Unravelling Uncle's Secret: He Caught Rudolf Hoess, Then Hid It

Journalist Thomas Harding's new book was inspired by a detail revealed at his uncle's funeral.

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

Hanns Alexander died two days before Christmas in 2006. He was 89. A death notice published by his family in the Daily Telegraph stated that he had “passed away quickly and peacefully” and added: “No flowers please. Donations, if desired, to North London Hospice.” The funeral took place three days later. “Considering the weather, and the timing, the turnout was impressive,” Alexander’s relative, the British writer and journalist Thomas Harding, observed.

After a cantor recited the Kaddish, two of Alexander’s nephews delivered eulogies. They spoke about how Alexander had grown up in Berlin, before fleeing from the Nazis to England and serving in the British Army. “But there was one detail that caught nearly everyone off guard,” Harding recalled. It emerged that at the end of the war, Alexander – Harding’s great-uncle – had tracked down and arrested the Kommandant of Auschwitz, Rudolf Hoess.

“The idea that this nice but unremarkable man had been a World War II hero seemed unlikely,” Harding thought. “Presumably this was just another of Hanns’ tales. For he was a bit of a rogue and prankster … After all, if he really had been a Nazi hunter, wouldn’t it have been mentioned in his obituary?”

Harding’s curiosity was sufficiently piqued to send him on what would be a fascinating six-year journey of discovery. He probed archives, research institutes and museums across the world, perused letters in the family’s possession, listened to old recordings, read interviews given by Holocaust survivors, and uncovered many previously unpublished documents.

“No one in the family ever talked about those things,” he told me in a phone interview, speaking from England. Alexander had been married to a woman named Anne, he added; they had two daughters and he worked as a mid-level employee at a bank during the postwar years. “As children, and afterward as adults, we were told not to ask him or anyone else in the family about what happened in the war.”

Harding also went on to meet with members of the Hoess family: Rudolf’s daughter Brigitte, his daughter-in-law Irene Alba and his grandson, Rainer Hoess. The latter allowed him to use many photographs, some of them rare, from the family’s collection, and also gave him access to letters Hoess wrote to his wife and children.

The story is one “that was … never fully told by the men at its heart: Hanns and Rudolf,” Harding writes in the prologue to his book “Hanns and Rudolf: The True Story of the German Jew Who Tracked Down and Caught the Kommandant of Auschwitz” (Simon and Schuster, 2013; now also published in Hebrew translation by Keter Books).

This singular book relates in parallel the biographies of two Germans whose paths crossed fatefully. One was a Jew who fled to England from Berlin with his family, served in the British Army and was appointed to the team of investigators whose aim was to apprehend the leaders of the Nazi regime. The other was a Catholic who fought in the Middle East in World War I, and in World War II was appointed commander of the Auschwitz death camp. After the war, the one tracked down the other.

The wedding ring

March 8, 1946. Capt. Hanns Alexander, who served on the British Army’s War Crimes Investigation Team in Germany, embarks on the mission of his life. The day before, Hedwig Hoess, the wife of Rudolf, one of the most despicable Nazi war criminals of all, had been arrested. Entering her cell, Alexander encountered a round-faced woman in a dirty blouse and peasant skirt. Speaking in German, his mother tongue, he introduced himself as an officer of the British army who wanted to ask questions about Rudolf Hoess: Had she been in contact with her husband? Where was he living? What identity had he adopted?

Hedwig maintained an arrogant silence. A year earlier, she had fled with her family from their villa in Auschwitz. They traveled in the dark, their convoy of vehicles passing through forested areas, in order to elude low-flying aircraft. “Our flight was horrible,” Rudof Hoess recalled later. “We traveled on the crowded roads by night, without any lights, and all the time I was anxious for parties to stay together in their cars, because I was responsible for the whole column.”

Confronted by Hedwig’s silence, Alexander decided on a change of plan. With four other soldiers he went to the Hoess family home in St. Michaelisdonn, near Flensburg, Germany, where the couple’s adolescent children were living. They found a cold, dark, neglected apartment. Alexander started to shout at the children, demanding to know where their father was. “Where is your father?” he screamed at Klaus’ face. “You must know!” he shouted, banging his fists on the table in frustration. Unable to induce the Hoess children to talk, Alexander decided to arrest Klaus, who was then 16.

Hedwig Hoess was stunned to see her son in prison, but she continued to insist that she did not know where her husband was. At one point she said he was dead. On March 11, 1946, Alexander stormed into Hedwig’s cell and told her that a train was about to take her son to Siberia and that she would never see him again. He left a piece of paper and a pencil in the cell. When he returned he found, written on the page, Hoess’ place of hiding and his alias. He was living on a farm in Gottrupel, Germany, not far from the border with Denmark, under the name Franz Lang.

That same day, Alexander immediately drew up an operational plan, recruiting for the mission British soldiers, many of them German Jews like himself who had been forced to leave their country and had lost relatives in Auschwitz. Equipped with rifles, axes and wireless radios, they set out in a small convoy of trucks and jeeps. There were 25 of them, and they all wanted to “be in on the kill.”

