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Sins of the Fathers

Machla Abramovitz

Nearly 70 years after the end of World War II, Germany still grapples with its Nazi past. Lately, a new wrinkle has emerged in the fabric: children of Nazi perpetrators, pained by their parents’ crimes, have begun working hand in hand with children of Holocaust victims and survivors to achieve a measure of justice as the candle of the Holocaust flickers low.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

In 2003, whenHans-JurgenBrennecke was 57 years old, he discovered a cache of letters that shocked him to the core. In those faded lines, there were indications that his fatherHans, a Hamburg policeman, was not as innocent of war crimes as he had once thought.  “What I was told was that my father was responsible for helping Germans build air raid shelters,” he says. That, though, was only partially true. The letters revealed that his father was a member of extreme right-wing groups and, by all indications, contributed heavily to the Nazi war effort. While he was not murdering innocents in the East, in his letters he admits to interrogating prisoners and learning how to use a machine gun — a skill that directly connected him to the SS. There was no question where his sympathies lay. “Tonight I heard their stories [soldiers who returned from the East]. They were great,” he wrote. Brennecke will never know the ultimate extent of his father’s culpability: Those dark secrets died with his mother. And in that fact he joins rank with the majority of children of perpetrators who discover the truth only after their parents are gone. But, unlike some, Brennecke refused to mitigate his father’s crimes. Instead, he began to research the role of the Hamburg police during the war to confront the sorry reality head-on. .

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