Hanns and Rudolf: The True Story of the German Jew Who Tracked Down and Caught the Kommandant of Auschwitz

Hanns and Rudolf: The True Story of the German Jew Who Tracked Down and Caught the Kommandant of Auschwitz

by Thomas Harding


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781476711843
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: 09/03/2013
Pages: 368
Sales rank: 1,328,776
Product dimensions: 6.42(w) x 9.12(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Thomas Harding is a former documentary filmmaker and journalist who has written for the Financial Times and The Guardian, among other publications. He founded a television station in Oxford, England, and for many years was an award-winning publisher of a newspaper in West Virginia. Hanns and Rudolf is his first book. He lives in Hampshire, England.

Read an Excerpt

Hanns and Rudolf


ALEXANDER. Howard Harvey, lovingly known as Hanns, passed away quickly and peacefully on Friday, 23rd December. Cremation on Thursday, 28th December, 2.30 p.m. at Hoop Lane, Golders Green Crematorium, West Chapel. No flowers please. Donations, if desired, to North London Hospice.

Daily Telegraph, December 28, 2006

Hanns Alexander’s funeral was held on a cold and rainy afternoon three days after Christmas. Considering the weather, and the timing, the turnout was impressive. More than three hundred people packed into the chapel. The congregation arrived early, and in full force, grabbing all the seats. Fifteen people from Hanns’s old bank, Warburg’s, were in attendance, including the former and current CEO. His close friends were there, as was the extended family. Hanns’s wife of sixty years, Ann, sat in the front row, along with the couple’s two daughters, Jackie and Annette.

The synagogue’s cantor recited the Kaddish, the traditional Jewish prayer for the dead. He then paused. Looking down upon Ann and her two daughters, he delivered a short sermon, saying how sorry he was for their loss and how Hanns would be missed by the entire community. When he had finished, two of Hanns’s nephews stood to give a joint eulogy.

Much was familiar: Hanns growing up in Berlin. The Alexanders fleeing the Nazis and moving to England. Hanns fighting with the British Army. His career as a low-level banker. His commitment to the family and his half-century of schlepping for the synagogue.

But there was one detail that caught nearly everyone off guard: that at the war’s end Hanns had tracked down the Kommandant of Auschwitz, Rudolf Höss.

This piqued my interest. For Hanns Alexander was my grandmother’s brother, my great-uncle. Growing up, we had been cautioned not to ask questions about the war. Now I learned 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’s 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. After all, if he had really been a Nazi hunter, wouldn’t it have been mentioned in his obituary?

I decided to find out if it was true.


We live in an age when the waters are closing over the history of the Second World War, when we are about to lose the last remaining witnesses, when all that is left are accounts retold so many times that they have lost their original veracity. And so we are left with caricatures: Hitler and Himmler as monsters, Churchill and Roosevelt as conquering warriors, and millions of Jews as victims.

Yet Hanns Alexander and Rudolf Höss were men with many sides to their characters. As such, this story challenges the traditional portrayal of the hero and the villain. Both men were adored by their families and respected by their colleagues. Both grew up in Germany in the early decades of the twentieth century and, in their way, loved their country. At times, Rudolf Höss, the brutal Kommandant, displayed a capacity for compassion. And the behavior of his pursuer, Hanns Alexander, was not always above suspicion. This book is therefore a reminder of a more complex world, told through the lives of two men who grew up in parallel and yet opposing German cultures.

It is also an attempt to follow the courses of the two men’s lives, and to understand how they came to meet. And the attempt raises difficult questions. How does a man become a mass murderer? Why does a person choose to confront his persecutors? What happens to the families of such men? Is revenge ever justified?

Even more, this story is an argument that when the worlds of these two men collided, modern history was changed. The testimony that emerged proved particularly significant in the war crimes trials at the end of the Second World War: Höss was the first senior Nazi to admit to executing Himmler and Hitler’s Final Solution. And he did so in great and shocking detail. This testimony, unprecedented in its description of human evil, drove the world to swear that such unspeakable atrocities would never again be repeated. From this point forward, those suffering from extreme injustice could dare to hope for intervention.

It is also the story of surprise. In my comfortable north London upbringing, Jews—and I am one—were cast as the victims of the Holocaust, not its avengers. I had never really questioned that stereo-type until I fell into this story. Or, to be more accurate, it fell to me.

This is a Jew-fighting-back story. And while there are some well-known examples of resistance—uprisings in the ghettos, revolts in the camps, attacks from the woods—such examples are few. Each should be celebrated, as an inspiration to others. Even when faced with profound brutality, hope for survival—and perhaps revenge—is still possible.

