Hanns and Rudolf: The True Story of the German Jew Who Tracked Down and Caught the Kommandant of Auschwitz, by Thomas Harding, is a brilliantly written and well-researched book.
This non-fiction account of two men whose lives converge, told through the eyes of the author, Thomas Harding, whose Great-Uncle was Lieutenant Hanns Alexander. Hanns was a Jewish German, and also the son of an immigrant family who fled Germany for England, turning over all of their holdings in order to gain exit visas.
Rudolph Hoss (not to be confused with Rudolf Hess) was a farmer, a man who enjoyed the earth and farming. Farming eventually became far removed from his life, and it eluded him once he joined the “Schutz-Staffel” (SS), under the suggestion of Heinrich Himmler.
Harding refers to the two men by their given name, and I shall do the same. Their personal lives are depicted throughout the pages, regarding their childhoods, their families, their adult lives and their aspirations.
One thing that struck me was the dedication to Judaism within the Alexander family. And, cemented within that, is the family Torah, the “Alexander Torah”, which survived the war. So did correspondence between Hanns and his family, and between Hanns and his girlfriend, Ann, who eventually became his wife.
Within rotating chapters detailing the lives of both Hanns and Rudolf, the reader gains an intense perspective of their backgrounds, their personal lives, their goals and their individual quests in the name of country and war.
Hanns’ life takes dramatic turns once he is in England. He wants nothing more than to be viewed as “English as possible” and wants to gain citizenship. He joins the British Army hoping. This enlistment leads to more than he could ever imagine. At the end of his enlistment, he is given full British citizenship.
The pages are infused with compelling documentation, letters, forms, photographs, testimonies, and portions of Rudolf’s own journal entries. From all of the intense documentations, one is given perspectives that are unimaginable, concerning Rudolf’s rise to Kommandant, not only Kommandant, but Kommandant of Auschwitz.
Rudolf writes forthrightly concerning the atrocities he is involved with, and this reader could see how his initial attitude of concern for Jews eventually turns into one of pure evilness and lack of caring and concern for humanity. How he went from a man who was repulsed by witnessing camp murders (yet, stood there watching as if it was a normal fact of life, to save his reputation), to a man whose attitude changed dramatically is beyond the pale. He became a man possessed with death and destruction, and a man who had no remorse or concern for his implementation of the gas chambers. Yet, he had a wife and children who he came home to, acting as if nothing horrific had occurred.
He had a hand in the design and was witness to the first group of Jews that were gassed. He programmed the entire operation, employing not only his power, but whatever was available in order to incorporate construction, destruction and horrific atrocities. He oversaw over one million individuals exterminated at the hands of the Nazis. He was the master planner, and created the extermination program that existed, including the procedures, schedules, structures, and instructions. He was fearless, merciless and steadfast in his pursuit to please his superiors.
Hanns moved up through the ranks, and his Lieutenant status saw him eventually given the status of respect he desired. He took part in the Normandy Landing. In 1945 he was afforded a role on the newly formed War crimes Investigation Team for England, based in a Brussels suburb. This position took him to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp where he saw the remains of unspeakable acts of genocide, after liberation.
His reputation fostered, he was given the job as an interpreter, taking notes from interviews and witness statements in German and then transcribing them into English. he interviewed several high-ranking individuals affiliated with Auschwitz, and other individuals from the SS. He untiring efforts garnered information that proved that certain SS members knew that gassed exterminations occurred at Auschwitz.
The war crimes trial began with the trial of Josef Kramer and forty four other people. Hanns could tell, after a few days of trial testimony, and knew in his heart of hearts that there were others who were conspirators or who headed the exterminations of the Jews.
The War Crimes Group was created, and those involved, including Hanns, were trying to locate SS high ranking officials through their intelligence experise. In 1946, he looked over the list of war criminals, and Rudolf’s name was next. He began investigating and searching for Rudolf. He was relentless in his investigation and searching. He left no stone unturned, every possible person involved, including family members, were interviewed and interviewed again. On March 10 1946, Rudolf was taken to prison.
From there, the rest is history, and Harding illuminates it immensely. Rudolf confessed to murdering over two million individuals. He was hanged at Auschwitz, in the same spot where Jews were hung. His memoir (which some excerpts are quoted from in Hanns and Rudolf) details his life, including his involvement in the SS.
Hanns and Rudolf is an incredibly compelling book, reading like a spy story of sorts. It is intense, written brilliantly and with extreme accuracy, through the dedication of exhaustive research in all of its formats. Harding has done both Hanns and humanity an amazing tribute, in vividly detailing the tirelessness of Hanns and his efforts to right the wrongs through justice being done.
Harding has also shown the world a side of Rudolf that is invaluable for historical purposes. The reader is taken on a journey of a man who controlled his emotions, controlled the deaths of Jews, and who controlled Auschwitz with a firm hand.
I knew the book would be intense and filled with horrific situations and events. Yet, I read it, and within the pages of depictions of Auschwitz and the lack of humanity within the electrified fences, I was chilled to the bone reading about some of the circumstances, and more chilled and horrified at how Rudolf seemed to slough off the atrocities as if they were nothing of importance, as if Jewish humanity was irrelevant in the scheme of life.
Harding’s efforts are to be applauded. Hanns and Rudolf: The True Story of the German Jew Who Tracked Down and Caught the Kommandant of Auschwitz is a work of extreme brilliance and Thomas Harding is masterful in the telling. From the opening page, describing Hanns’ funeral, to the last page, I was involved in reading the relaying of history, and inhaling the familial dynamics, especially of the Alexander family. Hanns and Rudolf belongs on every book shelf, personal or otherwise. It is books such as this that will keep history alive, and will keep it so, not only for this generation, but the generations that came before us, and generations to come. It is an invaluable historical resource.
I want to thank Leah Johanson, Publicist, Simon and Schuster for the Galley of Hanns and Rudolf. I am grateful to have received it, and to have read it. Thank you!
July 15, 2013 – 8 Av, 5773