The hidden past of the Nazi grandfather

On the 22nd, Chris Kraus's novel The Scoundrel Factory, published by Salamandra publishing house, goes on sale in Spain.

03 September 2022 Saturday 10:48
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The hidden past of the Nazi grandfather

On the 22nd, Chris Kraus's novel The Scoundrel Factory, published by Salamandra publishing house, goes on sale in Spain. It is a thick volume of 960 pages, which touches on very sensitive issues in 20th century Europe. It is preceded by good reviews and some controversy in Germany, where it was published in 2017, and sales of close to 100,000 copies in France.

In the acknowledgments chapter, the author dedicates one to “my cousin Sigrid Kraus, (who) contributed years ago with much of the financing necessary to tell this family story that we have in common and ended up making possible the novel that it has become. . I will never find enough words to express my gratitude to him.”

The family history to which he refers is tremendous and tragic and has marked both cousins ​​involved, who have faced it with admirable courage and honesty, as well as people close to him.

Chris Kraus (Göttingen, 1963) is a very significant figure in today's German culture. Filmmaker and writer (not to be confused with the American filmmaker and writer of the same name) has addressed the contemporary trajectory of his country and the conflict between ideologies in films such as The Poll Diaries, where he recreated the figure of the socialist writer Oda Schaefer, his great-aunt. , or Yesterday's Flowers , where he recounts the relationship between two Holocaust researchers, a descendant of Nazis and a granddaughter of murdered Jews, both presented and awarded at international festivals.

"All my films are related to me in some way," he said.

Her cousin Sigrid Kraus, born in 1964 in Gunzenhausen near Munich, grew up in Brazil. Publisher in Argentina and Spain, with her husband Pedro del Carril she founded the publishing house Salamandra in 2000, with which she has achieved important successes, among which the Harry Potter saga and Andrea Camilleri's Montalbano series stand out, and she has published also to prestigious firms such as Jonathan Franzen, Khaled Hosseini or Carlos Zanón.

The couple sold the publishing house in 2019 to the Penguin Random House group, leaving Sigrid as director of the label.


'The Scoundrel Factory', the novel written by Chris and published in Spain by Sigrid, is the story of two brothers, Hubert -Hubsi- and Konstantin -Koja- Solm, narrated by the latter. Born into a family of the German minority in Latvia, they lived through the turmoil of the Russian revolution, the first independence of the country, the Nazi occupation of 1941 and the Soviet occupation of 1944. Both became involved in the Hitlerite apparatus and later managed to survive. in democratic Germany working in the espionage service. They form a complicated love triangle with their adopted sister, Ev.

Baroque work with abundant transitions from horror to humor, of great narrative power, Chris Kraus recognizes influences from Peter Esterházy, Gabriel García Márquez, John Irving and Don de Lillo, and at times could recall a cross between Las benévolas and Ada o el ardor . "Chris wrote it very quickly," says Sigrid. In part because the material he handles had already given rise to another documentary book about our grandfather, also very extensive, which he, I and a cousin wrote. It couldn't be published until the whole family agreed, which hasn't happened, and Chris chose to make it fiction."

Indeed, the career of their grandfather, Otto Kraus (Riga, 1906-Nuremberg 1989), inspires the central plot of The Scoundrel Factory. A personality whose darkest side was revealed to his family late and surprisingly, as in the Costa-Gavras film The Music Box.

“My cousin Chris and I were my grandfather's favorites, he loved to tell anecdotes and stories, we were the closest to his way of being. Very affable with the grandchildren, he used to tell us jokes. Although in his old age he became distant, he had a lost look. In the family we knew that he had sympathized with the Nazis but we believed that he had not gone further, ”adds the editor.


Trained as a historian, very interested in the German past, Chris Kraus began to investigate the figure of the patriarch after his death. On a ski vacation in Germany that brought together twenty family members, Sigrid received the first news: Chris had indications that Otto had been a war criminal. A shocking surprise.

“My grandfather had written some brief memoirs, at a time when there was no Internet, and in them he did not explain anything too compromising –recalls the editor-. An uncle of mine, who was also my godfather, told me that he had suspected and inquired but found nothing.”

Now the situation was different. “We had a meeting of cousins; we began to cross references on the Internet of people with whom Otto said he had dealt and we saw that it came out much more than we thought. I told my parents: it was a complicated situation and they didn't like it." But the cousins ​​continued to investigate, in the wake of Chris, who sent them constant information, and the profile was also completed.

“Otto Kraus –architect and draftsman like Koja in the novel- was Sturmbannführer (assault unit commander) of the SS. In Latvia he was part of Einsatzgruppe (extermination team) A, Sonderkommando 1 and Einstzkommando 2. He participated in the massacres in the forests near Riga and in the destruction of the city's ghetto. He had always said that he was a translator and interpreter, because he spoke several languages. But in this capacity he took part in the torture of the enemies of the regime and in the persecution of Jews”, sums up his granddaughter in awe.


