As a history major, and as a history teacher, I’ve read quite a few books about World War II. Some out of necessity, and some out of curiosity. Some of them were really great, and some of them weren’t. I recently finished reading Hanns and Rudolf: The True Story of the German Jew Who Tracked Down and Caught the Kommandant of Auschwitz. Written by Thomas Harding, a journalist and documentarian, this tracks the investigation of Rudolf Hoss, the former commandant of Auschwitz. What drew him into this cat and mouse story was Hanns Alexander, who happened to be his great-uncle. This story examines these two individuals, but asks a larger question: What happened to Nazi war criminals and their families in the years after the war. Eventually, many of them were caught – so many escaped though.
Hanns, in attempting to bring Rudolf to trial, chased him all over Europe. Hanns had been a German Jew, who fled Berlin in the early 30s, he eventually made his way to England, where he earned a commission in the British Army. He became pivotal as an investigator in the Nuremburg trials.
Hoss was not only the commanding officer at Auschwitz, he was also the designer of the death camp that had been converted from an old army base. It became a “killing machine capable of murdering 2,000 people an hour. By the end of the war, 1.1 million Jews had been killed in the camp”. Thomas Harding traces the Hoss family’s history back over a hundred years, back to Hanns’s birth. Was it out of curisioty? How does a killer on this scale evolve? Harding seems to be trying to find a pathology. How did he, and so many men of his generation in Germany become a part of this efficient killing machine? Hoss’s military career was a remarkable one, and is closely detailer here, along with his relationship with top Nazi leaders.
“I had to see everything that was being done. Day or night, I had to watch bodies being collected up and burned, I had to see teeth being broken out, hair cut off, I had to witness all these horrors for hour after hour. I had to stand there myself in the dreadful, sinister stench that arose when mass graves were dug and the bodies burned. I also, at the request of the doctors, had to look through the peephole into the gas chamber and watch the inmates dying.”
Included in the book are pictures of the two men, (their adventures) before and during the war. The pictures include some that had belonged to Hanns’s family, and this is one of the parts of the book that I found most interesting. While thousands of people were dying at the hands of the Nazis, the families the officers in charge of the camps lived very normal lives.
In April of 1945 the family tried to escape Europe. Even after he was caught, the family left – they were outcasts in their community, and the rest of Germany. One his daughters eventually made her way to states, and spent almost 40 years living in Northern Virginia, never revealing her true identity.
Having commanded the death camp responsible for killing a million Jews, Hoss became a top target in the post-war era. Harding is committed to the story of these two men and their intersecting lives. The chase to bring Hoss to justice was a difficult task, and the story of how it happened is an interesting one.