Hanns and Rudolf Serialisation

"The Avenger of the Holocaust"

Sunday Times published: 18 August 2013


Hanns Alexander’s funeral was held on a cold and rainy afternoon in December 2006. More than 300 people packed into the chapel. Hanns’ wife of 50 years, Ann, sat in the front row, and two of his nephews stood to give a joint eulogy.

There was one detail that caught nearly everyone off guard: at the war’s end Hanns had tracked down the Kommandant of Auschwitz, Rudolf Höss. This piqued my interest, for Hanns Alexander was my great-uncle. Growing up we had been cautioned not to ask about the war. Now I learnt that Hanns may have been a Nazi hunter. 

The idea that this nice but unremarkable man had been a Second World War hero seemed unlikely. Presumably, this was just another of Hanns’ tales. For he was a bit of a rogue and a prankster, much respected for sure, but also a man who liked to play tricks on his elders and tell dirty jokes to us youngsters, and who, if truth be told, was prone to exaggeration. I decided to find out if it was true.

Hanns Hermann Alexander was born on May 6, 1917, 15 minutes before his twin brother, Paul, at his parents’ expansive apartment on the Kaiserallee, in west Berlin. In January 1936, Hanns’ father, Alfred, one of Berlin’s finest society doctors, went to London to visit one of his daughters, who lived there with her English husband. While he was away, Alfred received news that his name was high on the list of Jews whom the Gestapo intended to round up. Alfred realised he had to stay in London, and sent for the rest of the family to join him.

Once in London, Hanns began courting a leggy 17-year-old brunette called Ann Graetz, who had also recently fled Nazi Germany. Ann’s parents had remained in Berlin, her father believing that he had a responsibility to continue managing one of Germany’s largest grain mills. On November 9, 1938, over 250 synagogues and 7,000 shops and businesses were attacked in what became known as Kristallnacht, the night of the broken glass. Early the next morning, armed thugs arrested Ann’s father, along with more than 1,000 other Jewish men, and transported them by train to the Sachsenhausen camp, just outside the city. 

Upon arrival, Ann’s father was ordered to remove his clothes, his head was shaved, and he was given a black-and-white-striped prison uniform on which was stamped his prison number: 010065. At Sachsenhausen he witnessed and experienced the horror and violence of the concentration camps, which were still not known to the outside world. However, he was lucky. Eighteen days after his arrival he, along with hundreds of other Jews, were freed on the condition that they leave the country immediately. As he walked out of the camp he was handed an exit document bearing the signature of one of the camp’s senior guards: Rudolf Höss.

In 1939, when Hanns heard that his adopted country was at war with the country of his birth, he felt an immediate urge to act. Perhaps it was a desire for adventure, or for revenge. 

Or perhaps it was out of loyalty to England for taking him in. Whatever the cause, Hanns only knew that to do nothing was impossible. The twins volunteered for the British army. In December, they received word that they were to be part of the Auxiliary Military Pioneer Corps, a newly formed unit which recruited refugees who wanted to fight Hitler. 

Rudolf Höss was still working in Sachsenhausen, as adjutant to the camp’s Kommandant, when war broke out. The following year, he received a telephone call from the chief inspector of concentration camps, saying that Heinrich Himmler wanted Höss to set up a new camp in southern Poland, near the small town of Auschwitz. They were looking for an energetic and effective Kommandant. Himmler had selected the site 

to house political prisoners. A little over a year later, Himmler told Höss that the camp must 

be transformed so that it could implement his most sacred order: the Final Solution of the Jewish Question. He told Höss that while he wasn’t sure how many people would be sent to the camp, it was likely to run into the millions. 

Höss knew he would not be able to kill enough prisoners using phenol injections to the heart, the method that was being used to “euthanise” prisoners deemed too ill or weak. Shooting them would not work either. Not only were bullets expensive but Höss had learnt that executions have an emotional impact on firing squads — resulting in excessive drinking and increased suicide rates — and therefore could not be scaled up to any large degree. 

Part of the solution was found when Höss’s deputy, Karl Fritzsch, told him about an experiment which he had recently completed. Fritzsch had thrown some Zyklon B granules — used at the time as an insecticide to exterminate the camp’s rats — into a small cell holding a group of Russian prisoners. After only a few minutes, all the prisoners had died.

