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A Nazi in the Family

A Nazi in the Family

Three years ago I discovered that my grandfather was a member of the SS and arrested for crimes against humanity.


Late last year, I read an interview with a rabbi in my university city of Manchester, in which he said that things were so bad he could not see himself ending his days in Britain. I wanted to cry – how could this be happening in my own country? His words had a special resonance for me – at the time I was finishing a book about my own grandfather – an active perpetrator in the Holocaust.

My German grandfather died before I was born. My father told me that his father, Karl Niemann, was “a bank clerk, a pen-pusher.” He also told me that he was a member of the Nazi party. Out of shame, I kept that from my Jewish friends.

Three years ago while my wife prepared for a conference in Berlin a far more terrible revelation came. I decided to join her in the German capital for a short vacation. I asked my dad where he had lived during the war. I would look it up, maybe take some photos of the house for him. I checked online for any information about the street itself.

 Karl pictured in his army uniform on the outbreak of the First World WarKarl pictured in his army uniform on
the outbreak of the First World War

While I was searching a page came up bearing the words: SS Hauptsturmführer Karl Niemann… crimes against humanity… use of slave labor.

I was to discover that in May 1945 my grandfather was arrested in the Alps by American soldiers and imprisoned in former POW camps for three years. My family closed that sordid chapter in their lives and never spoke about it again. But as a 50-year-old writer, I had a compulsion to dig into this new-found truth and to write about it. I trawled archives, went to concentration camps, spoke to Holocaust historians and relatives and began to piece together the story – not just of Karl Niemann, but also that of my family, who had been living a life in Berlin that was both bizarre and frighteningly ordinary.

My grandfather oversaw slave labor and the factories he visited were the likes of Auschwitz, Dachau, Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen.

My dad had vivid recollections of a childhood in which he saw much but understood little. During the war, his father was always going on ‘business trips’. No sooner was he back than he was preparing to go off again. The reality was that he was an overseer of slave labor and the factories he was visiting were the likes of Auschwitz, Dachau, Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen.

SS officers requisitioned inmates to do odd jobs around the house. My dad remembered men wearing “dirty grey striped uniforms, with ‘Jude’ written on the back”. They brought furniture, mended clothes, made bunk beds and an air raid shelter in the garden. His mother gave them coffee and cake. They told her they liked coming to her house. The children played in bomb craters: it was a million miles from the murderous regime in which their father was a working participant.

Karl pictured in his Nazi Party uniform with wife Minna, 1933.Karl pictured in his Nazi Party uniform
with wife Minna, 1933.

Just how much did my grandfather know of the Holocaust and what was his involvement? In the last weeks of the war, he was one of four officers ordered to relocate with their families from Berlin to the Alps. The entourage stopped for two or three nights at Dachau on the way and my dad recalled overhearing a heated conversation between his parents as they looked out over a low building with a tall smoking chimney. His mother said: “You know what they’re doing there? They’re killing the Jews and burning their bodies.” His father was emphatic: “No, they wouldn’t do that,” he insisted.

There is simply too much contrary evidence for his denial to be credible. At his tribunal in 1948, the prosecution lacked incriminating papers that were being used at the time to help hang Karl’s boss, Oswald Pohl, the overall controller of concentration camps. Auditor Karl Niemann had produced accounts for the year 1942, in which he bemoaned the ‘loss’ of 8,000 workers from Majdanek. Eight thousand Jews had been taken out and shot – and Karl had written down the exact date of their killing.

He claimed he had never been to Auschwitz – yet it was the SS’s second biggest ‘factory’ and a Holocaust historian told me that it was inconceivable that he would never have visited it. And how could he have gone to camp after camp, and not seen all the signs of torture, the skeletal figures, breathed the smell of death? My grandfather found inmates to testify on his behalf that he had not physically abused anyone. What of the passive acceptance that allowed him to work for the SS for 10 years?

Most disturbing of all were the comments from the presiding judge that Karl Niemann, presented with the facts, showed no sign of contrition for his part in the enslavement and brutal treatment of innocent people.

