Nazi Descendents Matthias Göring Goes Kosher

Growing up with the name Göring wasn't easy for the descendents of Hitler's right-hand man Hermann Göring. One of them has now discovered a love for Israeli wine -- and is considering converting to Judaism.
Von Ruth Elkins

Mr. Göring is determined to discover the origin of the wine we’re drinking. The waiter, an old man with snow white hair and a dark blue kippa, toddles over and says: "It’s from a small vineyard near Haifa, Sir." Göring leans back in his chair, satisfied. "Ah, Israeli wine," he sighs, "Perfect."

That’s Matthias Göring, not Hermann. Even so, it is very odd to be having lunch in a Jewish restaurant with a direct descendent of Adolf Hitler’s right-hand man. Matthias Göring, though, couldn’t be happier here. After 44 years of "despising Jews" and suffering the curse of his family name, the 49-year-old physiotherapist has become a full-on Israel lover. He wears a kippa, keeps kosher, celebrates Shabbat, is learning Hebrew and is even considering converting. His family thinks he has gone mad.

"They think I’ve got a screw loose," grins the man who now works with the victims of suicide bombings. "But I know what has happened to me is completely and utterly real."

Despite only having a distant tie to the Nazi Luftwaffe Chief –- Matthias’s great grandfather’s brother was Hermann Göring’s grandfather’s brother –- his own branch of the Görings suffered after the fall of the Third Reich. "It wasn’t the happiest of childhoods," he says. "The Göring name meant my siblings and I were bullied mercilessly."

"I had to go to Israel"

After leaving home at 18 to join the circus, Göring eventually carved out a normal life. He became a physiotherapist, married and had a son. Life was good. But it didn’t last.

By 2000, Göring’s Swiss physiotherapy practice had gone bankrupt and his wife had left him, taking their son with her. Broke and lonely, Göring was close to suicide. For the first time in his life he prayed. "I told God, ‘if you really exist, I need your help. Not in two weeks, right now. If you help me I’ll do whatever you want.'" A few minutes later, Göring’s phone rang. It was physiotherapy practice near Zurich offering him job. "I couldn’t believe it," says Göring. "I spent the next couple of years popping into every church I saw to say thank you".

Two years later came a second sign. "I awoke at dawn and God told me: ‘I want you to guard the gates of Jerusalem,'" says Göring. "I said, ‘hang on, you know my name, I think you’ve got the wrong man’. But he said, ‘no, you.’ I knew then," he says, "I had to go to Israel."

Matthias Göring, with his bright blue eyes and Star of David necklace, is not the only Nazi descendent to feel drawn to Israel.

Katrin Himmler, the great-niece of Heinrich Himmler, published a book last year exploring the SS commander’s war crimes and asking the question: What does it mean to be a Himmler? She married an Israeli, saying "it was as if we were predestined to meet." Her book, "The Brothers Himmler", is the latest in a flourishing genre in Germany of Nazi descendents trying to come to terms with the curse of their family histories.

Propelled by guilt

Beate Niemann, daughter of feared SS Major Bruno Sattler, made a prize-winning film, "The Good Father" which documented her hopeless search for a man she could be proud of. Instead, she found herself seeking apologies from Jewish camp survivors in Eastern Europe after discovering her father was a mass murderer who ordered the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Jews. Monika Goeth, daughter of Amon Goeth -- the Plaszow Concentration camp commandant who would randomly shoot Jewish laborers from his villa balcony -- has also spent years seeking rapprochement with those who survived her father’s crimes. "I am completely drawn to Judaism," she said last year on the 60th anniversary of the Liberation of Auschwitz. "Jews were the real heroes and I feel nothing but contempt for those who still idolize the Nazis."

Such personal expeditions into the soul of a nation attempting to deal with war guilt appear a natural reflex; a simple exercise in quashing guilt feelings by embracing the culture of the Nazi’s victims. But Matthias Göring believes his religious conversion is more than that.

"I don’t feel any guilt, myself," he says. "There is a spiritual guilt in our family, guilt in the German nation and it is our responsibility to declare it openly. I think God is taking this opportunity to use my name to change something in the hearts of others."

But as Matthias tucks into his Kosher Schwarma and shows off his orange anti-disengagement bracelet protesting Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories (the Hebrew inscription reads: "Jews don’t evict Jews"), one can’t help but wonder whether part of his enthusiasm for Jewish life is connected with a deep yearning for a place in a community, away from Germany and his family’s Nazi past, to call home.

Before the war, the Görings were an affluent, tight-knit family. Hermann Göring’s extravagant lifestyle was legendary. His luxury villas, hand-made uniforms and looted art gave him the most raffish image of the Nazi elite. But after the Third Reich’s collapse, the money and security vanished. The Göring name was in tatters. "The family lost touch with each other. It was every man for himself," says Göring.

Feeling blessed to be a Göring

Matthias’s father, Ernst Wilhelm Göring, a military doctor, was a prisoner of war in the Soviet Union after the war. When he returned to Germany he set up a surgery near Heidelberg. "Then a 14-year-old boy my father was treating for bulimia died," sighs Göring. The town started a witch hunt. "They said: you’ve killed him, just like your family killed the Jews." Ernst Wilhelm was sent back to jail.

"My parents seemed to have to lose any religious belief they had after the war," says Göring. "When the other school children had religious instruction, my siblings and I were forced to sit alone out in the corridor." Money was tight. "Our parents would always say to us: ‘you can’t have that, because all our money’s gone to the Jews,'" he says. "They became a symbol of everything we couldn’t have."

"Certainly guilt is a big motivating factor," says Dr. Sara Savage, social psychologist at Cambridge University who has researched extensively into the psychology of religious conversion. "But there is also a recognized psychological phenomenon whereby ‘outsiders’ yearn to be associated with a ‘winning group’ in society."

Back in Basel’s Topas Jewish restaurant Matthias Göring is telling me about the beauty of the Golan Heights. "The warmth of the sun is heavenly," he sighs, "you can pick fresh mangoes and dates off the trees. It’s wonderful". Would he ever move to Israel? "I would go tomorrow if I could," he says. "It feels like home."

Göring now wants to write a book on his experiences. "The Israelis are so friendly to me." he says. Even when they find out your name? "Yes, they say they’re so thankful I’ve made contact," says Göring. "I used to feel cursed by having the name Göring," he smiles. "Now I feel blessed."

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