo showing his infamous father lying in his casket, he says the reason he keeps it in his constant possession is “to be sure that he’s really dead.”
Horst von Wachter, left, and Niklas Frank with filmmaker Philippe Sands between them, facing the other direction, on the killing fields of Zolkiev. Photo From the film 'A Nazi Legacy: What Our Fathers Did'
Horst von Wachter, by contrast, insists his father was a decent man.
This is not the first film to explore the daunting legacy of children born to Nazi murderers. It offers the unique perspective, however, of two such children whose long-term friendship is tested when a Jew comes between them and the past takes over.
The 92-minute documentary, which had its world premiere in April at the Tribeca Film Festival, sprang out of an article Sands was commissioned to write for a British newspaper about his encounters with the Von Wachter son. A practicing barrister and professor of international law at University College London, Sands made the acquaintance of the young Frank while researching a book on the Nuremberg trials. It was Niklas Frank who introduced him to Horst Von Wachter.
Although the Frank and Von Wachter sons come from similar backgrounds, their early childhood memories turn out to be quite different, and one can’t help but wonder whether that might account for their different responses to the crimes of their fathers.
Hans Frank and his wife Brigitte hated each other, as the film reveals, and Hans did not give his son Niklas the time of day. Niklas says his father did not believe he was really his biological son but rather the product of an illicit affair his mother had with her husband’s best friend. When his father tried to divorce his mother, Brigitte recruited Hitler to stop him.
Otto von Wächter, circa 1942. His son, Horst, continues to defend his actions.
Niklas has only one positive memory of his mass murderer father. While taking a bath as child, he recalls, Hans Frank, who was in the restroom shaving at the time, dabbed a bit of shaving cream from his face onto the child’s nose. “It was the only gentle moment I remember,” says Niklas.
Horst, by contrast, has fond memories of his father, whom he insists, had no choice but to obey orders. On another occasion, the Von Wachter son claims his father protested what was being done to the Jews and never believed, as did so many of his other Nazi peers, that they were an inferior race. If his father were really guilty of terrible crimes, asks the son, wouldn’t he too have been tried and hanged like all the rest?
Even when Sands presents the Von Wachter son with documented proof of his father’s terrible crimes, gentle old Horst refuses to budge. Utterly frustrated, Sands appears ready to grab him by the neck and shake him.
In one of the film’s more gripping scenes, Niklas and Horst face off at a public event in London organized after Sands’ article is published. In front of a packed audience, Niklas confronts his old childhood friend. “You told me once I should make peace with my father,” he tells him. “I have peace with my father because I acknowledged his crimes, and so, I could lead a really good life, and you, you’re still struggling.”
To which Horst responds:
It is during a trip that they take together to Zolkiew, the small town near Lvov where Sands’s family once lived, that Niklas experiences a change of heart. It is after a visit to the town’s burnt out synagogue and the nearby killing fields – on the site of what was once a flourishing Jewish community – that he realizes he can no longer compartmentalize his friendship with Horst and that it is impossible to divorce the man from his views.
In the final scene, Sands and Hans Frank’s son take a trip on their own to Nuremberg to the site of the historical trials. In the room where his father was sentenced almost 70 years earlier to be hanged, Niklas feels no pang of sadness whatsoever. “This is a happy room for me,” he notes,” and for the world, I would say.”
“A Nazi Legacy: What Our Fathers Did” will be shown at the Jerusalem Cinematheque on July 13 at 10 A.M. and on July 18 at 9:30 P.M.