Sitting pretty in her Auschwitz ‘paradise’

6 September 2014

By Thomas Harding

Martin Amis’s new novel centres on the fictional wife of a concentration camp chief and asks: how could she live there? Thomas Harding posed the same question about a real-life chatelaine and found a chilling answer.

On a cold cloudless December afternoon in a cemetery on the outskirts of Washington, I walked past a crowd of animal statues spurting water into a pond and down a gravelly path until I came to a stone wall filled with the names of the deceased.

After a few moments I found the words I was looking for: “Mutti 1908-1989”.

In an effort to avoid attention, the family had omitted the woman’s full name. They had also submitted paperwork to the cemetery concealing her true identity — for this was the final resting place of Hedwig Höss: the wife of Rudolf Höss, the kommandant of Auschwitz and the person responsible for the murder of more than 1m men, women and children.

Three years later, in February 2014, I met Martin Amis at an event held by our mutual publisher, Penguin Random House. We had a brief conversation about my recently published non-fiction book and his forthcoming novel — and the lives of their protagonists.

My book, Hanns and Rudolf, tells the story of my great-uncle, Hanns Alexander, a German Jew who became a Nazi hunter, and Rudolf Höss. Amis’s book, The Zone of Interest, describes the universe of a fictional concentration camp kommandant, clearly based on Rudolf Höss.

The books share a common focus: Hedwig Höss — or Hannah Doll as Amis calls her — the wife of the kommandant. At the start of his book Amis asks why Hedwig/Hannah does not leave her husband and the camp. During my research I tried to answer the same question.

In December 2010 I visited Hedwig Höss’s daughter Brigitte, then 77, who lived in a small house in a suburb outside Washington. It had taken me more than two years to persuade her to talk to me. It was the first interview ever given by one of Rudolf and Hedwig’s children, giving a fascinating insight into the youngsters who grew up blissfully in the shadow of one of the world’s greatest human atrocities and the mother who shielded them from the horror.

During that first interview we sat in a small room cluttered with books, toys and old furniture. The windows were covered with white drapes and in front of us a large muted television flickered.

She explained to me that her mother had died during a visit to Washington in September 1989. It was one of many trips that Hedwig had made to America from Germany in the 1980s; the US government was unconcerned by her flying in and out of the country.

After talking for an hour or so, Brigitte took me upstairs to show me her bedroom and pointed towards a frameless picture hanging above her bed. It showed a fresh-faced young man in dark trousers and a white shirt, and a young girl wearing an ankle-length white dress. This was the wedding photograph of Brigitte’s parents. Every night she slept under the picture of the kommandant and his wife.

Brigitte’s parents had met as volunteers on a farm in northern Germany in 1928. Within six years the couple and their two children relocated to Dachau to allow Rudolf to train as a prison guard. He was considered somebody who would do what he was told and by 1940 he was asked to establish a new camp in the now German-occupied southern region of Poland, near the village of Oswiecim, known to the Germans as Auschwitz.

Hedwig was in Auschwitz with Rudolf from the very beginning. First a barracks, then a camp for Polish political prisoners, by early 1942 it had been expanded and upgraded and was soon receiving the first transports of Jews from around Europe. Hedwig moved their rapidly expanding family — by now they had four children, soon they would have five — into a two-storey house on the edge of the camp.

A few months after their arrival she got political prisoners from the camp to paint the walls and renovate the bathroom and kitchen. They decorated the house with tapestries, furnishings and paintings stolen from prisoners. She also employed a gardener, a cook, a governess, a tailor, a painter, a seamstress, a barber and a chauffeur.

The villa had a large garden and Hedwig invested considerable effort in creating a beautiful haven for herself and her children. She built a greenhouse in which she grew exotic plants. A pool was dug next to the back door and filled with fish, while nearby a sandpit was built in which her young children played, as well as a large grassy area around which they cycled and enjoyed their games.

From the second-floor window Hedwig could view the raspberry bushes climbing up the garden wall and from which Brigitte and her siblings stole fruit when their mother was not looking. From there she could also see across the garden wall and into Auschwitz: the office block from where her husband oversaw the camp, the barracks where the prisoners slept and the old crematoriums, where her husband first experimented with gassing prisoners using Zyklon B.

