Coming to terms with a generational curse

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Coming to terms with a generational curse

The son of the Auschwitz Commandant and a survivor share cake in Daniela Völker's astonishing documentary

Director Daniela Völker filming at Auschwitz with the son and grandson of the camp Commander
Director Daniela Völker filming at Auschwitz with the son and grandson of the camp Commander

Daniela Völker was wandering through Auschwitz with a pastor from Stuttgart as they tried to get their heads around how someone could have imagined the blueprint for the largest documented mass murder site in human history.

“We were walking around and Kai Höss said to me, ‘Oh my God, this is unbelievable; who came up with this?’” recalls Daniela. “And I go, ‘Erm, well… your grandfather, actually.’”

Kai is the grandson of Rudolf Höss, the brains behind the camp where more than a million Jews were gassed and incinerated. In her film, Daniela captures the moment when he visited Auschwitz with his father – Höss’ son, Hans Jürgen – to try to come to terms with what Kai calls their generational curse”.

Maya, daughter of survivor Anita Lasker-Wallfisch with director Daniela Völker and Kai, grandson of Rudolf Höss

But, in many ways, the emotional heart of the film is the two people at the other side of the equation: cellist Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, almost 99, who survived Auschwitz by playing in the camp orchestra, and her daughter Maya, a psychotherapist so haunted by her history that she has moved to Germany “trying to reclaim stolen lives, but also my unlived life”.

“I was surprised by the parallels between their stories,” says Daniela of the two families. “This corrosive silence, lasting decades, the fact that the past had such a powerful effect on people in the present.” Anita describes Auschwitz as “hell on earth”. Hans Jürgen nostalgically remembers his “really lovely and idyllic childhood” overlooking the crematoria that could burn up to 10,000 people per day.

Daniela with Hans Jürgen, son of Rudolf Höss and grandson Kai in Israel

Just days into the shoot, the director had Hans Jürgen reading for the first time the memoir his father wrote before he was hanged, in Auschwitz, for his crimes. He talked of donning a gas mask to witness the genocide for himself, and how, on seeing women herded to their deaths with their children: “I often thought of my own family.”

I ask London-based Daniela, the daughter of a German father and Argentine mother, why Hans Jürgen was keen to dredge up such traumatic personal history in his late 80s.

“I think I came along at the right time,” she says. “He told me every day [that] the past would come bubbling up. I think he felt deep down that he had to close the circle somehow but hadn’t really ever known how to do it.”

Höss with ( left)  Brigitte) and right Hans Jürgen 

“Look at all the people who said, ‘They died in the camp.’ But all the survivors – why didn’t they die? They get money now from Germany. So, just, whatever you want to believe, you do. All that’s history,” she shrugs. “What can I do?” It almost feels like a deathbed confession as she reclines on her leopard-print sofa. Indeed, Daniela, 52, had secured the interview in the nick of time. Brigitte died shortly afterwards, in October last year, aged 90.

The rough cut of the film was submitted in the week of October 7. It made the film-maker marvel at the prescience of Anita’s warning about antisemitism. In the film, the survivor talks of all that “was destroyed for no reason, other than stupidity”, adding: “But, alas, the stupidity seems to be perpetuating. That’s the Jewish fate, you don’t belong anywhere. And where you should belong, you’ve got the biggest problem.”

Survivor cellist Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, 98 in The Commandant’s Shadow

While Maya joins Kai and Hans Jürgen for their pilgrimage, Anita stays in London, saying the memories are still too raw. “Your Auschwitz is not my Auschwitz.” But she does extend a surprising invitation. “What, Kaffee und Kuchen [coffee and cake] in your house?” replies her amazed daughter. “Yes, why not? If he brings the Kuchen.” The film ends with their meeting, over a Linzer Torte.

“I’d never seen a perpetrator’s descendants coming to the house of a survivor, surrounded by photos of her dead,” says Daniela. “That all came from Anita.” She adds that Hans Jürgen “confronted his past, very publicly, very bravely. I guess it’s his way of putting some light into the world.”

The Commandant’s Shadow is now at cinemas

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