With Heinrich Himmler as a great uncle, Katrin Himmler felt her past was a dark secret to be kept - then when her father made inquires into finding out the truth she found she couldn't let it go. She talks to Women's Editor Sarah Foster about her all-consuming quest and why, despite the pain, it has caused her, she's not sorry she began

WHEN Katrin Himmler was only 15, she had a memorable experience. She was in a history class at school and learning all about the Nazis, when all of a sudden a voice piped up from an inquisitive fellow pupil. "Are you related to the Himmler?"

There must have been an awkward silence, perhaps a blush on Katrin's cheeks, but as the class looked to the teacher, expecting some kind of response, she merely carried on the lesson as though nothing had been said.

At the time, she may have felt the sharp relief of this reprieve, what also went through Katrin's mind was disappointment.

"At the same time as I felt embarrassed, I also realised that it was the first time that my classmates were really interested,"

she says. "We were all the time speaking about the Nazis and this was the first time there was a kind of interesting relationship to understand a bit more emotionally, but the chance was lost.

"It was in the early Eighties and it was a complete change, really, because in the time before, it was not a subject to speak about at all, and then it turned into the opposite.

"It was very good that they were speaking openly about it, but the way it was taught it was dry facts and, on the other hand, these shocking documentaries."

If education wasn't clear on how to treat the Nazi era, then you can only start to guess at Katrin's family's dilemma. With Heinrich Himmler as a forbear, whatever course they chose in life they would all be followed by a stigma, and so each member had to judge what they could safely give away.

In Katrin's childhood home at least, the subject wasn't out of bounds and she grew up in the full knowledge of who Heinrich Himmler was - the ruthless head of the SS and a key player in the holocaust.

"In my parents' house, we always spoke freely and very openly about the whole Nazi time and from early childhood, my sister and I knew about Heinrich Himmler," says the 40-year-old, who lives in Berlin.

"But, on the other hand, there was always a problem that my father knew almost nothing about his father because his mother, Paula, didn't say anything. It was never a problem finding out about Heinrich, but it was difficult to find out anything about his father, because he was not an official man who appeared in the literature - there was nothing about him to find."

As family history always had it - along with history in general - it was only Heinrich who was ever a committed Nazi member. He was portrayed as a black sheep; a kind of monstrous aberration, while both his parents, Gebhard and Anna, and his two brothers, Gebhard and Ernst, were seen as average sorts of Germans. Yet Katrin's father - Ernst's son - began to question this portrayal and so, in 1997, he asked his daughter for a favour: would she go through the federal archives to discover more on Ernst? Katrin didn't turn him down, despite her delicate position as the wife of an Israeli Jew.

"My father-in-law was a child survivor of the holocaust and lots of his family members were killed," she says. "For most of the relatives, it was never a problem to accept me, but there was one grandfather who died last year and he never knew who I was (Heinrich's great niece). It would have been too hard for him."

While they might not have been so generous, her husband's family gave their blessing for their daughter-inlaw's research. What started out as a favour turned into Katrin's personal mission.

"It was like an obsession," she admits. "I think it happens somehow to all the descendants of perpetrators' families - once you've started to truly look at the past, you can't stop. I think it happens to everyone. You can't go back."

There was another important reason for uncovering the truth: she has a son who is almost eight and wanted him to know the facts. The end result is a detailed book on who the Himmlers really were.

"I wanted to tell my son as much as possible about what really happened - I didn't want to continue in this tradition in the family of not speaking, of not knowing, of being afraid of what they might find," says Katrin. What she found out makes shocking reading.

Far from being wholly uninvolved with Hitler's Nazis and their conduct, it seems that all the Himmler family were committed to the cause. How much they knew of Heinrich's deeds remains a subject for debate, but if they didn't know the details, they at least weren't in the dark.

"This was something I found out about Heinrich - how important the familial network was for him," says Katrin. "He had very good relationships with all members of the family. The proof of what they thought was a letter I found from my grandfather. He was writing to Heinrich in '44 about this manager, Schmidt, who shouldn't remain in his company and this man wasn't Aryan.

"From this letter and the words he uses, I understand that he knew exactly what would happen to the man. For him it was okay - he was just not interested in what happened to him. He was completely confirmed in the Nazi ideology."

Though their philosophy was abhorrent, she says the Nazis only reflected popular thinking of the time, where Jews were sidelined as an underclass and Germans' sense of national pride was seen as critically important. The Himmlers matched the middle-class blueprint of respectable conservatives and with their privileged position, didn't challenge the status quo. Does this make Heinrich and the others seem a shade more sympathetic? Katrin's feelings on her family, and the wider Nazi movement, are both complex and confused.

"It was a completely different world and for me it's very hard to understand how they were thinking and how they were behaving," she admits. "Their behaviour was completely normal to them and this is the thing that's really shocking about it - how it seems to be logical and necessary to kill millions of people."

As far as Ernst is concerned, she has been forced to change her views.

No longer a silent player, he's become a quasi-villain. "I understand much better what kind of human being he was," says Katrin. "Some parts of his character I find sympathetic, but there are some parts that I don't like at all.

"Sometimes I see the more positive side and sometimes I see the more negative side, and I always have to work hard to see both sides - it's very difficult."

The one thing Katrin doesn't regret is ever starting her research.

She says the truth - however painful - is always preferable to lies. "It's a very big burden for me and I will always have to carry it, but on the other hand, it's a big relief," she says.

* The Himmler Brothers, by Katrin Himmler (Macmillan, £14.99).