Granddaughters of the Holocaust: Learning from the past

Kean and Frank shared stories describing how they each learned about the Holocaust at a very young age.

 SPEAKING AT the Holocaust program were (from left) Beth Kean, Jordanna Gessler and Franziska Frank. (photo credit: Tamara Leigh Photography)
SPEAKING AT the Holocaust program were (from left) Beth Kean, Jordanna Gessler and Franziska Frank.
(photo credit: Tamara Leigh Photography)

LOS ANGELES – It was an irony of ironies: here was the granddaughter of Hitler’s notorious governor-general of Nazi-occupied Poland joining granddaughters of Holocaust survivors for a discussion of how Jews and Germans deal with their past.

“Granddaughters of the Holocaust,” a program last week sponsored by Holocaust Museum LA, brought together Beth Kean, granddaughter of Holocaust survivors and museum CEO, in a conversation with Dr. Franziska Frank, granddaughter of Hans Frank, Hitler’s right-hand man in Poland who was tried at Nuremberg and sentenced to death for war crimes.

Kean and Frank shared stories describing how they each learned about the Holocaust at a very young age. Meanwhile, program moderator Jordanna Gessler, herself a granddaughter of Holocaust survivors and museum vice-president of education and exhibits, emphasized the importance of “what we can learn from the past... and what does it mean to come together as a community to make the world a more dignified and humane space.”

“After listening to Franziska tell her story,” Kean observed, “it’s so interesting to me because we’re exactly the same age, so now I’m realizing that we lived these parallel lives, she being in Germany and learning from a young age... and I also learned at a young age.

“Being able to connect like this and have a conversation is something I’d never imagine would happen in a million years.”

The Anne Frank House and Holocaust Museum in Amsterdam, the most popular site on WJT (credit: Dennis van de Water via Shutterstock)The Anne Frank House and Holocaust Museum in Amsterdam, the most popular site on WJT (credit: Dennis van de Water via Shutterstock)

The terrible past is something that Franziska Frank first learned from her father, Niklas Frank, 83, the well-known German author and journalist, whose 1987 book, In the Shadow of the Reich, condemned his father – Franziska’s grandfather – for war crimes. (A later version of the book is The Father: A Revenge).

“Being able to connect like this and have a conversation is something I’d never imagine would happen in a million years.”

Beth Kean

Niklas Frank also collaborated with Israeli playwright Joshua Sobol on a play called The Father, which was commissioned for the Vienna Festival in 1995.

As a child, Franziska Frank grew up in a house with hundreds of books about the Holocaust, and when she was only seven or eight, she “knew there was some connection with my family, but I didn’t really get it at that age.” Meanwhile, her father would ask her to visualize that a truck pulls up on the other side of the road and takes people away. “What are you going to do?” he asked the puzzled youngster.

Later on, when she was 11 or 12 and old enough to understand, her father asked her to imagine being on a train with her mother and father for two weeks, facing a selection process at a concentration camp, “and you know that you’re never ever going to see your parents again.”

Meanwhile, looking back at her own childhood, Kean remembered that “there was never a time where I did not know about the Holocaust... my grandmother had a tattoo on her arm, my grandparents had thick Polish accents and all of their friends... ” In addition, there was always a tray filled with memorial candles on Yom Kippur, and Kean heard the word Auschwitz a lot.

“So as a little girl,” she said, “I didn’t really know what the Holocaust was, but I knew something bad had happened to my family.

”I knew that many family members, including my great-grandparents, great-aunts and uncles had all been killed in Auschwitz, and I knew my grandmother had peeled potatoes in a concentration camp, but I didn’t really understand the meaning behind that until I got older.”

Family history

KEAN’S MATERNAL grandparents were forced into slave labor, her grandfather having worked in seven different labor camps. Her grandmother, who was 13 when the Nazis invaded Poland, lived near the border with Germany.

Before the Nazis entered Poland, one of her grandmother’s two older sisters who was working in a slave labor camp in Germany managed to take her sister – Kean’s grandmother– back to Germany with her “because she knew she would be better off doing slave labor,” even though, said Kean, she felt guilty about leaving her parents and four younger siblings, all of whom died in Auschwitz.

Kean feels a “personal responsibility” to carry on her grandparents’ voices by continuing to share their stories, but she also recognizes the fact that Franziska Frank has “a much bigger burden to carry to speak out and publicly condemn someone who you have a biological connection to... that is a heavy load to carry with you day to day.”

