I'm fascinated to read an article by Tanya Gold in the Guardian newspaper in the UK. She examines the lives of Germans who converted to Judaism after the Second World War. The full article, linked above, is much longer - and very worthwhile reading - but I've excerpted this segment.
Two years ago I read a strange little story in an obscure American magazine for Orthodox Jews, claiming that a descendant of Adolf Hitler had converted to Judaism and was living in Israel. I had heard rumours in Jewish circles for years about "the penitents" - children of Nazis who become Jews to try to expiate the sins of their fathers. Could it be true? I dug further and discovered that a man with a family connection to Hitler does indeed live in Israel as an Orthodox Jew. Virtually unnoticed in the English-speaking world, he was exposed seven years ago in an Israeli tabloid. Then he sank from sight. I went to Israel to meet him - and on the way I was plunged into the strange subculture of the Nazi-descended Jews.
. . .
I walk upstairs and a woman with the headscarf of all married orthodox Jewish women answers the door. She doesn't say anything, simply gestures for me to sit at a table in a room heaving with books. And then he comes in. Is this my Jewish Hitler? He is incredibly tall and slim, in a blinding yellow shirt, very animated, and his accent - an odd pulp of German, English and Hebrew - seems to zoom out of him. He is holding two pieces of paper. One is a family tree; the other is a printout of an account of the life of Alois Hitler Junior - Adolf Hitler's half-brother.
"I will tell you the whole story," he says, "on the condition that you do not print my name". He places the first piece of paper in front of me, points at names, and begins a strange, almost incomprehensible account of the lives of Germans who died more than a century ago. At the end of each summary of a long finished life, he jabs his finger on the table and says, "OK?" It only becomes clear what he is doing when I follow the tree down to a name I know - Alois Hitler.
Alois Hitler had two sons who lived to maturity - Adolf (that Adolf) and Alois Junior. This half-brother of the Führer then produced an illegitimate son called Hans. "OK?" he says. "Hans married my grandmother Erna after she divorced my grandfather."
He immediately states that he hates the Hitler branch of his family. He becomes agitated. "I have neither any blood nor DNA from Adolf and his family," he insists. "I was not socialised by that family." He met Hans only once. The Hitlers came for tea when he was 12 years old. "Hans was a very nice man," he says. "No passions, no brutality." But Erna was thrilled to have married into the Hitler clan, and remained a Nazi until she died. "I didn't know her," he says of his grandmother. "She wasn't part of my family."
The professor explains that his mother severed all connections with the Hitlers. As a teenager she was beaten for refusing to go to Hitler Youth dances, and when she gave birth to the professor - an illegitimate child she conceived during an affair with a married man - her mother and stepfather disowned her. He was raised in a series of rented rooms, while the Hitlers lived well. After the war, his grandmother changed her name, but her beliefs remained.
He begins to tell me what happened to his mother during the war. She worked as a typist for the Wehrmacht in Poland and she saw dead Jews hanging in the town squares. "She was a girl in the war," he says, "but I always appreciated that she told me the truth about it. We spoke frankly. I never heard that normal German lie you hear so often from that generation." His voice rises and he impersonates them with a fierce whine: "'We didn't know, we just did our duty.'" And he thumps the table. "My grandparents never understood what they had done," he says. "My mother understood." When she came home after the Allied victory, she was denounced as a Nazi, and the Communists seized her flat. "She became one of those German ladies who cleared up after all the bombing." He stomps to the kitchen and comes back, thrusting two silver spoons at me. "That is all that my mother brought home from the war. I keep them to honour her."
It was a brutal childhood: he barely saw his father, and his mother beat him - one time so severely that she couldn't go to work for three days because her fingers were too swollen to type. "She was a fighter," he says. "It is not the nicest thing you can be." Was she religious? He gives a deranged giggle. "She had the religion of herself," he says.
His mother was entirely alone. "Nobody helped anybody at that time," he says. His father had another family - a real family: "I saw my father very seldom and the times I saw him I was so proud to have a father that it was not the time to ask what he did in the war. He died when I was 19. So I never asked him what he did." But he does know his father was a major in the Wehrmacht. So, barring a miracle, he killed people for Hitler.
His journey towards Judaism was long. "It was not a sudden light from heaven that came down." When he was a teenager he met a girl who was interested in Judaism, and he read Mein Kampf. "I was embarrassed when I read it," he says. "How could people be so stupid as to elect a person who was writing things like this? It's awful." He blinks at me. "I don't think you can really understand how awful it is if you don't read it in German. I put it away. But I keep it here." Did he ever finish it? He scowls at me for the first and only time. "No."
When the time came for him to be conscripted into the German army, he decided to take a theology degree, because he wanted to benefit from an ironic leftover from Nazism: Hitler promised the Pope in 1933 that he wouldn't conscript priests, and the law has never been repealed. "I am a pacifist," he says. "You raise up an army if you think you have to use it." As part of the degree, he was due to spend six weeks in Israel in the early 1970s. "I felt at home. I was no longer living in a conflict. I didn't have to reject the older generation. And I thought I had met for the first time a nationality that at that point in history - today it is more problematic - still had good reasons to be proud of itself." So he stayed.
We go out on to the balcony to smoke. He really enjoys his cigarette; I can see he is a pleasure-savouring man. He does not have the heaviness of the other converts, who all seemed crushed by an invisible burden. Is it because he spoke to his mother about it all? I steel myself and ask: would he have become Jewish without the Holocaust? "I think not," he says. "The sharp distinction between the generations that committed the crimes and the generation born after wouldn't exist. Non-Germans hardly understand that a whole generation checked out our teachers and asked, 'Where were you 20 years ago?'"
And then, to my surprise, he calls his son - his Israeli son - a fascist. "When I hear my own son speak - as I did last weekend - I sat like this," and he does the Hitler salute. "Two of my sons are chauvinists and one of them is even partially racist. I can't listen to fascistic discourse. I don't suffer that." They talk about the Palestinians with contempt. "Each time I hear it is another time too much. If the Holocaust and the Third Reich have really somehow shaped me, I am a sworn democrat. I believe that democracy has to prove itself by keeping the rights of its minorities."
I have been with this man for three hours, insistently asking why - why did you convert? Why? This stray branch of the Hitler family tree stares out at his dull suburban street at the heart of the Jewish state, puffs on his cigarette, and begins to talk about the images of the Holocaust that linger in his mind. "I see that soldier trampling that child and in the end killing it, and I remember that kind of aggression. I remember the feeling of the child, too. I remember both. I could see my father or my grandfather really standing there."
And as he says this, his shoulders seem to relax. He is giving me my answer. "And all I can say, Tanya," he says from inside his little cloud of smoke, "is that since I came to Israel, that feeling isn't there any more."
I highly recommend that you click over to the Guardian and read the full article. It's very interesting - and thought-provoking.