When Thomas Harding attended his great-uncle’s funeral in 2006, he was not expecting to stumble upon a family secret his relatives had kept since the Holocaust. Harding was shocked when he found out his great- uncle Hanns Alexander had been a Nazi hunter, a secret which the family had been keeping for six decades.
Harding, a British journalist, spent the next few years investigating the life of his great-uncle, a Jew who escaped from his native German before World War II. He found out the Nazi hunter had even even managed to locate and capture the Rudolf Hoss, the commandant of the Auschwitz concentration camp where over a milion people lost their lives. Alexander, who became a banker after World War II, never spoke to his family about his Nazi hunter past.
“It was completely amazing to me,” Harding explains. “My uncle was the guy who told us dirty jokes when we were growing up. He stacked the chairs and tables at the synagogue. He never spoke about any of this other stuff. It was totally secret.”
Harding has delved into a secret past two families had struggled to keep buried since the War, chronicling his findings – including letters, documents and oral history – in the new book called ‘Hanns and Rudolf: The True Story of the German Jew Who Caught the Kommandant of Auschwitz’.
“Neither family wants to talk about the past, for very good reasons. It’s amazing, 70 years later, how alive history still is in all of our lives”, Harding says. Alexander’s family did not approve of him publishing his findings, while the Hoss family has airbrushed out its history before 1947 for understandable reasons, The Globe And Mail reports.
After escaping Berlin 1936, Alexander travelled to Britain. When World War II broke out, he enlisted in British Army’s Pioneer Corps to join the war against Hitler’s Germany. Meanwhile, Hoss having joined the Nazis in 1992, progressed through the party’s ranks and was ordered to build the Auschwitz camp in Poland in 1940. At the camp, Heinrich Himmler told him to develop ways to kill Jewish people as part of Hitler’s Final Solution.
Following the war, Alexander became a war-crime investigator. He attended release of prisoners from the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Left angered by his experiences, he became a fearless Nazi hunter, who once drove through Europe with a dead Nazi attached to his car roof.
Alexander tracked down Hoss, bringing him to Gottrupel, Germany, in 1945. Although Hoss denied who he was, the clever Alexander ordered Hoss to remove his wedding ring and saw Hoss’ name carved inside. Hoss was brought to the Nuremberg war crimes trial, where he spoke about the Nazi’s crimes. Hoss met his death at at Auschwitz by hanging.
Among Harding’s interviewees during his research into his Nazi hunter relative was Hoss’ daughter, Brigit. “She told me that he was the nicest father in the world, that he would read stories and take them on boat rides. His family loved him. There were two sides to him – the father and the commandant,” Harding says. “What I found is that a single person can be both, and that’s frightening,” he said. “It could happen again, and that’s why we need to be vigilant.”