That night, the convoy entered the farm noiselessly, under cover of dark. Alexander alighted from his jeep with the medical officer and the driver. He ordered the others to stay behind with rifles at the ready. He went to the barn and knocked. Hoess awoke in a fright. Alexander stuck a pistol into his mouth and instructed the doctor to search him for cyanide pills, which he might use to kill himself before being taken into custody. Alexander then introduced himself and demanded to see Hoess’ papers.

The Nazi officer handed him the forged ID documents identifying him as Franz Lang. Hoess was visibly tired, thin and sick, but Alexander felt certain he was the man he was after. He showed his prisoner a photograph of Rudolf Hoess, himself, but the suspect denied it was him. Seeking another way to prove his identity, Alexander hit on an idea. He ordered Hoess to give him his wedding ring.

“I can’t – it has been stuck for years,” Hoess replied. To which Alexander retorted, “No problem, I’ll just cut off your finger.” Hoess continued to resist until a kitchen knife was brought in. He then slid the ring off. Alexander held it up close and read the names engraved on its inside: “Rudolf” and “Hedwig.”

Hoess was beaten by the soldiers, stripped, given a blanket to cover himself and loaded onto a truck. Once they were driving, after being asked again and again, he finally admitted that he was the commander of Auschwitz. Before jailing their prisoner, the British soldiers, led by Alexander, stopped at an inn to celebrate, leaving Hoess in the truck under guard.

Returning to the truck, they tore the blanket from Hoess’ shoulders and “made him walk naked to the prison on the other side of the snow-covered main square,” Harding writes. A few days later, the prisoner was transferred to a British army jail in the town of Minden, where he underwent a rigorous interrogation. His eight-page confession “was the first time that a concentration camp Kommandant had provided details of the Final Solution,” Harding notes in his book.

‘Greatest killer in history’

Reporting Hoess’ arrest on March 17, 1946, The New York Times noted that after a nine-month search, British agents had captured the person who was “probably the greatest individual killer in the history of the world.” At the end of March, Hoess was moved to Nuremberg, where the Americans questioned him.

After having admitted emotionlessly that he was responsible for the murder of more than two-and-a-half million Jews (the estimate today is that there were 1.1 million), he was asked by a psychiatrist how it was possible to kill so many people. There was no technical problem, Hoess replied, and it could have been done in even large numbers. He added, “At the time there were no consequences to consider. It didn’t occur to me that I would be held responsible. You see, in Germany it was understood that if something went wrong, then the man who gave the orders was responsible.”

Trying to extract an emotional response, the psychiatrist started to ask about the “human” aspect, but Hoess cut him off: “That just didn’t enter into it. I suppose you want to know in this way if my thought and habits are normal … I am entirely normal. Even while I was doing the extermination work, I led a normal family life.”

Hoess added that he was a lone wolf who felt at his best when he was by himself. He also related that “he had stopped having sex with his wife after she found out about the gas chambers in the camp.”

Hoess was condemned to death by hanging in the Auschwitz camp itself. On April 11, 1947, five days before the sentence was to be carried out, he wrote a last letter to his wife. He told her that he now understood that he had been “a cogwheel in the monstrous German machinery of destruction,” an “automaton who blindly obeyed every order.” He had “followed a very wrong path, and thereby brought destruction on [him]self.”

In the process, he wrote, he had become “the greatest of all destroyers of human beings.” He attached his wedding ring to the letter and asked his wife to resume using her maiden name. “It will be best for my name to die with me,” he wrote.

Brigitte Hoess, daughter of the Kommandant of Auschwitz, is now 81 and lives in Washington, D.C. Harding met with her, too, while conducting the comprehensive research for his book.

She described her father as a good man: “He was the nicest man in the world. He was kind and was only ever good to us,” she told Harding, and in their conversation, allowed herself to be skeptical about the number of people who perished in the Holocaust, wondering how it was possible that so many had survived if so many had been killed.

Her mother, Hedwig Hoess, lived in Germany after the war, occasionally visiting Brigitte in the United States. She died in her sleep during one such visit, in 1989. Her daughter had her body cremated; the ashes were buried secretly in a cemetery on the outskirts of Washington.

Brigitte Hoess has never visited the national Holocaust museum in Washington. “They always make things out to be worse than they were. It is horrible. I can’t stand it,” she told Harding.

He decided that he preferred to stick to historical testimonies, documents and sources, and not provide an outlet for a sick, elderly Holocaust denier. “I started out doing research on my great-uncle, but I very quickly started to take an interest in Rudolf Hoess, too,” Harding told me. “They were both Germans who came from families with a strong military background. They both loved their country and their families. I found it fascinating to follow their careers and the decisions they made, and to compare and contrast them.”

When Harding visited Brigitte Hoess at her home, he noticed that a copy of her father’s memoirs – which he wrote during his imprisonment (an English translation was published in 2000) – lying on her night table. He found the same book on the living room table of Hanns Alexander, the man who caught Hoess, after Alexander passed away.

“It was a copy that looked tattered from much use,” Harding relates. “I have learned that history changes according to one’s point of view and that it is never as clear as we would have expected it to be.”

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