In a later interview, Frank explained that before her father’s book, there was a belief in Germany that children had “a duty... to have to love their parents and that to withdraw love from parents, even if they’re war criminals, is a no-go.

“So when my father’s book was first published in Stern magazine,” she said, “there were some very angry letters, partly by his own siblings, saying the son is worse than the father and that you should never write like that about your father.”

Of course, her father had seen “the big picture, i.e. the millions of dead,” said Frank, who has a PhD in law and is an affiliate program director and visiting lecturer at ESMT, a Berlin business school.

Frank pointed out that her father’s work in a way “liberated me from some of the responsibilities that would have been on me otherwise because my father had already fought so much against the evil... ” So he effectively was a “barrier” between her and the “evil grandparent.”

“I think the other thing is it also made it clear not to be sitting on the fence on some issues,” she said. “He’s very clear my father, and he has a holy anger.”

Raising what has been the classic Holocaust contradiction, Frank noted her father’s “amazing realization” that his own father could be “cultured, loved music, loved literature, loved chess” – and yet could “become so evil.”

She has told her own children that if she ever did something “really evil,” they would be allowed “not to love me.” “I think it is important for parents to know that you are rightfully disowned if you did something like my grandfather did,” she said.

During the discussion, when the topic of the TV mini-series The Holocaust came up, Frank recalled that she watched it with her big daughter and plans to watch it with her other children.” There is “a duty” to watch it, she stressed, “a duty that is not necessarily passed on to many others.”

Frank believes that “many Germans first of all, when they have to watch films about the Nazis, they don’t like Germany at that time, very obviously, and they don’t like the pain that goes with it... 

“I know quite a lot of people who refuse to think about that time in any sense that touches them,” she said, “because they’ll say it’s the past, it’s gone, and I think that’s a big danger because as soon as you take the emotion out of it and the suffering for yourself, as well, you can distance yourself... 

“I think you have to have a willingness in every generation to really expose yourself to the Diary of Anne Frank, to Schindler’s List, to the memories of deported people, and you have to do it in a way... that you can get an inkling of what people went through.”

In his introduction to the museum’s program, Stefan Schneider, Germany’s consul-general in Los Angeles, voiced some unexpected remarks about his own personal history.

HE RECALLED arriving in Paris as a 21-year-old student to study French literature and civilization at the Sorbonne when a French woman who rented rooms to students asked him if there were any Nazis in his family.

He told her that there were none, and she asked him: ‘How do you know?’ He then replied: ‘I’m the grandson of a Holocaust survivor.’” The woman told Schneider that she would have thrown him out if his answer had been different.

Schneider later told me: “I am a grandson of a Jewish survivor, indeed, my grandfather Ernst Fuchs, who was born in Munich, father of my dear mother, Gerda Fuchs.

“He was the only survivor from all the Jewish families I am descended from who lived in Germany during the Nazi terror. My grandmother, his wife, my mother Gerda and her sister Ilse were all baptized. However, my mom would always relate to our Jewish family as ‘meine Leute’ (my people) as I also do. I feel deeply rooted in my Jewish heritage.”

The consul-general still has Jewish cousins in the United States, descendants of his German Jewish family members who left Germany in the 19th and early 20th centuries, “long before the Shoah,” he said.

Schneider’s great-grandfather, Jakob Fuchs, was murdered in Theresienstadt, as was Fuchs’ sister, Cilly. Fuchs’ daughter Grete Breunig was deported to Kaunas and murdered, and his son Bruno was deported from Cologne to the Lodz ghetto and murdered in Auschwitz. Fuchs’ son Ernst, Schneider’s grandfather, was the only survivor.

In September of 1944, the consul-general’s grandfather, grandmother, his mother and her sister, hearing from an informant, a priest, that they faced deportation and imprisonment by the Nazis, went into hiding in a basement of a half-destroyed house in Cologne.

“They were liberated on March 6, 1945, by American troops,” said Schneider. “God bless America!”

With an eye to the future about the museum’s important work, Beth Kean wondered about Holocaust education in the “pivotal time” of what will be “a post-survivor world.”

“So how do we teach this history,” she asked, “and how do we continue to carry on survivors’ voices and make sure that history does not keep repeating itself?”

Holocaust Museum LA was founded in 1961 by a group of Holocaust survivors, who wanted to create a space to commemorate their loved ones and educate future generations. The link to the museum is www.holocaustmuseumla.org.

The museum’s featured program can be viewed at the following link: Granddaughters of the Holocaust - YouTube