Höss resolved that they would kill prisoners in one of two old brick farmhouses, the so-called “little white house” and “little red house”. He had “solved” the problem handed to him by Himmler. As Höss later wrote: “Now my mind was at ease.”

Until this point, Höss had dealt with the horrors of work by compartmentalising his life. He had learnt to develop two existences. First, there was ordinary family life: his time with his four children, evenings out with his wife, Hedwig, socialising after work. Then there 

was the world of the camp: a cruel and hard existence during which he became increasingly inured to the pain of those he governed. 

When he returned home each night, he played music for the children on his gramophone and recited German folk stories when they were tucked up in bed. From Rudolf and Hedwig’s bedroom at the Höss “villa”, as it was known at Auschwitz, it was possible to see far into the camp: to the barracks where the prisoners were housed. The family liked to take photographs at the villa. One picture shows the children sitting on a slide at the edge of a small pool, looking happily at the camera. Another shows them playing in a sand pit, while two prisoners walk behind in their striped uniforms.

On the other side of the garden wall, the killing intensified. As early as 1942, eyewitness accounts of the atrocities were filtering back to the Allied Powers. As the war neared its close, a priority list of 165 high-profile war criminals, including Adolf Hitler, Oswald Pohl and Hermann Göring, was drawn up. Rudolf Höss had also made it onto the list.

British troops entered the Belsen concentration camp in northwest Germany on April 15, 1945. Appalled by what they found, they immediately dispatched reports detailing the condition of the prisoners and the need for investigators to interview the captured guards. The solution was to find a team of 12 men — four investigators, four interpreters and four assistants — who would spearhead Britain’s war crimes response. An obvious choice as an interpreter, working as his commander’s adjutant in Normandy following the D-Day landings, Hanns was chosen. 

It was early evening on May 12, 1945, when Hanns arrived at the barbed-wire gates of Belsen. Inside the camp, corpses lay piled on top of each other. Bulldozers had begun the work of disposing of the bodies, pushing the dead into mass graves. The living prisoners were so thin that their ribs poked through their skin. Hanns’ first impressions were visceral.“There were dead bodies walking about, dead bodies lying about, people who thought they were alive and they weren’t. It was a terrible sight.”

The British soldiers were deeply disturbed. But Hanns’ reaction was different. The atrocity had happened in the country of his birth; its victims were mostly Jews, his people. Their story could so easily have been his. Belsen tripped a switch in him. He was gripped by a barely controllable rage. And he sensed a purpose. 

First, they interrogated the former prison guards and administrators. Hanns emerged as a natural interrogator — a “breaker”. During these sessions, Hanns realised the centrality of Rudolf Höss’s role in Auschwitz. If they could get Höss to testify then they could establish the facts of the Holocaust. But first they needed to catch him. 

Before he was able to track down Höss, Hans was ordered to start looking for one of the most hated figures in the Third Reich, Gustav Simon, who had initiated the deportation of the entire Jewish population of Luxembourg. Simon was believed to be hiding near Cologne. 

The following month, after a number of red herrings and false starts, Hanns had sniffed out his quarry and arrested him, but before he could be tried Simon died. It is not clear whether he hanged himself or was killed by partisans in a conspiracy that some claimed was covered up by Hanns. “Please excuse me,” Hanns told the press in Luxembourg, while presenting the corpse, “that I was unable to bring the Gauleiter to Luxembourg alive — unhappily, it didn’t happen the way I hoped 

it would. But Gustav Simon got what he deserved: the rope.” With English phlegm, he added: “It saved us quite a few expenses.”

Following Hanns’ arrest of Simon, the war crimes investigators were told to zero in on the men who ran the concentration camps, Amtsgruppe D. At an American-run prisoner-of-war camp just outside Berlin, Hanns heard that a group including Höss and his family had fled north towards the Danish border in April 1945, just before the war’s end. They were suspected of being in the Flensburg area. 

Hanns was told to check in with British intelligence there. They had been monitoring Höss’s wife and children, who were living in an old sugar factory, and had recently intercepted a letter from Hedwig — they monitored all the local mail — proving that she knew the whereabouts of her husband. As a result, the day before Hanns’ arrival, on March 7, 1946, they had pulled Hedwig in for questioning. Hanns couldn’t believe his luck. Inside one of the cells sat a round-faced woman wearing a dirty blouse and a peasant’s skirt. Although Hedwig no longer had servants to order about, nor the fine furniture or artwork that filled her house in Auschwitz, she retained an air of arrogance. She refused to reveal anything. 

