The sins of the fathers

Andrew Donaldson writes on the passing of Vusi Zuma, and Gudrun Burwitz


HERE at the Mahogany Ridge, we have considered at some length the recent court appearances of Duduzane Zuma, on corruption and manslaughter charges, and the tragic, unrelated death of his younger brother, Vusi.

Foremost among the questions that crossed our minds was this: when may we visit, like Almighty God, the iniquity of the fathers on their children? 

What prompted this unusually sober line of inquiry was the recent death in Munich of the 88-year-old Gudrun Burwitz.

Her passing meant little, if anything, to most South Africans; it was, as far as we could tell, ignored by local media. But the obituary columns in the foreign newspapers revealed a story worth sharing.

Gudrun kept a diary as a child and, in 1941, when she was 11 or 12, she recorded a tour with her father at one of his places of work: “We saw everything we could. We saw the gardening work. We saw the pear trees. We saw all the pictures painted by the prisoners. Marvellous. And afterwards we had a lot to eat. It was very nice.”

That visit, The Times of London noted, avoided the crematorium. 

This was no “bring the daughter to the office” lark. This was Dachau, where thousands had been murdered and many, many thousands more would still die; “Pappi”, as Gudrun endearingly called him, was Heinrich Himmler, architect of the plan to exterminate the Jews of Europe.

As she grew older, Gudrun would find her surname a liability. 

In Rome, where she and her mother were imprisoned by the Americans after the war, she complained that she was being held for nothing more than being Himmler’s daughter. 

In Florence, where she was interrogated by the British, a guard had warned her not to tell anyone her surname lest she be “torn apart” by an angry mob.

Her father committed suicide to avoid justice, but his property was seized by the Allies — expropriation without compensation, you could say — which left the family penniless. 

Gudrun was forced to work. The jobs didn’t last, thanks to the surname. She was, for example, a receptionist at a Bavarian boarding house until a guest complained, “How could you let me be waited on by this girl when my own wife was gassed in the ovens at Auschwitz?”

Elsewhere, at a local carnival, not a single man would ask her to dance. “If Hitler had won the war,” she told a reporter in 1958, “they’d all be clamouring for me. And I — I am Gudrun Himmler; I am Himmler’s daughter. But now my father’s men pretend not to know me.”

Ah, mutterseelenallein, as the Germans are wont to say, drawing on a vast reserve of idioms for which there are no known English equivalents.

But, lest we haul out the tiny violins in response to the loneliness and the rejection, the apple did fall very close to the tree where Himmler’s daughter was concerned: she was was, until her death, an unrepentant Nazi sympathiser who was forever promising to “clear” her father’s name.

She eventually did meet her soulmate. She was in her late 30s when she married Wulf Dieter Burwitz, a writer who shared her toxic views. 

And, as Gudrun Burwitz, she at last found steady employment — with Stille Hilfe (“Quiet Aid”), the secretive charity that brought succour to Third Reich war criminals.

One such thug was Anton Malloth, a guard who beat at least a hundred prisoners to death at the Theresienstadt concentration camp.

He went underground after the war. In 1988, Burwitz hired a room for him in a Munich old age home. She’d visit him once a week, bringing fruit and chocolate. “You need building up,” she would tell him, stroking his hands. 

Malloth was finally arrested there in 2000. He’d evaded justice for 55 years.

It may take as long before Jacob Zuma, who has his own secret history of camp life, finally appears in court to answer fraud charges. 

His decision to fire Michael Hulley, his lawyer, and replace him with the piece of work that is Dan Mantsha, the attorney who delivered Denel to the Guptas, is widely regarded as yet another attempt to delay the inevitable.

Until then, Accused Number One’s wounded and pious displays continue to amuse — but not in a good way. 

In a teary-eyed performance at Vusi Zuma’s funeral last weekend, the former president told mourners that the media’s “harsh reports” on his affairs had triggered his son’s fatal bout of lupus.

“Vusi suffered many times,” he said. “He had to swallow things that were said about his father and those exacerbated his condition.”

He died of shame, in other words.

This article first appeared in the Weekend Argus.