I had to re-read the email I received from Masaryk University in Brno, the Czech Republic, to make sure I understood it correctly:
“In commemoration of International Students’ Day, which falls on November 17 – the day the Nazis closed down all the universities in the Czech Republic in 1939, and the day students in Prague protested against the Communist regime in 1989 – we are holding a major event and we would like to invite you to be one of two keynote speakers on a panel titled ‘Humanity and Barbarism in the Holocaust and in Europe today.’” I was okay with everything up until the next point in the email. “The other keynote speaker will be Mr. Rainer Höss, the grandson of Nazi war criminal Rudolf Höss, who, like you, also has a family connection with Auschwitz.”
Rudolf Höss? As in the commandant of Auschwitz – the chief commanding position within the SS service of a Nazi concentration camp? His grandson? No way. I was freaked out and closed the email, the instinctual reaction to that name by a child of Holocaust survivors.
The next thing I did was call my 92-year-old mother, who survived Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. “I don’t see what the problem is,” my mother told me in her matter-of-fact Czech. “Rainer is his grandson. He hadn’t even been born yet when all of this took place.”
That’s true, I responded.
In the days leading up to my trip, I obsessively read everything I could find on radicalization and racism in Europe, about Höss the grandfather, who was responsible for killing at least 500,000 Jews, and about Höss the grandson, who is active in Holocaust education and preaches tolerance. There is nothing like a dialogue between the descendants of the victims with those of the perpetrators, so long as the latter want to make amends.
MONDAY, NOVEMBER 16. The Old Town Square in Brno is full of candles for the victims of the Paris terrorist attacks.
Someone has hung up Lebanese and Turkish flags – there were victims there, too, a passerby mentions.
Brno, the capital of Moravia, is a three-hour drive from Prague. It used to be ethnically German, and tens of thousands of Germans who lived there before World War II were deported en masse in 1945. In short, this is an appropriate place for my first meeting with Höss the grandson. We meet at a local café and drink Czech beer.
The organizers of the event are walking around us on eggshells, a little nervous about how the program will turn out. Rainer Höss is tall, athletic and has a chiseled face (“I’ve been told a number of times that I look like my grandfather. It’s not pleasant to hear, but there’s not much I can do about it.”). He’s used to meeting with survivors, as well as children of survivors, and he speaks freely with me.
I, for one, am still keeping my distance.
RAINER HÖSS. He has made it his life mission to promote Holocaust education and tolerance.
(Courtesy Rainer Höss)
To me, he’s first and foremost the grandson of the man who commanded Auschwitz-Birkenau, the hell my mother was sent into in September 1943. Every once in a while I remind myself that Rainer was born in 1964, and that he isn’t responsible for his family’s horrific past.
The first question I ask him is why didn’t he change his name? “Before he was hanged, my grandfather wrote to my grandmother that she should change her name,” Rainer explains.
“Both my grandmother and my father were in complete denial of his crimes, and so they adamantly refused to change their names. ‘Höss will remain Höss,’ my grandmother would say. I decided that if I kept the name, this would enable me to do my part in repenting in my grandfather’s name. It’s not so simple, of course – you need to always be careful about everything you say, because people are judging you. Sometimes people curse me on the Internet and neo-Nazis are always trying to contact me. Ultimately, the name Höss is connected with Auschwitz, where millions of people were murdered.”
For years, Rainer engaged obsessively in rehabilitating his family name. He researched his grandfather’s and others’ crimes, spent hours in archives, has had talks with groups of teenagers about tolerance and fighting racism, and he gives (self-financed) guided tours of Auschwitz.
He’s active in an organization called Footsteps, which was founded so that people can not only learn about what happened in history, but also so that history doesn’t repeat itself. Rainer also works with Khubaib Ali Mohammed, a German- Muslim attorney, to bring to justice other Nazi war criminals who are still alive. “We work together – Christians, Muslims and Jews – and I’m very proud of that.”
