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“My family was badly damaged”

Over a period of four years, the filmmaker Carmen Eckhardt of Cologne researched the circumstances surrounding, and reasons for, the execution of her great-grandfather Viktor Kunz by the Nazis. She documented his biography, her own search, and her sometimes very difficult dealings with German institutions in the film Viktors Kopf, which she screened at the International Tracing Service (ITS) in Bad Arolsen on September 13, 2016. In the interview Carmen Eckhardt talks about how silence regarding the fate of her great-grandfather has affected her family.

In your film you say that you were afraid of the search for the truth. What exactly were you afraid of?

Carmen Eckhardt: I knew from the start that I wouldn’t get any support from my family. A number of family members don’t want to know anything about it. It’s still complicated, and there were reasons why they were silent. That’s the way it is in many families in which there are traumas going back to the Nazi era. All the way down to my father, our family was badly damaged. I was afraid of this lonely journey, and of what I would find. For me it was a healing process to go through the fear in order to find out what burden it was that weighed so heavily on the family.

Were you worried that your great-grandfather was also one of the perpetrators?

Carmen Eckhardt: No, not that. I knew when I started that he had been in the resistance. In my family, my father saw him as a kind of hero. The others only talked about him behind closed doors.

He was a highly political person. Could that have played a role?

Carmen Eckhardt: Georg Viktor Kunz was a Communist for a while, sympathized with the anarchists, and ultimately defied categorization. Yes, he was suspicious.

What did you learn about his fate?

Carmen Eckhardt: A cousin of my father’s asked at the ITS years ago and also learned about the execution. I had asked him. That’s why the ITS was the first stop on my search. I don’t know if I would have embarked on the whole thing without that starting point.

What did you learn about the effects on the family?

Carmen Eckhardt: I was very moved by the fate of my great-grandmother. As the wife of Viktor Kunz, she and her children were stigmatized during the Nazi period after his execution in 1943 and possibly even before. After 1945 she lived on welfare; the children had practically no opportunities for social advancement. The widow of the president of the People’s Court, Roland Freisler, on the other hand, received a pension increase of 400 marks a month as social assistance for war victims from 1974 onward. Freisler had died in February 1945 during an air raid. She received the increase on grounds that, in view of his professional qualifications, her deceased husband would presumably have worked as a lawyer or high-ranking civil servant after the war.

The film shows that you weren’t always welcomed with open arms. In many cases empathy was an alien concept.

Carmen Eckhardt: In the archives it was no problem. In the federal and state archives I received a lot of support. The member of the staff who showed me the documents at the ITS was also very approachable and friendly. It was different in institutions which themselves were implicated. There the persons now in positions of authority are extremely defensive. For example at the Anatomical Institute of the Universität Tübingen, where the bodies of execution victims, among them my great-grandfather, were used to teach medical students how to prepare specimens. The head of the institute resorted to citing the circumstances of the times. He was unable or unwilling to say anything about the fact that not only his predecessors but also the entire anatomists’ profession were accessories to the crimes. Even though I tried to build a bridge to him.

Your film shows the path you took, quite literally also your train trips. Do you have the feeling you’ve arrived?

Carmen Eckhardt: Yes, my aim was to find peace and I did. The memorial service for the members of the Résistance on the grounds of the former Natzweiler-Struthof concentration camp in Alsace marked a kind of closing point. I wouldn’t have wanted to drag these things around with me for another ten years of my life. I was awed by how much deference was paid to the old people there—and also to me. I had a photo of Viktor Kunz with me. That ceremony gave me a feeling of rehabilitation for my great-grandfather that I didn’t get from the German justice system.

If you are interested in the film Viktors Kopf, you will find the dates of the next screenings on the project website.

Here you will find a brief trailer.