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October 31, 2008

When History Affects a Relationship

Everyone brings baggage to a relationship. Some bring more than most.

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Dani and Katrin were 20-something college students in Germany when they met at a café through friends. They shared a passion for Berlin, trolling flea markets, and cooking. Soon, they fell in love. A sweet, if unremarkable, story — except that Katrin is the great-niece of one of the most notorious mass murderers in history, Heinrich Himmler, head of Hitler's infamous SS and the architect of the Nazi concentration-camp system, and Dani is an Israeli-born Jew whose grandfather was persecuted in the Warsaw ghetto before barely escaping the extermination program.

At first, their histories drew them together. When Dani (not his real name) returned to Israel, telling his family that his new girlfriend was related to one of the highest-ranking Nazis, "it was a big sensation," says Katrin, a slim 40-year-old in jeans and a corduroy jacket, nursing a coffee in a Berlin café. But nobody stood in their way. The couple was looked upon as proof that the children of victims and oppressors could find reconciliation. When the two took a trip to the romantic old city of Kraków, in Poland, near the Auschwitz concentration camp, they paid a solemn visit to the eerily quiet former Jewish quarter.

Growing up, Katrin had always known of her Nazi ancestry, but she didn't comprehend the full weight of it until she was 11, when she watched the American miniseries Holocaust. She remembers sitting at home in her south German village, her family watching the World War II drama in tears on the couch. After they switched off the TV, Katrin would go to bed and lie awake, "completely sad and terrified," crying as she remembered the actors invoking her last name. Heinrich, her grandfather's brother, committed suicide in 1945 with a cyanide capsule after being arrested by British forces.

It feels odd to be talking about the Holocaust while sitting at a café with waitresses in dirndls and a river sparkling prettily nearby. But Katrin, adept at shuttling between normal life and the horrific history of her family, talks freely, her blue-gray eyes and voice steady. She describes how both she and Dani grew up studying the Holocaust from sharply distinct perspectives. While Katrin learned about Heinrich's role in the ruthless extermination of Jews, Dani heard tales of his grandfather's hiding from the Nazis in a cupboard. While Katrin had recurring nightmares of doing violence to others, Dani had dreams of being pursued. While Katrin developed a sympathy with the war's Jewish victims, Dani became obsessed with Nazi military history. (Later, when Katrin's family flew to Israel to visit Dani's, his relatives worried about putting the Himmlers in the guest bedroom, which had been Dani's as a child, given that models of Nazi fighter-bombers — their swastikas carefully painted by Dani — dangled overhead.)

A year after their trip to Kraków, Dani moved in with Katrin in Berlin, where the two set about building a future together while reconciling their difficult pasts. On weekends, they'd explore the city's Nazi-era monuments; Katrin would laugh when Dani dismissed surly bus drivers as Nazis. In spite of everything, they were in love, and eventually they married.

But would that conquer all? As Katrin began researching a book on her family, unearthing ever more damning details (including the revelation that her own grandfather was a zealous Nazi, not merely a follower), she couldn't help but bring her work home. "I realized I had no one to talk to but Dani," Katrin says, with a wistful shake of her blonde bob. "It was great to talk, but at a certain point, we realized we belonged to completely different sides." They began to fight. Now when Dani called German bus drivers Nazis, it made Katrin furious. When she demanded that Dani be less judgmental of others and he asked why she always felt a need to behave so "properly," the word had horrific connotations for Katrin: It was the term Heinrich Himmler had used when he congratulated members of the SS for the murders they'd committed in the camps. "Our different family heritages were more deeply involved than we would have liked to admit," she wrote in her book, The Himmler Brothers, published in Britain last year. "When conflict arose, we were suddenly reduced to being the offspring of oppressors and victims, a German and a Jew."

And though they refused to let history — one of its darkest chapters — conquer them, their relationship finally crumbled under the weight of more mundane marital problems. After five years of marriage, Katrin and Dani decided to separate. "It's not a love story anymore," says Katrin. "But we're very good friends." They remain married and friendly but live in separate homes near one another. For his part, Dani still wrestles with the German culture he's chosen to be part of. "He can't react in a normal, rational way when he has to deal with official German institutions," says Katrin. "If he gets a letter — an official letter — he's always paralyzed. And I have to explain, 'Listen, it's harmless. Calm down.'"

Some wounds will never heal. But, as Katrin sees it, their 8-year-old son, whom they're raising together — a happy product of their love, a braid of both their histories — is proof that hope is alive and well in the world.

Carla Power writes on European and Islamic issues for publications including Time and the Times of London. She lives in London.


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