This is a story pieced together from histories, biographies, archives, family letters, old tape recordings and interviews with survivors. And it is a story that was, for reasons that I think will become clear, never fully told by the men at its heart: Hanns and Rudolf.

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations ix

Maps xii

Author's Note xix

Prologue 1

1 Rudolf, Baden-Baden, Germany, 1901 5

2 Hanns, Berlin, Germany, 1917 17

3 Rudolf, Berlin, Germany, 1918 29

4 Harms, Berlin, Germany, 1928 44

5 Rudolf, Berlin, Germany, 1928 51

6 Hanns, Berlin, Germany, 1933 72

7 Rudolf, Oswiecim, Upper Silesia, 1939 95

8 Hanns, London, England, 1939 117

9 Rudolf, Oswiecim, Upper Silesia, 1942 131

10 Harms, Normandy, France, 1945 148

11 Rudolf, Berlin, Germany, 1943 155

12 Hanns, Brussels, Belgium, 1945 170

13 Rudolf, Berlin, Germany, 1945 196

14 Hanns, Belsen, Germany, 1945 203

15 Harms and Rudolf, Gottrupel and Belsen, Germany, 1946 226

16 Hanns and Rudolf, Gottrupel, Germany, 1946 240

17 Hanns and Rudolf, Belsen and Nuremberg, Germany, 1946 246

Epilogue 275

Postscript 281

Notes 288

Family Trees 328

Research Sources 330

Bibliography 333

Acknowledgments 336

Index 339

What People are Saying About This

Antony Polonsky

“This important and moving book describes the unlikely intersection of two very different lives—that of Hanns Alexander, the son of a prosperous German family in Berlin who became a refugee in London in the 1930s and Rudolf Höss, the Kommandant of the Auschwitz Concentration Camp. Well-researched and grippingly written it provides a unique insight into the fate of Germany under National Socialism.”

Richard Breitman

“Thomas Harding has written a book of two intersecting lives: His uncle, a German Jew and potential Nazi victim, and Rudolf Höss, Kommandant of Auschwitz. In a neat historical irony, his uncle became a British officer who tracked down war criminals, including one of the worst mass murderers. A fascinating account, with chunks of new information, about one of history's darkest chapters.”

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Hanns and Rudolf: The True Story of the German Jew Who Tracked Down and Caught the Kommandant of Auschwitz 4.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
CherylM-M More than 1 year ago
The author has gone back into the early childhood and adult years to give a little insight into the character of Höss. Most of the men in powerful positions during the Nazi era were the same age and I wonder if there is any correlation between their possible involvement in live warfare during WW1 and their propensity to commit acts of savagery without any sense of wrongdoing. That isn't an excuse of course, but we are talking about normal men from everyday walks of life, who ordered and committed atrocious acts of cruelty upon their fellow human beings. Although Höss was given the assessment/title of psychopath (in this book) by a medical professional I would argue that the person diagnosing him was probably not impartial enough for that title to be definitive without further assessment by other professionals. Deeming him a person with psychopathic tendencies makes it easier for the lay person to accept that someone, or any person, would help create and perfect a killing system of such proficiency the likes of which has never been seen before and I hope never is again. Instead of accepting the reality that the majority of the people in charge were just Tom, Dick and Harry's and nice girls from next door. What I admired most about the way the author described Hanns Alexander was the way he didn't hide the anger. He didn't try to be diplomatic or hide what he really felt. Hanns wore his anger on his sleeve. These criminals took his home, his city and some of his family. Why wasn't anyone looking for justice for the victims? Forgotten during the war, despite reports of mass murder, and forgotten after the war, because punishing the criminals didn't take precedence over post-war power struggles. So Hanns ended up acting like a vigilante to get the information he wanted and he let his anger control his actions. None of us can say how we would react to seeing the horrors and live evidence of the suffering in the aftermath of the liberation. The writing suffered now and again from the literal translation, which was evident in the sentence structure. Aside from that this book is a powerful reminder that some of the perpetrators were actually hunted down and punished. Unfortunately the reality is that only a few received their dues and the majority of the murderers were allowed to live a full life, unlike their many victims. Historical accounts like this should serve as a reminder never to forget. I received a copy of this book via NetGalley.
efm More than 1 year ago
Well written, informative story of finding and bringing to justice a nazi killer.
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EmilyDSM More than 1 year ago
This is a fabulous book.  Don't miss it.  
Anonymous More than 1 year ago