It was hard to be objective. There were times when I hated my grandfather. There was a brief window – when I discovered that he had been working deals with the Gestapo to have inmates released – that I thought he might have been another Oskar Schindler. But in the end, I accept he was a flawed individual and look elsewhere for positives.

“I find this hard, but it is true, and you must tell it all.”

And there are positives to come out of this dreadful story. There is my family’s reaction to the book’s publication, most notably my uncle, still living in Germany, who read a draft and told me: “I find this hard, but it is true, and you must tell it all.”

A guiding light has been one Bernhard Gelderblom, whose own father died an unrepentant perpetrator. Bernhard has dedicated his retirement to teaching children in local towns and villages about the lives of Jewish communities before the Nazis came. He inspired people in these places to restore Jewish cemeteries smashed during Kristallnacht.

Throughout this process, I have been shaken, not by hostility, but by kindness. It seems that those closest to the Holocaust are girdled with compassion. Archivists have looked into my heart and said in soft voices: “It’s not your fault.” A lady who had lost family at Auschwitz even said: “Your grandfather probably couldn’t help it.” Kind words indeed, but for the sake of truth, I must value honesty above everything.

The author, Derek NiemannThe author, Derek Niemann

As Holocaust survivors pass away, I understand that I and others in my position have a role. As the grandson of a Nazi criminal, I can say to young people, this is what has happened, but I do not share my grandfather’s beliefs, I do not agree with what he has done. In the weeks since my book was published, I have found others who have been given a similar legacy to me and also want to carry a torch against hatred and bigotry.

I was deeply moved to be asked by to write this article. The fact that it is possible speaks volumes for the willingness of good people, regardless of faith, to find understanding and common humanity.

A Nazi in the Family by Derek Niemann, was published by Short Books in March 2015 and is available as an e-book. Click here to order.

April 13, 2015

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Visitor Comments: 48

(32) Edward, November 26, 2017 6:05 PM

Jews in Soviet Revolution

They committed no less crimes than Nazi. Do you ashamed to be affiliated with them?

(31) Anonymous, February 25, 2016 2:05 AM

I Feel Your Pain...

I am a Jewish convert whose great-great-great grandfather and great-great grandfather fought for the south during the Civil War. To make matters worse, not only had my family owned slaves since at least the 1790's, but one distant relative (with the same surname), was a founding member of the KKK.

I am appalled at the "skeletons in my family closet" as well, but take comfort in knowing that A). By being called a "N-Word Lover" several times during my rural southern childhood; B). By breaking hundreds of years of family tradition and converting to Judaism as an adult; and C). By seeing my "family tree" change with each generation, (and especially in the lives in my own children), I hope and pray that had Hashem seen fit to have me born in a different time, I would have chosen to do the right thing....

Anonymous, December 5, 2017 1:30 AM

Southern Jews

There is in Richmond a Jewish cemetery of CSA soldiers. They were as loyal to South as anyone. & of course you do know that 40,000 Negro combat troops fought for the CSA, including 100 with Nathan Bedford Forrest.

(30) Anonymous, April 23, 2015 3:30 AM

Thank you Derek for your Brave and Honest article...

I am the Granddaughter of an SS officer who was a Nazi War criminal. I agree , we must remember and educate the next generation.

(29) Tirtza, April 22, 2015 7:11 AM


I would like to contrast the sincerity of this young author, who was not born yet at the time of the atrocities, with the reaction of the Polish government who had many willing to hand over the Jews. The Polish government, instead of shame and regret for what was perpetrated on their soil, with many Poles involved, demands an apology from the FBI Director, who had the "audacity" to use the example of how good people failed to act humanely in Poland and other countries of Europe.
This young man seeks the truth and acknowledges it and seeks to prevent such occurrences again. In contrast, the Polish government wants to pretend that many Poles were not complicit but were only similar victims. True, there were Polish victims and rescuers, but it would be a lie to pretend that many did not support the Shoah. The first step in repentance is admitting that you did something wrong, it's time for all of Europe to admit it, only then will change and prevention of similar things be possible.
Let's hope they seek the truth like this admirable young man.

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