RAINER, 51, lives in Munich, is divorced and is the father of three children. He is a chef by profession. At the age of 15, when he found out who his paternal grandfather was, he ran away from home. By 18, he was already married with a baby. Today, his eldest granddaughter is 15 years old. One of his daughters is married to a Bosnian Muslim, “and I’m so happy for her – I’m in favor of pluralism,” he says.
At the age of 21, Rainer cut off all contact with his family – his father, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles. His mother, who divorced his father in 1983, is the only person he’s still in contact with.
Rainer’s father, Hans-Jurgen Höss, who was born in 1937, one of Rudolf and Hedwig Höss’s five children, grew up in a large villa near Auschwitz. There are color photographs that were taken during the war (with the new camera that Rudolf was given as a present by Heinrich Himmler), which show the Höss children frolicking in the garden and swimming in the pool at the villa, with the death camp and crematoria in the background.
“The villa is still there today – it’s owned by a Polish couple that I’m in touch with. Many people don’t know much about this house, such as the secret escape tunnel built by my grandfather that reaches from the crematoria to the house. A prisoner who worked for my grandfather told me that he would make the whole family practice using the escape tunnel at least once a week. The management of the concentration camp doesn’t like to publicize this, because they’re worried that neo-Nazis might turn this complex into a pilgrimage site.”
Years after the war ended, Rudolf’s children – and even his wife – claimed that they did not know what was taking place at the camp. “This is ludicrous, of course, because all of the servants at the house were prisoners from the camp,” Rainer explains. “All the gardening, landscaping, construction and renovations were carried out by prisoners. Even my grandfather’s barber was from the camp. My uncle used to use his slingshot to shoot rocks over the wall at the prisoners. There are prisoners who remember all of my aunts and uncles.” Rudolf’s wife, Hedwig, would later recall to friends how much she had loved living in Auschwitz, a time in her life she recalls as being “heavenly, happy times.”
“She was cold and tyrannical. When she would enter a room, it would all of a sudden feel like we were in a freezer,” Rainer says.
THE EXECUTION of Rudolf Höss in Auschwitz, April 1947. Höss was caught hiding in a farm in the British zone in north Germany, using a false name.
(Courtesy Rainer Höss)
LIVING 150 meters from the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp certainly had an effect on the Höss children, they all stayed supporters of Hitler and hated Jews. Rainer’s father, Hans-Jurgen, who worked as an engineer for Volvo, was, according to Rainer, a cold and cruel man. “The home I grew up in was hell on earth. My father would beat me and my mother all the time. He ruled the home with an iron fist. We were not allowed to speak without permission. We were forbidden to cry or show any feeling whatsoever. If we ever disobeyed him, he would beat us to a pulp. My mother tried to commit suicide a number of times.”
Rainer’s first encounter with the “Jewish issue” was incredibly traumatic. “I was maybe five or six years old, when a boy from school invited me over to his house for ‘Pesach-fest.’ I had no idea what this was. So I approached my father and stood still until he gave me permission to speak just like I always did. In a hesitant voice, I asked for permission to go to Chris’s house for Pesach-fest. My father leapt from his chair and hit me so hard that he broke my nose, and then he locked me in my room. ‘You will have no contact with those dirty Jews’ he screamed. The next day, I saw that there was a new sign hanging on our front door that read: ‘No Jews allowed.’”
Until the age of 12, Rainer didn’t know anything about his grandfather’s exploits. “My family would talk about how he was such a brave soldier, and that he was killed defending the homeland. Leopold Heger, my grandfather’s driver in Auschwitz, would come to our home and take long walks with me, while he told me about my grandfather’s heroism. He would call me ‘prince,’ because ‘your grandfather was like a king.’”
When he was 12, Rainer went on a school trip to the Dachau concentration camp. “My grandfather commanded this camp before being transferred to Auschwitz – I saw his name written on a plaque with my own eyes: Rudolf Höss. I ran home at the end of the day and asked my father if it was true, and he told me, ‘That’s a complete lie.’ And I believed him, since at that age you still believe everything your parents tell you.”
