An Interview With Nazi Leader Hermann Goering's Great-Niece

How do you cope with evil ancestry?
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"After the last right turn," Bettina's directions read, "you will see a driveway on the left about 50 feet from the corner. The number 290 is placed on a fence post. (Many people can't seem to see this sign and go to the end of the road where they get shot, game lost!)"

It was a dark little joke, the kind of gallows humor I got used to hearing as an EMT and war correspondent--professions overly preoccupied with mortality. The attitude fit Bettina Goering well. As great-niece of Nazi Germany's second in command, Hermann Goering, death is her family legacy.

I tracked the 56 year-old down in Santa Fe at the office where she works as an acupuncturist living under the surname of her ex-husband, which she didn't want named in this story. Bettina invited me to her home outside the city for a formal interview. The last eight miles of the drive took nearly an hour as I bounded and jerked over a tangle of third-world roads, trailing a comet tail of dust. It had rained hard the week before, forcing the persistently barren land to yield lush displays of green, with only cows and horses around to enjoy it.

"When I see Hermann as a family person, I think he's really nice, and charming, and incredibly caretaking, and it's hard for me to see flaws. But then you see what he does in politics and how he killed people, including his so-called friends."

Bettina met me at the door of her modern two-story home. "You found it!" she exclaimed in her heavy German accent.

"No one's more surprised than me!" I replied with a laugh. "This place seems to want to stay lost."

She led me to her kitchen where her husband of 23 years, Adi Pieper, sat behind a table. We shook hands. The house was nearly empty: no clutter, no personal items. It seemed to be a place without memory. I later learned that the couple was in the process of selling their property and had purposefully made it neutral.

"So," I began, "you had the name Goering when you were growing up in Germany. Was there a stigma?"

"Not really," Bettina replied. "That is the weird thing. Because I grew up in the 50s and early 60s, there was this time of utter denial. Germany had just dug itself out of its past and they were starting to get wealthy again. Later, there were a few people who would make me cringe by saying Hermann was a good guy."

"My mother said that," Adi added, "'Oh, we all loved him,' she said, when she found out Bettina and I were starting a relationship. He was the most liked one, the most popular Nazi. He appeared so royal, so nice."

"Like a big child," Bettina added.

"You've met with the children of Holocaust survivors and have spoken publicly about your family history. Why do you feel that you have to embrace this Goering identity?" I asked.

"It was never a choice," she replied. " That's how I choose to deal with conflicts."

"What about the rest of your family, growing up?"

"I had trouble at home. That's the gist of the matter. My parents were always a bit rocky together, their relationship. But, when I was about 10 or 11 my grandmother from my father's side--the Goering side--moved in because she was very sick. That created so much more drama. She was the Nazi in the family and she was very difficult to deal with. She was in the last stages of syphilis, and that makes you very stuck in your ways. Your pupils don't move anymore, for example. They just stay in one stage. I think it literally eats up your brain. So, she made whatever trouble was there before even worse. I left home at the age of 13 after a fight with my dad."

"What kind of things did she believe?"

"It's hard to just put it in a few words. She had always this upper-class demeanor, that you think you're better than everyone."

"Not to mention that the Holocaust never happened," Adi interjected. "'All lies! All lies!'"

"It came up," Bettina continued. "because we watched a documentary on TV. It was about Auschwitz."

"Was that your first knowledge of the Holocaust?"

"That was one of them for sure."

"How did you feel?"

"I felt horrible! I felt even more horrible she'd deny it. And she was part of it. If anyone was part of it, she was."

"How so?"

"Well, she was very close to Hermann and she was in charge of the Red Cross. She should have known, you would think. I mean, they made Theresienstadt for the Red Cross. They built it in such a way with false walls and everything so that it looked like a nice working camp where they had theater groups and all kinds of stuff."

"Right," I added, "that was their showpiece concentration camp to demonstrate that the Nazis were humanitarians. Of course, they shipped off half the prisoners to Auschwitz before visitors came so it wouldn't look overcrowded."

"Maybe she believed the fantasy. At the same time, we found out later that she did some very shady deals with Jewish people who paid their way out of Germany. Hermann Goering did a bunch of deals for art or land."

"Did your grandmother have a good side?"

"I really judged this family as negative, almost all of them. That's something that I've been now working to change, and I'm seeing a much more complex picture even of my grandmother. It's very illuminating."

"What changed?"

"I did research. My grandmother was brought up in a family where all the men died all the time. They were all military. Her father died when she was five. There were so many wars back then."

"Yes, you can imagine that with so much loss in her life, she had to convince herself it was for something worthwhile."

"Exactly."

"Do you see any goodness in Hermann?"

"That's hard to say. Is somebody ever totally bad or good? I hope not. I think certain circumstances happen that might turn somebody into a psychopath. When I see Hermann as a family person, I think he's really nice, and charming, and incredibly caretaking, and it's hard for me to see flaws. But then you see what he does in politics and how he killed people, including his so-called friends."

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Roc Morin is a journalist based in New York and the author of And, a book of short stories.

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