Traces of My Father

Traces of My Father

by Sigfrid Gauch

I recall the long solo journeys when I would think about my father: the Oberfeldarzt (Retired), the Reichsamtsleiter in the SS, the adjutant to Heinrich Himmler, the author of New Foundations for Racial Research, the man described by the chief prosecutor in the Eichmann trial as a 'desk murderer,' the man I knew: my father.

In 1979 Sigfrid Gauch


I recall the long solo journeys when I would think about my father: the Oberfeldarzt (Retired), the Reichsamtsleiter in the SS, the adjutant to Heinrich Himmler, the author of New Foundations for Racial Research, the man described by the chief prosecutor in the Eichmann trial as a 'desk murderer,' the man I knew: my father.

In 1979 Sigfrid Gauch published the groundbreaking Vaterspuren, (Traces of My Father), the first of the so-called father books about the relationships of postwar Germans with their parents. It inspired a new genre in German literature. Ever since, such writings have contributed greatly to Germany's ongoing struggle to overcome its own past.

This autobiographical novel is Gauch's attempt to come to terms with his father, Hermann Gauch, a physician who had joined the National Socialists in the 1920s, wrote six books of "race research" as a member of the SS, and to his dying day remained an unrepentant Nazi. The story alternates between the images of the elder Gauch's death and burial and the author's memories of childhood and adolescence.

Unlike many of the father books, however, Traces of My Father is less a political attack than a personal journey. Gauch, though honest about his father's monstrous actions and ideas, does not shirk their shared emotional bond. The result is a poignant attempt by a son to relive his father's notorious life and in doing so free himself from the man's influence.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"This is a . . . candid memoir, a gripping historical document and . . . moving tragedy of conflicting minds and hearts, identities and generations." —Felipe Fernández-Armesto, author of Civilizations: Culture, Ambition, and the Transformation of Nature

"Gauch's achievement . . . [is] that he [doesn't] recoil from the Nazi monster which his father . . . appeared to [be to] the . . . world." —Michael Schneider, Den Kopf verkehrt aufgesetzt

The New Yorker
The Yale professor of medicine Sherwin Nuland begins Lost in America: A Journey With My Father by evoking the depression that in his forties so debilitated him that only one doctor protested against his being lobotomized. This was, he thinks, the culmination of his unresolved relationship with his father, who "walks with me through every day of my life, in that unsteady, faltering gait that so embarrassed me when I was a boy." Meyer Nudelman cowed his family with his rage, but a mysterious, crippling illness also made him insecure and dependent. Only later, in medical school, did Nuland guess that his father had suffered from syphilis.

It is hard to imagine men with more to hide from their sons than those who participated in the Third Reich. Sigfrid Gauch's 1979 memoir of his Nazi father has been translated into English by William Radice, under the title Traces Of My Father. Gauch describes his "schizophrenic" situation, in which he had to learn "to love my father as a person but to be horrified by his personality."

Happy childhoods also have secrets, as Samuel Hynes' The Growing Seasons: An American Boyhood Before The War attests. What did Hynes' father mean when he took his sons driving, without their stepmother and stepsiblings, and asked if they would like to be "just us three" again? What did he mean by saying, on his deathbed, that he "gave up a lot"? The answers are as unrecoverable as Hynes' prewar innocence, which ended when he was called up to the Navy; boarding the train, he looked back at his father, who was already "moving rapidly away through spots of light and shadow toward the dark street." (Kate Taylor)
Library Journal
"You're an old scoundrel, a desk murderer with millions of Jews on your conscience," accuses a relative of Dr. Herman Gauch (1899-1978) after he fails in a suicide attempt. "Desk murderer" is the name for those Nazi bureaucrats who worked not as guards in the concentration and extermination camps but, like Adolf Eichmann, implemented the machinery of death from their various offices in the Third Reich. First published in Germany in 1979, this "autobiographical novel" (Gauch's father was indeed a desk murderer during the war) is related by Herman's son, Sigfrid, who in writing the account is trying to free himself of his father's influence. The dutiful Sigfrid, born in 1945, the year the war ended, honors his father throughout the novel while abhorring his misdeeds. One of Herman's most horrendous "contributions" to the Nazi war effort was his suggesting to Reichsfuhrer Heinrich Himmler that blond, blue-eyed Polish children be abducted and raised as Germans, a policy the Nazis implemented. Sigfrid touchingly sees to his father's needs until his death, ever ready to help him with his asthma drugs and other life-sustaining medications. Because the son never confronts his father over his heinous past, the story lacks drama and urgency, reading instead like an introspective memoir. There is little feel of fiction about this tale; thus, it might find a place in any collection where interest in the Nazi past runs high.-Edward Cone, New York Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.