When he turned 15, Rainer came across a book at home titled Men of Auschwitz.
“When my father saw me take that book off the shelf, he bolted towards me, slapped my cheek and told me never to touch that book again. Of course, the next day, after my father left for work in Sweden, I read the whole book. This was the first time that I read about what my grandfather did at Auschwitz. I was overcome with an intense mixture of shame, anger and sadness.”
He never suspected anything before then? “I knew they were hiding something from me, and I saw how my father reacted when I asked him questions, but to discover that your grandfather was the commandant of Auschwitz, that your father grew up breathing in the smoke from the crematoria, I never expected anything like that. The very next day, I packed a few things and left home. I went to live at a boarding school where I studied culinary arts. But I was just a kid with no framework and no family, so of course I soon got into drugs and alcohol.” When Rainer was just 16, he got his girlfriend pregnant, but when he turned 18 he married her and managed to create a normative and warm family with her. “I wanted so badly to form a new family, to disconnect from my family’s gene pool,” Rainer says.
Did your children ever ask about your grandfather, about their aunts and uncles? “I told them the truth from a pretty young age. I also told them they were welcome to contact my relatives whenever they wanted, but they didn’t. ‘We’re with you,’ they told me.”
“IT’S INTERESTING that concealment was very common among the second and third generation on both sides,” says Don Sperling, the moderator of the panel we were on.
“In my house, no one hid the truth, they just downplayed the horrors,” I responded, kind of shocked by the comparison of the two sides. But then again, the truth is that on both sides there were black holes of silence and secrecy.
After his parents divorced, Rainer began investigating his grandfather’s exploits.
“My mother went through a pretty difficult time herself. I would sit with her for hours and make recordings of her talking about her life. She would also cry a lot, and say over and over again how sorry she was. She herself didn’t know anything about my grandfather until 1963, when the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials began [which the movie Labyrinth of Lies was based on – T.B.] Following the trial, an article titled “The Gas Man from Auschwitz” was published, alongside a picture of the entire Höss family. My mother ran home and asked my father if that was really them. ‘Yes,’ he told her.
‘Do you have a problem with that?’” Rainer began digging through all of his family’s documents, and then afterwards in archives in Germany and Russia.
He even located Holocaust survivors who worked in the Höss villa at Auschwitz, including his grandfather’s barber: Josef Paczynski, who wasn’t even a barber by profession, but a metal worker.
“One day, they got rid of my grandfather’s regular barber, an SS officer, and were looking for someone to volunteer to replace him, and so Paczynski volunteered out of a desire for self-preservation.
Every day for two years, he would come to the villa and give my grandfather a shave and a trim. For two years, Höss didn’t exchange even one word with Paczynski, but when he would leave, he would be given another helping of food, which helped Paczynski and his friends survive.”
Rainer spent hours and hours looking through archival information, and this is how he found out about his grandfather’s mistress, Eleanore Hodys, who was probably not Jewish, and was impregnated twice by the commandant.
Dr. Glauberg, a Nazi doctor who experimented on Jewish women in the camps, carried out the first abortion. “When my grandmother found out about the affair, she called Himmler and told him to deal with it straight away. At the time, my grandfather had been in the hospital, having just been in an accident.
They put Hodys in solitary confinement, preparatory to being taken to the gas chambers, but then my grandfather suddenly came back and ordered her brought back.” When Hodys once again got pregnant, she was sent to the Ravensbrück concentration camp. “Somehow she managed to escape to Vienna.
I managed to locate a man who was her neighbor in Vienna who corroborated that she did indeed arrive pregnant. After she gave birth, Hodys disappeared overnight, so it’s possible that somewhere out there is another one of Rudolf Höss’s children. Hodys died in 1964.”
With help from the Institute of Contemporary History (IFZ), Rainer succeeded in finding Hodys’s estate, which was located in a storage room of the executor of her will in Vienna. “Inside a box, we found gloves with my grandfather’s initials on them, uniforms and a ring with his initials on it that was made of gold taken from the teeth of Jewish prisoners. My daughter, who’s a dentist, helped me investigate this.
