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Born Guilty: Children of Nazi Families.

Born Guilty: Children of Nazi Families. Peter Sichrovsky. Basic Books, $17.95. In Woody Allen's Hannah and Her Sisters, a depressed artist complains that historians studying the Holocaust waste their time dwelling on the question, "How could it possibly happen?" "Given what people are," the artist says, historians should ask, "`Why doesn't it happen more often?'"

This question looms throughout Born Guilty, a collection of interviews with 14 Austrians and Germans whose fathers were accused of Nazi war crimes. Peter Sichrovsky, an Austrian journalist, found that almost every child believed the same horrific events could reoccur. That Sichrovsky is a Jew seems to have induced in his subjects a confessional tone. Several of the men and women said they had never before discussed their fathers' deeds with anyone--including their parents. One son has recurring nightmares of being gassed to death. His resentment is so strong that on the night after his father's funeral he urinates on his grave. A woman discusses how fascism ruled her home, with her father doling out ritual beatings and naming her "Sybille" so that her initials would be "S.S." Another man, the son of an S.S. doctor, now belongs to a rightwing political group in Germany. "Would I have acted the same way? I think so," the man says. "People can't live without symbols and leaders."

The most powerful chapter is the transcript of a telephone interview between Sichrovsky and the son of a Treblinka guard:

"What did he tell you?"

"He wasn't in the gas chambers."

"Where was he?"

"In the office."

"And that's where he guarded the Jews?"

"Don't be so aggressive."

"Are you surprised?"

"What do I have to do with it?"

"Not much, except that maybe your father killed my grandmother."

The conversation takes an unexpected turn midway, when the Nazi's son accuses Sichrovsky of playing games with guilt. Sichrovsky is "desperate, like a dog who barks and nobody hears him," the son says. But at the end of the conversation, having taken turns playing victor and victim, accuser and accused, the two men reach a weird but cathartic understanding and wish each other luck in life.

As odd as it sounds, there is integrity in this conversation. After all, this moment of truth is what Sichrovsky is trying to achieve for all of Germany. By forcing the children to acknowledge the sins of their fathers, Sichrovsky hopes they will never repeat them.
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Author:Willrich, Michael
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:May 1, 1988
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