The Wedding Ring That Got Auschwitz’s Commander Hanged

Rudolf Höss was executed exactly 70 years ago. Little did he know his wedding ring would do him in thanks to the ingenuity of Berlin-born Jew Hanns Alexander

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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Auschwitz commander Rudolf Höss being handed over to the Polish authorities in 1946.
Auschwitz commander Rudolf Höss being handed over to the Polish authorities in 1946.Credit: Auschwitz Museum
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

A few days before he was executed on April 16, 1947, Auschwitz commander Rudolf Franz Höss penned a final letter to his wife. He wrote 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.” He called himself “the greatest of all destroyers of human beings.”

Höss attached his wedding ring to the letter and asked his wife to revert to using her maiden name. “It will be best for my name to die with me,” he wrote.

That wedding ring played a big role in his arrest a year earlier.

Höss’ arrest was made possible by a Berlin-born Jew named Hanns Alexander, who had served in the British army. Alexander led 25 British soldiers who found Höss hiding on an isolated farm in Germany.

Höss handed Alexander forged identity papers bearing the name Franz Lang. Höss looked haggard, but Alexander knew that was his man. He waved a photograph in Höss’ face, but the German denied that it was him, again pointing to his papers. Alexander looked for a way to prove the man’s identity. He found the solution in the wedding ring.

Auschwitz commander Rudolf Höss (r) after capture by Hannes Alexander (l) in 1946.Credit: Auschwitz Musuem

Give it to me, Alexander demanded. I can’t, it’s been stuck on my finger for years, Höss replied. No problem, I’ll cut it off, Alexander said.

Only after a kitchen knife was produced did Höss take off the ring. Alexander took a close look and saw the names Rudolf and Hedwig – Höss’ wife – carved on the ring’s inner side.

After being beaten by Alexander’s soldiers, Höss was put on a truck. On the way, after being asked repeatedly, Höss broke down and confessed that he had ruled Auschwitz. Alexander and the soldiers, before delivering Höss to prison, stopped at an inn to celebrate the occasion. Höss remained under guard in the truck.

Höss was the direct founder, organizer and commander of Auschwitz, which he prepared for the mass extermination of human beings starting in the summer of 1941. More than 1 million people were killed there, most of them Jews.

Höss gave testimony at the Nuremberg trials. In the summer of 1941 – he couldn’t recall the exact date – he was called to Berlin to meet the head of the SS. Heinrich Himmler declared, unusually without the presence of his adjutant, that the Führer had ordered a “Final Solution to the Jewish problem.”

Hoess (second from right) touring Auschwitz with Heinrich Himmler. Credit: U.S. Holocaust Memorial and Museum

Himmler said he was designating the camp in Auschwitz for this task because the area was remote and could easily be camouflaged. It would be an onerous task requiring complete dedication. Himmler told Höss that he would have to keep this order absolutely secret, even from his superiors.

Höss was executed exactly 70 years ago at that precise remote location.

His wife Hedwig died in her sleep in 1989 in the United States, where she was visiting her daughter Brigitte, who still lives there. She still finds it hard to believe that 6 million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust.

Alexander died in 2006. His nephew Thomas Harding told his story in the 2013 book “Hanns and Rudolf: The True Story of the German Jew Who Tracked Down and Caught the Kommandant of Auschwitz.”

Auschwitz commander Rudolf Höss at the Nuremberg Trials in 1946, and his execution in 1947.Credit: Auschwitz Museum

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