It turns out there were 153 grams of gold in the ring. If you consider that the average person had between one and five grams worth of gold fillings in their mouth, quite a lot of Jews died to make that ring.”
Over the years, Rainer become more and more obsessed with his family’s personal connection to the Holocaust, and his marriage suffered as a result.
RAINER HÖSS and Tal Bashan visit a candlelight vigil in Brno.
(Photo credit Tal Bashan)
“We used to go to Bavaria every year for vacation. I would tell my family that I was going out for a bike ride, but really I would take a taxi to the central archive and spend hours there,” Rainer says with a smile. “One time, my oldest daughter followed me, since she suspected I was meeting a lover. I love researching and figuring out how all the puzzle pieces fit together to form a big picture. Over time, I discovered that my grandfather did not operate in a vacuum.
He had many contacts in a number of different camps, like Mauthausen and Buchenwald. Auschwitz was actually much more complex than most people know. There was one main camp, but there was also IG Farben, a chemical factory, and a sub-camp called Buna.”
At one point, Rainer received the rights to his grandfather’s archive, which consisted mostly of documents and photographs.
In Israel, rumors began circulating that he was interested in selling items in the archive. “But that’s just not true. I handed everything over to the IFZ, on condition that they be used for research purposes only. The IFZ is currently preparing a traveling exhibition with these documents called ‘The documents of the Auschwitz commandant.’”
GRADUALLY, HÖSS abandoned all other activities. He sold his catering business and now devotes all of his time and money to Holocaust and tolerance education.
“The current situation in Europe highlights the lessons of the Holocaust. In Germany alone, there are 360,000 active Nazis. In all of Europe, there are more than 2.6 million Nazis,” Rainer says. He works alone (“I can’t trust anyone”) and is careful not to take personal donations, “since that would just generate gossip. All donations go directly toward projects.”
About a year ago, Rainer joined Ben Lesser, an American businessman who survived the Holocaust and founded an organization called Zachor. Together they are working on a project called Six Million Screams. “People ask me how I can be friends with someone whose grandfather murdered my family,” Lesser writes. “The answer is simple – you can’t control the reality you were born into, but you can choose which reality you want to live in.
I see before me a strong, courageous and caring man who is trying to make amends for what his grandfather did.”
Rainer wears a Star of David necklace around his neck that he received from a Holocaust survivor. He does not hide how proud he is to have relationships with Auschwitz survivors. “Somehow, I manage to connect with them well. They carry with them such wisdom. I have found that the children of survivors are more belligerent towards me. You yourself told me that your mother is the one who persuaded you to meet me,” Rainer says to me.
I did begin to wonder how the entire time we’d been talking, I was the one asking questions, whereas Rainer had never asked me anything about what had happened to my mother.
“Over the years, I’ve learned that some people view my questioning as an invasion of their privacy. Some people have responded by telling me, ‘Why would you be interested in what happened to my parents at Auschwitz? Your grandfather didn’t seem to care.’ So now, I let people tell me their story if and when they feel comfortable doing so.”
OH, YES, and one more thing. The panel was a huge success. One thousand, two hundred people filled the auditorium and many more tuned in to listen to the broadcast live on the Internet. Apparently, the discussion taking place between the daughter of a Czech woman who survived Auschwitz and the grandson of the notorious Rudolf Höss interested many people, although it was quite clear to me that Höss was the main attraction.
After all, there are many, many children of Holocaust survivors, but not so many grandchildren of senior Nazi officials who want to atone for the atrocities performed by their grandfathers.
“Have you two known each other for a long time?” the reporter from the Czech radio station who interviewed us after the event asked me. “You look like old friends.” We looked at each other, and couldn’t help but burst out laughing. “So I guess there’s a place for humor in all of this,” the reporter continued. “Of course there is,” we replied. “Black humor. We’re just getting ready for our joint tour.” ■
Translated by Hannah Hochner.