How a Hampstead lawyer helped two sons come to terms with the actions of their Nazi fathers

Horst Von Wachter, Philippe Sands and Niklas Frank behind the scenes of My Nazi Legacy. Picture: Ker

Horst Von Wachter, Philippe Sands and Niklas Frank behind the scenes of My Nazi Legacy. Picture: Kerry Brown - Credit: Archant

Michael Joyce talks to human rights lawyer Philippe Sands about returning to the scene of his family’s annihilation with the sons of two Nazis who took part in the Final Solution.

Niklas Frank and Horst von Wächter were both born in 1939, both sons of prominent Nazi officers.

Hans Frank was the governor General of Poland during the Second World War, while Baron Otto Gustav von Wächter served under Frank as the head of administration in occupied Poland.

Both were involved in implementing the Final Solution in Krakow and Galicia.

Despite such a similar start in life, their paths were very different. Frank was a miserable unhappy child who grew up despising his Nazi father. Von Wächter had a blissfully happy childhood, at least until 1945 when his father had to spend the majority of his time off hiding in the woods.

He still clings to the belief that deep down he was good and didn’t agree with Nazi ideology.

Their stories are told in a compelling documentary My Nazi Legacy along with a third man Philippe Sands, the grandson of one of the few Jews who survived the purge in Lviv, western Ukraine. Today Sands is a top human rights barrister, specialising in genocide and crimes against humanity.

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When we spoke about the film, the Hampstead resident told me: “This is fundamentally a North London story, originating around a North London dinner party table”.

While entertaining old school friend and director David Evans, best known for his work on TV dramas such as Downton Abbey, conversation turned to a piece Sands had written for the Financial Times in 2013 about Frank and Von Wächter whom he had met while researching a book on the Nuremberg trial.

Evans thought there might be a film in it and got Nick Fraser, editor of BBC 4’s Storyville interested.

The original project was just to have the two men reflect on their childhood, with Sands largely off screen, culminating in a event at the Purcell Room in February 2014.

The filmmakers were expecting this would end in a confrontation, but it never happened. All this might have made for a nice hour long Storyville but what made the film was a chance remark by Horst,

“My father is venerated in the Ukraine.” From that they came up with the notion of a road trip, taking the pair back to the scenes of their fathers’ crimes. And so in July 2014 the trio plus a tiny production crew headed off to eastern Europe for five days coming up with the footage that makes My Nazi Legacy so special.

“It was an intense experience,” says Sands. “The day we visited the field that is the burial ground of over 3000 Jews and most of my family was particularly draining.”

The relationship between the three men is at its most strained in these scenes and Sands praises cameraman Sam Hardy (another Hampstead resident) for the skillful, instinctive way he framed the three of them.

“We were together, and yet all on our own being bitten alive in the 95 degree heat. He shot continuously for an hour and a half but was always acutely conscious of what was going on, spotting the peculiar detail of Von Wächter pulling the petals from a daisy he has picked.”

Worse was to come during a trip to Ukraine where they attended an annual event commemorating Ukrainian soldiers who fought for the division of the Waffen SS set up by Von Wächter in 1943. Here they are used as inspiration for the current generation fighting against the Russians. People at the event trade Nazi memorabilia and proudly wear swastikas. When asked about Putin’s claim that Ukraine is full of fascists and Nazis one of them responds calmly, “I’d go along with that.” Von Wächter’s father is indeed venerated here and Sands tells a story that illustrates the strange and conflicting demands of documentary filmmaking.

At one point, having declined to pose with a rifle, Von Wächter is invited to sit in the back of the car that his father used to ride in. “As we both stood and watched, waiting to see what he would do, I was desperately hoping he wouldn’t, while Evans was eagerly hoping he would because it made for a better film.”

Sands is “thrilled” that the film, which has been released in New York and bought by Netflix seems to have struck a chord.

If you didn’t get in early for tickets to the two sold out Jewish Film Festival screenings it goes on general release this Friday.

There is a Q & A at the Tricycle in Kilburn on November 26th, one of several events Sands will be attending around its release. (Busy man as he is due in The Hague where he is the barrister representing the Philippines in their case against China over South Sea fishing rights.)

“It’s not really a film about Nazis, the reason people have reacted so strongly to it is because it’s about fathers and sons,” he says.

“One man came up to me after a screening to tell me he wept all the way through because he hated his father.”

Its appeal is also linked to the compelling figures of Frank and Von Wächter, and the back and forth between Frank’s strident moral certainty and the other’s misguided but understandable urge to protect his memory of his father.

“David Evans has made a film that is incredibly clever and powerful. He’s presented Horst in the best possible light …. people have a sympathy for any child who wants to find the good in their parents, no matter how bad the parent is. It’s a really natural instinct.”

At one point on the trip, when they are standing in the burnt out Synagogue in Lviv where Sands’ ancestors would have worshipped, Von Wächter chastises him for his pessimism. Sands contends that, despite having “seen a few mass graves in my time,” he is in fact “one of the most optimistic people in the world.”

“The day in the Ukraine was as terrible a day as I’ve ever had, but overall the trip was an acutely engaging intellectual experience, exhausting but invigorating,” says Sands.

“These guys, their dads killed my grandfather’s entire family but here we are back in the killing fields and we’re sort of getting on; we’re all grown up, we’re all civilised and we’re all trying to engage with the hugeness of the very dark but enriching experience we’re going through.”