Hanns suggested that they should employ an old interrogator’s trick: use a child to pressure their parent into talking. The next day Hanns and four others drove to the sugar factory and returned with her eldest son, Klaus. Hedwig was shocked to see her son, yet her answer remained the same: “I do not know where my husband is living.” 

At twilight on March 11, a noisy old steam train was driven past the rear of the prison. Hanns burst into Hedwig’s cell and informed her that the train was about to take her son to Siberia, and that she would never see him again. Hanns added that she could prevent Klaus’s deportation if she revealed where her husband was hiding. Hanns left Hedwig with a piece of paper and a pencil. When he returned 10 minutes later, she had written down Höss’s location and his alias: the Kommandant of Auschwitz was living at a farm in Gottrupel under the name “Franz Lang”.

It was pitch black and utterly quiet when a convoy of small trucks rolled into the farmyard. Hanns walked towards the barn and knocked loudly. Höss was “woken with a start”. He heard a stern voice ordering him to open up. Realising he had no alternative, he opened the door. Two men in British uniform stood facing him. Höss could tell by their insignia that one was a captain, the other a doctor. Behind them stood at least 20 soldiers, guns drawn. Without warning, the tall, handsome, fierce-looking  Captain Hanns Alexander thrust a pistol in his mouth. He was then searched for cyanide pills. 

Hanns sensed that his colleagues wanted 

to vent their hatred. Indeed, he wanted to join in. He had to make a quick decision: should he protect Höss? Turning to his men, Hanns said, 

“In 10 minutes I want to have Höss in my car — undamaged,” and walked off. Höss was immediately surrounded by soldiers, who dragged him to one of the barn’s slaughter tables, tore the pyjamas from his body and beat him with axe handles. Höss screamed, but the blows kept coming. After a short period, the doctor spoke to Hanns: “Call them off,” he said, “unless you want to take back a corpse.” 

The Nuremberg Trials, had opened four months before Höss’s arrest, and the prosecutors were desperate for a high-ranking figure to confirm what had taken place in the concentration camps. On April 15, 1946, wearing a newly pressed black suit and a striped tie, with his hair recently cut and combed, Höss walked up to the wooden witness stand. The chief prosecutor read out the most shocking part of Höss’s confession: 

“I commanded Auschwitz until December 1, 1943, and estimate that at least 2½m victims were executed and exterminated there by gassing and burning, and at least another half-million succumbed to starvation and disease, making a total dead of about 3m.”

There was total silence in the court. The prosecutors knew they had finally found their trump card. Rudolf ’s testimony had a profound impact: the leading war criminals on trial began to admit their guilt. The New York Times described it as the “crushing climax to the case”. In Britain, The Times went further. They said of Höss’s confession: “its dreadful implications must surpass any document ever penned”.

While Höss had been appearing as a witness, the Polish government sent word that they were ready to try him themselves. In one last effort, Höss argued that he had been simply executing Himmler’s commands. However, this argument was promptly thrown out by the Polish court, since a fundamental premise of all the war crimes trials was that SS guards and officers could not protest that they were merely following orders. Two weeks after the trial’s start, the jury’s verdict was read out: “Guilty.” On April 2, Höss returned to hear his sentence: “Death by hanging in a non-public manner within the territory of the Auschwitz camp.” After the hanging, his corpse was buried near Krakow, in an unmarked grave.

For Hanns, the war was never a topic for discussion. Luxembourg offered to knight him for his efforts, but British soldiers were forbidden from accepting foreign honours. 

Hanns turned down a clutch of other awards, so his efforts went unacknowledged. After he died, aged 89, his ashes were taken to the Jewish Cemetery in Willesden, north London, and scattered at the Alexander family plot. This was where his father had been buried, later to be joined by the ashes of his mother and brother. At the head of this plot, rarely visited and covered with ivy, stands a headstone upon which reads the legend: “Service before self”.

© Thomas Harding 2013. Extracted from Hanns and Rudolf, published September 5 (William Heinemann, £20). To buy it for £16 (inc p&p), call 0845 271 2135 or visit thesundaytimes.co.uk/bookshop