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Growing up as the son of a Nazi war criminal

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Hans Frank greets the leaders of German Sonderdienst in occupied Krakow, in 1941. NARODOWE ARCHIWUM CYFROWE PHOTO

Niklas Frank has been something of an iconoclast all his life. When his siblings rose to the defence of their father, Hans Frank, the former governor-general of Nazi-controlled Poland, Niklas Frank saw him as a cowardly man who was prepared to engage in any sort of evil, if it made Adolf Hitler happy.

And when he wrote In the Shadow of the Reich, a book about growing up as the son of a Nazi war criminal, critics said he should not slam his own father in public.

They say the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, but in the case of Niklas Frank, it landed a mile away, rolled down a hill and ended up in the next county.

Frank, a former journalist, was the keynote speaker at a Holocaust Education Week (HEW) event hosted by the Adath Israel synagogue in Toronto on Nov. 2, which was attended by 1,400 people.

In an interview with The CJN, the 78-year-old Frank said that his opposition to the Nazi regime and his parents’ role in it caused a rift between himself and three of his four siblings, as well as between him and the residents of the Bavarian town where he grew up after the war.

He recalls what led him to become a vocal critic of the Nazis, and much of it had to do with his personal feelings of abandonment and shame.

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Frank was born in March 1939, a few months before the war started. His father had been Hitler’s lawyer for years and was a devoted follower of the Nazi dictator.

From 1933-34, Hans Frank served as the minister of justice of Bavaria, at the time when SS leader Heinrich Himmler opened Dachau, Germany’s first concentration camp. “He didn’t do anything against it. He was a loyal party guy. If Hitler wants it, he gets it,” Niklas Frank said of his father.

The elder Frank was named governor-general of the occupied Polish territories in 1939 and was responsible for the exploitation and murder of hundreds of thousands of Poles, as well as the deportation and murder of Polish Jews.

Niklas Frank remembers his father as a cold and aloof man who never showed him any affection, in part because he believed – probably correctly – that Niklas wasn’t his biological son.

Frank recalls an incident from his childhood that has stayed with him ever since: when he was three years old, he wanted a hug from his father and he chased him around a large dining room table in a Polish castle, asking for a hug, while as his father moved away, saying, “who are you, you’re a stranger.”

The family took advantage of the local Jewish population to improve their standard of living during the war, he said. His mother, Brigitte, lived so well that she was known as the “Queen of Poland,” Frank recalled.

Hans Frank, while being held in Nuremberg in 1945. NATIONAL ARCHIVES AND RECORDS ADMINISTRATION PHOTO

Going all the way back to the First World War, his mother had done business with Jewish fur merchants in Bavaria. While living in a Polish castle in Krakow, a chauffeur would drive them into the Jewish ghetto, where she’d purchase jewelry and female undergarments from local merchants.

Despite her high status, she did nothing to help any of the Jews she dealt with, Frank said.

His aunt was even worse. After the Krakow ghetto was liquidated and the surviving Jews were sent to Plaszow, she appeared there and told the Jews that she was the sister of the governor general and “if you have any jewelry, maybe I can save your lives. But she never did,” Frank said.

As for his father, Frank believes that, “He became anti-Semitic because of his love for Hitler … he always wanted to please him.”

“I would say my father was a coward,” he continued. “He was brought up as a Roman Catholic in Weimar and was well educated.

“He knew what was right and wrong and he decided voluntarily to be on the bad side, just to be near Hitler. He knew what was going on. He knew everything. He felt that Hitler was more important than the lives of people.”

He recalls that during his father’s imprisonment in Nuremberg, the family would receive letters saying that he’d become baptized and had experienced a religious conversion. But he believes “it was a lie.”

Although Frank was a toddler during that Second World War, he is deeply ashamed of the role his parents played in the Holocaust. While living in Bavaria after the war, he saw an American newspaper account, along with photos, of Jews in Nazi death camps. Among the victims were children his own age.

When he saw that they were located in Poland, where he had grown up, “that really gave me a shock,” he said. “It made the resistance against my father stronger.”