Brigitte, who lived in the villa from the ages of 7 to 11, knew that her father — whom she described as the “nicest father in the world” — ran the camp. She also knew that the camp held prisoners. “They had striped uniforms and they came to the house and garden,” she recalled, “and they were always very happy when they came.” However, she insisted that when she had been a child living next to the camp she hadn’t known about the murders, the selections or the gas chambers.

From photographs taken in the 1940s it is possible to see that the Höss family were living an ordinary life just a few yards from misery and torment. While her husband was “at work” in the camp, Hedwig was having picnics with friends in the garden or watching as her children played on a slide. Their life was so enjoyable that Hedwig described it as “paradise”. Indeed, when her husband was relocated for a few months, Hedwig chose to remain in the Auschwitz villa rather than join her husband in Berlin.

During Christmas, with snow blanketing the fields around the camp, Hedwig and the children would travel by sledge to the nearby villages. Wrapped in blankets and drinking hot cocoa, they would sing carols and holiday songs. In summer she would walk down to the Sola River and watch as her children swam or played in the long grass with their tortoises, Jumbo and Dilla.

“She was unbelievable, wonderful and nice,” Brigitte told me. “She did everything that you wanted, that you needed. She was the nicest person in the world.” According to Brigitte, Hedwig gave food to the prisoners, spoke to them kindly and in return was called the Angel of Auschwitz.

When I asked Brigitte if her mother knew about the murders in the camp, the gassings and the brutality, she paused for a few moments, sighed and told me that yes, she probably did. Looking back on it now, Brigitte said that what had taken place within the Auschwitz camp was “very wrong” and that it made her “sad”.

Yet Hedwig appears to have agreed with her husband’s views. The gardener, Stanislaw Dubiel, once overheard her say that the Jews “must disappear from the face of the Earth to the last man”. On the other hand, Rudolf claimed that Hedwig became so deeply distressed when she found out about the mass murder in the camp that she stopped having sex with him.

In his book Amis places great focus on the sex life of the kommandant, his wife and their lovers. At one point Hedwig/Hannah takes a kimono from her shoulders and asks the kommandant: “Do you know which dead woman you stole this from?”

Hedwig and Rudolf’s sex life was indeed complicated. The kommandant had a long-term affair with one of the political prisoners, Eleanor Hodys (known as Alisz Seisser in Amis’s book), whom he made pregnant, forced to have an abortion and locked in a tiny cell for months.

Meanwhile, Hedwig was conducting an affair with another prisoner, Karola Bohnera, a German kapo who fried fish for the family in the villa. One day Rudolf returned unexpectedly and found Hedwig and Bohnera in the greenhouse. He quickly understood what was going on and “made a scene”. Hedwig was able to pacify Rudolf on the condition that Bohnera never returned to the villa. But she continued to see him when her husband was away.

Brigitte claims not to have known about her parents’ affairs. When I pushed her about her mother’s character, she preferred to talk about what her mother achieved after the war’s end, how she had heroically protected her five children, overcoming terrible poverty and harsh winters. This is the story the family now tells itself, as if its history started in April 1947 after the kommandant had been hanged on a gallows in Auschwitz.

Whenever Hedwig was asked if she had a husband and, if so, what happened to him, she would simply tell people that he “died during the war”.

At the end of The Zone of Interest, one of Amis’s characters says Hedwig/Hannah was “her husband’s victim”, an unwilling witness, if not participant.

From my research I concluded something different: Hedwig Höss was a believer. A believer in National Socialism, a believer in anti-semitism, a believer in the Final Solution. She knew about the killings taking place at the camp and yet she remained, even when her husband had left.

To her, life in Auschwitz was “paradise”. She chose to stay. She was no victim.

Thomas Harding is the author of the bestselling book Hanns and Rudolf: The German Jew and the Hunt for the Kommandant of Auschwitz. You can follow him on Twitter@ThomasHarding