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Northwestern University Press
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Read an Excerpt

Traces of My Father

By William Radice

Northwestern University Press

Copyright © 2002 William Radice
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0810118904


Turning off the alarm clock without getting out of bed. Then for the next few minutes, the usual morning ritual. Movements that make the wooden slats of the neighboring bed creak; the distinctive sound of bare feet on the carpeted floor (kitten scuttling in hot pursuit); the intermittent, not-yet-insistent wake-up calls from the living room; farther away, the coffee machine.

The telephone ringing unusually early, just before seven. From Marianne's heightened Yes? I can tell it is not my mother-in-law next door wanting to know her grandchildren's plans for the day. A soft, drawn-out What? from Marianne stabs me in my stomach.

I rush to the telephone--the word Father is on her lips-- Dead? But I know already. I take the receiver. "I think Father has died," says Mother. "He is still quite warm, but he's stopped breathing." Growing impatience as she tells me more: that yesterday he went for a walk, said on returning he felt he had caught a cold; she was puzzled when he slept so late this morning when normally he was already looking at the clock when she came in from the next bedroom; that he didn't look as if near to death, for he lay sleeping, hadn't stretched out his hand to tap on the bedside table or switch on the light; hadn't calledout either, for she would certainly have heard him through the open connecting door. "I'll come at once," I say, and "Please leave him as he is: I want to see him."


The scene I have so often rehearsed in my mind has come about. My reaction. Year after year, in autumn, fear and expectation that chronic emphysema, angina, arteriosclerosis, and diabetes would achieve their combined effect; that the Euphyllin injections that Mother gave him every night would no longer help. That the constant swings between near suffocation and breathing--implicit every night in the weather forecast after the television news-- would be finally resolved.

Feelings spreading from my stomach all over my body.

The established routine: dressing, shaving, coffee, cigarette. Susanne, the eldest, is already at the breakfast table. "I've something to ask you, Daddy." "Not now, Susanne," I answer. "It won't take long," she says. "Your grandpa Herman has just died, I can't listen now...." Shocked silence. Susanne hangs her head, sits stock-still; remains stock-still as I leave.

I should have called him up. I heard several days ago that he wanted me to call. Now it's too late. We saw each other for the last time four weeks ago, on the day I drove him to the village where he was born.

The ninety kilometers to my parents' house seem long. "Father," I say to myself, half aloud. I try to drive slowly, to keep all the speed limits. I imagine how it would be to be stopped by a police patrol for driving too fast. I would roll down the window, say, "Please let me off--my father's just died." I visualize the policeman's reaction on seeing in my face that I'm speaking the truth. I visualize his look of understanding.

The traffic is indeed held up: blue flashing lights of several emergency vehicles, a head-on collision in the early morning. One car lying on its roof, totally smashed, big pools of blood inside. I take in the details as I pass: the victims apparently already re-moved--it would have interested me to see them. "Drive by the book, now," I say to myself, and "Father, you are dead."


I recall the long solo car journeys when I would think about my father: the Oberfeldarzt (retired), the Reichsamtsleiter in the SS, the adjutant to Heinrich Himmler, the author of New Foundations for Racial Research, the man described by the chief prosecutor in the Eichmann trial as a "desk murderer," the man I knew: my father. I imagined how I would react to his death--I who by then at actual meetings with him exchanged hardly a fleeting handshake. I turn up the radio now, listen to the inanities of Sudwestfunk's early morning show. I forget briefly why I don't have to teach at the school today.

A recipe given by the man on the radio takes on an unintended meaning: the marinade should be made first, then the veal heart should be cut up and placed in the marinade: "For two or three days the heart should lie still.. . ."

I arrive and park the car in front of my parents' house, where my brother and sister still live too. The door is opened the moment I ring: they have seen me come. My sister is in the yard bending over the baby carriage. She also must have taken a day off school. In the hall I see my mother and brother.

"Is he still there?" I ask. Their nods dispel my fear that he might already have been removed. I go to his bed. He is lying as always when ill: his head on one side, his right hand under his cheek, eyes closed, mouth slightly open. I sit on the edge of the bed, stroke his head, kiss him on the forehead, on his cheeks, stroke his shoulders, arms, and hands. I see my sister close to the bed, watching us, her child in her arms.

Washing my hands later I see in the mirror my own chalk-white face.

"I heard you were coming here yesterday"--his last letter to me-- "to pick up the children, but it slipped from my mind, even though your mother said that she'd specially reminded me. That may be, but I didn't take it in. I've been quite confused recently: last night I lay half dressed in bed till I realized I wouldn't have to fall in line. Yours, Father."

