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German Jew hunted down Kommandant of Auschwitz

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Hanns and Rudolf, The German Jew  and the Hunt for the Kommandant of Auschwitz

Thomas Harding

Simon & Schuster


When Rudolf Höss, the Kommandant of Auschwitz, was reassigned to Berlin in 1943, his wife, Hedwig, and their children stayed behind.

After all, life there was pretty good. They had a spacious villa adjacent to the camp fence, servants at their beck and call, an affluent lifestyle and excursions to the banks of the nearby Sola River. Oh, and there was a second-floor view, if gazing upon crematoria chimneys could be considered a desirable view.

“His wife called life at Auschwitz paradise,” said Thomas Harding, author of Hanns and Rudolf, The German Jew and the Hunt for the Kommandant of Auschwitz.

For  Höss, running a death camp was something he left behind at the end of a long day at work. A longtime Nazi who viewed Jews as something less than human, Höss could “compartmentalize” his work from family life, Harding said in an interview.

His work consisted of designing the mechanism of death at the camp, and then implementing it. He was pretty good at his job, so much so that in the end, some 1.1 million people, the vast majority of them Jews, would be sent to their deaths, mostly in gas chambers.

Höss is the Rudolf in the book’s title. Hanns refers to Hanns Alexander, who, it turns out, is Harding’s great-uncle. Alexander was appalled at the murders committed under the Nazi regime. A Jew facing discrimination in 1930s Germany, Alexander had left Germany for London well before the outbreak of war, along with his twin brother, Paul, and the rest of their family. He enlisted in the British army in 1939.

In 1945, he was recruited into the British Army’s 12-man War Crimes Investigation Team as an interpreter. At the time, it was the only unit investigating crimes against humanity in postwar Germany. The assignment afforded Alexander the opportunity to take revenge on Nazis for  their cruelty, Harding said.

Sent to Bergen-Belsen in May 1945 shortly after it was liberated, Alexander was appalled by what he found: corpses stacked one on top of the other, emaciated survivors, mothers clutching dead babies.

His experience in the camp changed him. “Up to then, he’d been happy-go-lucky. Something happened to him. It was like a light being tripped,” Harding said.

During the interrogation of SS personnel at Bergen-Belsen, Alexander learned that many had been transferred from Auschwitz before it was liberated by the Red Army in January 1945. One of them was Josef Kramer, the Kommandant of Belsen who had been Höss’s adjutant.

As Harding tells the story, his great-uncle felt the need to “hunt down these Nazi bastards.”

Given permission to search for missing war criminals, Alexander tracked down the former gauleiter (political leader) of Luxembourg, Gustav Simon, and delivered his corpse to local authorities. Simon had died, mysteriously, while in custody. Alexander was thanked for his efforts, but cautioned that dead men tell no tales about other Nazis.

Alexander’s next big assignment was locating Höss, who had gone to ground in northern Germany, working on a farm under an assumed identity.

Harding describes in detail the detective work that led to Höss’s capture. Alexander had learned his lesson from the Simon incident, and when he and about two dozen British soldiers – many of them Jews –  finally arrested Höss a year after war’s end, they made sure he remained alive, though they did take a box of axe handles with them to aid in the arrest.

Delivering Höss alive, if somewhat worse for wear, was a wise decision. Unlike other senior officials in the know, Höss was willing to tell all about the Nazi mechanism of death. In fact, he was angry at the top German leadership, who distanced themselves from the Nazis’ crimes or denied outright their involvement when facing trial in Nuremburg.

In that respect, Höss and Alexander shared the same goal – to set the record straight.

A dedicated Nazi who could count SS leader Heinrich Himmler as a mentor, Höss had been tasked in 1939 with getting the decrepit, run-down facility at Auschwitz up to speed so that it could accept vast numbers of prisoners. In Harding’s description, it all appeared as a technical issue for Höss, a problem in search of a solution, which he provided.

As a devotee of “scientific anti-Semitism,” Höss saw Jews as “a threat to the National Socialist project,” Harding said.

For his part, Alexander was born in Berlin to an affluent family that was well integrated into German life. But when the Nazis’ anti-Jewish legislation took effect in the 1930s, he and his family fled while they could.

Hanns spent the rest of his life in Britain, though Paul lived for a time in Toronto. In 1964, Hanns visited the city to attend the bar mitzvah of Paul’s son, John, at Congregation Habonim. Harding spoke there recently during a visit to the city.

Hanns never visited Germany after the war, Harding said. He was angry that so many perpetrators never faced justice and could enjoy normal lives.

Alexander died in late 2006. The rabbi delivering the eulogy mentioned that in addition to raising a family and working as a banker, beyond helping his synagogue, he had done great things as a young man – he had tracked down the Kommandant of Auschwitz.

That piqued Harding’s interest, since he had not known of that aspect of his great-uncle’s life and wanted to tell the story of a Jew who fought back.

The story he aimed to tell is not of one-dimensional caricatures, but of more complex characters. Still, what he learned about Höss, the cold callous killer, was truly frightening, he said.

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