Unto the third generation of the Third Reich

Born Guilty: Children of Nazi Families, by Peter Sichrovsky, translated by Jean Steinberg. New York: Basic Books. 178 pp. $17.95. Your father was a Nazi officer in World War II. Like many Germans, you're unaware of the part he played in concentration camp atrocities.

Seventeen years after the war, and you have a son of your own. He proclaims your father a murderer - that your house belonged to a family of Jews killed at Auschwitz. He waves written proof in front of your face.

Worse yet, when the two of you confront your father, he denies it all.

``Born Guilty: Children of Nazi Families,'' by Peter Sichrovsky, is a compilation of 14 interviews with Germans and Austrians whose parents and grandparents were openly accused of committing war crimes in World War II.

The interviewees discuss how they found out about their elders' wartime activity, and how it has affected their lives.

The subject matter breaks new ground - a book that focuses on the children of Nazis has never before come to print. But last year ``Born Guilty'' caused considerable sensation in West Germany and has since been printed in seven other countries, including East Germany.

It has also been performed as a stage play in Vienna and as a radio play in Berlin. Soon to be published in England, the book will become a BBC documentary.

Author Sichrovsky is a Jewish journalist from Vienna, who grew up alongside many such children.

Another of his books, ``Strangers in Their Own Land,'' portrays the lives of the children of Jewish war victims.

He writes, ``I was familiar with their past: I knew how and where they had survived. But the history of the parents of those `others' was a mystery....''

Those ``others'' come alive in ``Born Guilty.''

For the most part, the subject of the war was taboo in the households of the interviewees. Many children grew up seeing their parents as victims suffering from postwar misfortune, and not perpetrators or delegators of disaster.

Sichrovsky writes, ``Personal guilt and responsibility, let alone shame on the part of the parents, were hardly ever mentioned. The generation of the perpetrators treated their children to lies, silence, and dishonesty.''

The children deal with their parents' war crimes in different ways - ranging from rejection, hatred, and alienation to compassion, acceptance, defensiveness - even admiration.

But regardless of their views, they claim to have inherited their elders' suffering:

Rudolph is haunted by guilt and wonders why he wasn't in a car accident that killed his parents.

Egon defends his father as ``a political animal who accidentally found himself on the wrong side.''

Ingeborg married a Jew - someone who is in every respect the direct opposite of her father.

Rainer and Brigitte are brother and sister, who hold opposing views of their parents, which have severed their relationship.

Each story is compelling, yet none begs for sympathy. The book is no bedtime story - it points to the irrepressible fact that the atrocities of war live on in ways we may never have thought.

Sichrovsky's comments on these interviews are alarming: ``Nearly all of the people I interviewed, regardless of their attitude toward their parents, were convinced that what happened under the Nazis could recur....''

``A new German generation that does not question its parents would be the ideal matrix for a new fascism,'' he says.

Sichrovsky also writes: ``Those `old' Germans certainly have not made it easy for the `new' Germans.

``They shoved things under the rugs until the pile of dirt grew so big that one trips over it. In this book we hear from a generation that continues to trip....''

Kirsten A. Conover is on the Monitor staff.

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