Confusion, similar to the dreams from which as a boy I would wake him in the middle of the night, when I would be woken by his groans and shouts and whimpers: for he was once again a soldier in the trenches, the seventeen-year-old volunteer who had taken his Abitur early in order to join up in the last weeks of the First World War, and had been so horribly wounded. He answered, when I asked him, that he'd dreamed that the French were after him again and wanted to shoot him: I'd called "Father, Father" hesitantly, then more and more clearly, until he woke up. I returned sadly to my bed, fell asleep, while he lay awake.

They were comrades together in the First World War, an old man from the next village told me later, at the burial. My father was just a lad when he volunteered for the army. To ensure acceptance at the call-up he had drunk, before he was weighed, two liters of water--else he'd have been two kilos short of the minimum weight of one hundred pounds. In the trenches my father had stayed close to the man for protection. He was scarcely more than a kid, repeated the old man.

He never killed anyone in that war--so my father told me a few months before his death. In the trenches at Soissons his duty was to direct artillery fire at targets picked out by his senior officer through a periscope. The officer announced that there was a French lookout post on the church tower of the village opposite and ordered him to fire. The first round of artillery had missed the tower by twenty meters to the left. Wanting to give the Frenchman a chance to leave his post alive, my father reported that the shells had landed twenty meters to the right. So the second round also missed. Confident now that the lookout had retreated to safety--if not, then it was his own fault--he fixed the range correctly. The third round destroyed the tower.


Lying in the trenches, he suddenly heard shouting behind him that sounded German--at any rate it wasn't French. In fact it came from the first deployment of Americans. It was terrifying to hear the rattle of caterpillar tracks: the first tanks, whose existence was not yet known. The frontal fire by the French was merely a diver-sion--the main attack came with the encirclement of the greatly depleted Germans by the Americans. Suddenly, shots from behind; the two men manning the machine gun were mowed down from the rear.

And sudden firing in Father's vicinity: splatterings of lead from the bouncing shells. One bullet pushed itself under his helmet, lodging in its thick lining. This is it, he thought, expecting to die,...but he had not died.

"I saw my hands, all covered with blood. The whole upper part of my body was covered with blood. The bullet must have ripped an artery in my temple. X rays still show splinters of lead in my skull. I pressed a bandage over my temple, but it went on bleeding. With both hands pressed on my skull, I walked to the first-aid post. I ran into some Frenchmen after barely twenty meters. No, no, I thought, I must go the other way! Then I saw some of our own soldiers approaching and I realized we were all prisoners.

"I was led away to the chateau at Rambouillon and lay there for three days and three nights on the bare ground. Several more bandages were applied to the wound, without effect. Then the wound must have scabbed over. A junior officer from Zweibrucken, who had also been imprisoned, shared his meat ration with me. Later he told me that he had thought my case was hopeless, that with such a wound no man could pull through. But he wanted to do at least something for me before I died. On the fourth night I dragged myself into the field kitchen and lay in the warm ashes of the fire. That saved me."

Sixty years, three months, and seventeen days later I see my father for the last time, see my chalk-white face in the mirror.

You were in reality a shirker--so it was said. In the trenches you knew only fear, pure fear. You clung to your old companions, never left their heels when distant shells were heard, when waves of explosions neared. You looked for father figures in the older soldiers, whimpered for dear life. You would, though, have condemned without mercy cowardice in others.

And your deeds of heroism were mere accident. Was the range you gave for the church tower an error, not deliberate at all? Did you make up the story out of shame, Abiturient that you were? In 1918 you wrote in a poem:

Calm--yet the enemy presses all round,

out of trenches, in tanks, out of planes:

and with all means of destruction he sends

woe and death throes: trench-grave warfare.

Yet you must have hated the enemy: hated and feared him. In another poem from this same year you wrote, "Sweetly the trusting warrior sleeps, knowing the guard his good friend keeps." No hero's words!

And in the Second World War, when right at the beginning you volunteered again, wasn't it mainly out of vanity? To gain promotion, so that you would be able to order a new uniform from the best tailor in Berlin? You already had a whole closetful of uniforms--staff doctor (Marines), SA Fuhrer, adjutant to an SS Reichsfuhrer, district medical officer--and now you could add an air-force officer's uniform! It was right and proper that the military drills you had taken part in over the years should bring you to the next highest rank, wasn't it?

