Holocaust survivor Anita Lasker-Wallfisch met the Commandant of Auschwitz's son in a new HBO documentary.
Rudolf Höss, the commandant of Auschwitz, with his children, shown here in the new documentary, The Commandant's Shadow. (Snowstorm, Creators Inc., and New Mandate Films)

When an Auschwitz Survivor Met a Nazi’s Son

A new documentary, The Commandant’s Shadow, boldly draws parallels between people with very different memories of the Holocaust.

Anita Lasker-Wallfisch was 18 years old when she was sent by prison train to Auschwitz in 1943. She credits her survival to the fact that she played cello in the death camp’s orchestra. She was 20 when she testified during the Belsen Trials against the infamous Nazi doctor Fritz Klein, among others. And she was in her nineties when, a few years ago, she invited the son of the Commandant of Auschwitz into her living room.

The Commandant’s Shadow is a critically acclaimed documentary by Daniela Völker, just released by Warner Brothers and available on HBO in the coming months. In it, we see Anita and her eldest daughter Maya in conversation with 87-year-old Hans Jürgen Höss, whose father Rudolf oversaw the murder of more than a million Jews. Hans grew up in the shadow of Auschwitz, and his childhood was the subject of Jonathan Glazer’s recent Academy Award–winning film The Zone of Interest. But here we see Hans and his son Kai sit in the home of Holocaust survivor Anita, who says to him: “It was brave of you to do this.”

According to Völker, it took a year to persuade Hans to take part in the movie. When she first reached out to him, she says, he “had an extremely idealized vision of his father,” and “had spent 80-something years avoiding dealing with who he was.” That avoidance is still obvious. When Anita asks him how he feels about his upbringing, he can barely get past his memory of “an idyllic childhood in Auschwitz.” His dying sister Brigitte, whom we meet briefly, is in even greater denial. “He may have done terrible things,” she says of her father. “But he was a good man.”

Völker’s original plan was to focus on the descendants of Nazis. But she ultimately decided to put them alongside the descendants of Holocaust survivors—and, boldly, emphasize their similarities. Both Kai Höss, a pastor, and Maya Lasker-Wallfisch, a psychoanalyst, speak in The Commandant’s Shadow about how cut off they have felt from parents who refused to talk about their pasts. In many ways, this is a documentary about what cannot be said. After a few preliminary comments, the group gathered in Anita’s living room largely fall silent. They eat slices of cake that Hans has brought as a gift. Afterward, Anita calls the experience “beautiful.”

At a time when it is voguish to demonize those on the other side of history, it’s humbling to hear her say: “The important thing is that we talk to each other and understand each other.” Haltingly and imperfectly, this is what these two individuals with very different memories of the Holocaust are trying to do.

Simi Horwitz is a film reviewer based in New York City. You can read Peter Savodnik on Zone of Interest here.

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This article has been corrected to reflect the fact that The Commandant’s Shadow has not yet been released on HBO.

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