Baltic history is little known in Spain, and furthermore the archives of the Nazi occupation were not accessible during the Soviet period. But today it is known that the Rumbula massacre of November 30 and December 8, 1941 in a forest near Riga, where 25,000 Jews were murdered, was the largest perpetrated by the Nazis outside the extermination camps, after the of Babi Yar, in the Ukraine.

A similarly chilling episode, that of Bickern Forest, is recreated in the pages of Scoundrel Factory, with Hubsi playing the role of the deliberate killer and Koja the role of the lame accomplice. In reality, not only Otto, but also his brothers Hans and Lorenz "committed atrocities", in Sigrid's words. In 1935, 94,000 Jews lived in Latvia; by early 1943 only 5,000 remained.

Assimilating the role of the grandfather in this catastrophe was not easy for the Kraus family. "Crimes against humanity have consequences that are almost unconsciously transmitted through several generations through different channels and continue to this day," said Chris.

And adds Sigrid: “My grandfather had eleven children from two marriages. During his lifetime we all used to meet at his house in Nuremberg and at a center of the Evangelical Church near the city. When his hidden past began to be uncovered, more than ten years ago, we called a family meeting to talk about it. My father came very forced, an uncle of mine also, another brother had to leave the meeting. But we were providing information and everything began to make sense. Then we made a trip to Riga, with part of the family. There we were received at the Jewish Museum of the city. The director had lived through the great pogrom as a teenager and remembered all the details, for him it was as if time had stopped. We went to see graves, we visited the forest. It was impressive. All this destroyed my father, for other relatives it has been very traumatic, ”recalls the editor.

Sigrid herself experienced it badly. “Assimilating it took me many years, and therapy; I still speak of 'my grandfather', while my cousin Chris refers to him as 'Otto'. Separating the two characters, the family member and the war criminal is difficult, cutting their memory is difficult. Over time I realized that if I had him in front of me today the situation would not change much, because he would deny what he had done. I don't think facing him with the truth would have transformed him."

"In the family - he adds - this story has done a lot of damage, but there are other people who were much more harmed by my grandfather's actions and we believed that the truth had to be revealed for them."

Publishing the novel in Spain, under its own Salamandra label –with a version by Isabel García Adánez, national translation award winner- was not an easy decision: “I thought about it a lot and talked about it with Núria Cabutí –CEO of the Penguin Random House group- , because I didn't want this edition to become a family affair. When it was so successful in France, I realized that its impact went further, and Núria told me that she had to publish it”.

In Germany, along with very praising reviews, The Scoundrel Factory has been criticized for supposedly fantasizing about historical episodes and putting humor on subjects that would not admit it (the author counters that one of his models has been Roberto Benigni's film La vida es beautiful ). But a singular aspect that is very real, and that appears extensively developed in the novel, is the fact that Otto Kraus, like the fictional characters of Hubsi and Koja, was not judged for his actions after the end of World War II and was able to develop a peaceful existence in the Federal Republic of Germany until his death.


“As a high-ranking Nazi, my grandfather's last activity was to plan an attack against Stalin, which failed. After the end of the war he was in prison for a few months, he told us that he had been released because he drew his companions and jailers. The reality is that my grandfather and his brothers, who had spied for Reynhard Heydrich - the main architect of the "final solution" - continued to work for a remodeled secret service. Otto escaped trial because he was so useful, the allies immediately took advantage of all the Nazi espionage and infiltrated it into that of the new Federal Republic of Germany; in the end they unified the two services. My cousin Chris found out that the Stasi was following my grandfather because they knew he was a spy. I don't know if he was a double agent like in the novel, but it's possible that he was."

Occupationally Otto Kraus had good coverage. “He was the director responsible for the real estate of the Evangelical Church, they gave him this position despite his past, while committed anti-Nazis like Víktor Klemperer had a hard time making a living after the war.”

Chris Kraus, in statements to the French publication L'Echo, has wondered why his grandfather had not been guided by "the moral demand that he imposed on his family and that should have prohibited him from acting as he did", and has referred to the performance from his relative to the neurosis of "harmful narcissism" established by Erich Fromm, which together with Machiavellianism and psychopathy form the "black triad" defined by the philosopher and psychologist: that of an existence moved by interest and lacking empathy.

In this line there is something that especially hurts the editor Sigrid Kraus. “My uncle told me something that shocked me. At the time of the worst massacres in Riga, Otto had horses and went to the beach every day to ride, taking his two eldest sons with him. They remember him muscular, triumphant, euphoric... He wasn't someone who felt bad, who did what he did because they forced him to and if not, they would have killed him. No, he felt like a God."



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