During the fighting in Yugoslavia you were mentioned in the war report. You had lost your way and had picked up some soldiers who had also lost contact with their unit. You took them under your command. You marched on in the wrong direction till you saw a town on the horizon ahead that you believed must be in German hands, for you thought you were still behind the German front. It was only when you stopped right in front of the town that you realized that it had not been taken--that you were ahead of the German front line. And weren't you afraid then? The townspeople, thinking that you were the vanguard of more German troops, hoisted white flags and gave up the town without a fight. You declared yourself commander of the place, left some of your men behind there, and proceeded onward. That was how, on 6 April 1941, you broke the main line of resistance at Marburg on the Drau. For the capture of prisoners you received praise from Flight General Lohr; for the taking of the enemy bunker you were praised by Group Captain Baron von Weichs.

From there you continued to Samobar, this time accompanied only by a driver and a soldier from the medical corps. Why? Probably because you were in very good spirits. What had worked out once, from pure luck, without doing anything really, would work out again, wouldn't it? And it did work again! You captured Samobar--which was occupied by an enemy regiment--without a fight. The regiment surrendered to you and your two soldiers.

And it happened a third time! Were you set on winning the war on your own, with your driver and medical aide as your sole fighting force, your jeep as your sole defense?

You reached the town of Agram. You were the first to get south of the Save--on 10 April 1941. In a standard work on the Second World War I find that "Occupation of Agram in Yugoslavia" is given as the heading for that day. You took Agram when the mayor walked up to you with a white flag, handed over the keys of the city, presented you with bread and salt.

You must have felt tremendously powerful then, and it was indeed quite a feat. Others would have asked for a whole division and--to be on the safe side--would have reduced the town to rubble and ash. Not you. There are still some photos stuck in your photo album. You are there, in the uniform of an air-force medical major, your jeep in the background, your driver next to you and a few inhabitants of the town. The medical aide took the photo with your Leica. On the back of the photo, in your handwriting: "From Raun to Samobar (occupied by an enemy regiment); advance to Agram south of the Save on 10.4.1941 (Iron Cross I); Serbian retreat to St. Marein observed on 11.4.1941."

Yes, you got an Iron Cross First Class for that. And you were mentioned in the war report under the heading "Notable Deed by a Medical Major." And in the standard works on the Second World War we find the "Occupation of Agram" by German military power. But not that you were that power, that you did it alone and it was pure luck.

In Samobar there was a regiment that gave itself up. A whole regiment! And it gave itself up to you and your two soldiers. You took--without a fight and without loss of blood--three towns that any other officer, eager for the Knight's Cross, would have laid waste. Did you perhaps save thereby the lives of hundreds of civilians and soldiers?

Later you received a letter from one of the two soldiers who were with you--who had meanwhile become an NCO. "Those hours," he wrote, "that I was honored to spend with you, during the six weeks that we served together, will always remain in my memory. Never before had I known the almost childish love for my commanding officer that I felt for you. When I took final leave of you in Graz, I was filled with a deep depression, which was actually justified, for from then on until the Russian campaign I was condemned to complete idleness, which was quite alien to my nature. Also in Russia I lacked a commanding officer from whom I could learn; so I had to fend for myself--and you were often in my thoughts."

In reality you were nothing but a shirker: somebody said that about you. I knew who it was who said it, but there was no need for you to know. The comment stuck in my mind. I was about eleven years old then. You never denied it, were not able to deny it, because you never knew of it. But you never invalidated it by telling me more about yourself.

That episode at Agram was but one of many that I learned about later and can prove. But why then those dreams from which I woke you because you were so terrified? In which you whimpered, moaned, called out "Help, help"? How did they fit in?

And then in April 1945, when the allies were already virtually at your front door, you declared yourself to be the area doctor for the Hitler Youth and tried to stop boys of fourteen or fifteen from fleeing the trenches they had dug against enemy tanks as forced members of the Volkssturm.You wanted to go against their parents, who were keeping their children at home, hiding them.

You truly believed that the war would be won with Hitler's "wonder weapon." Why did you want to hurl those terrified members of Hitler Youth into the front line, under the tanks? Was it because you had not pardoned yourself for your own fear in 1918? Yet you'd done all you could to save enemy lives at Samobar and Agram. And you demoted one of your drivers because he had jauntily driven the jeep in which you were sitting over a verge on which a cat was sunning itself and killed it. You went purple with rage, yelled at him, tore off his air-force chevron.

You were said to be a shirker. I would gladly have asked you more questions. But I never did.


Excerpted from Traces of My Father by William Radice Copyright © 2002 by William Radice. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Sigfrid Gauch was born in 1945 in Offenbach, Germany. His other books include Unterwegs, Zweiter Hand, and Buchstabenzeit. He lives in Germany.

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