Jun 2012 Journal

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New light thrown on capture of Hoess

Untold details about the tracking down and arrest of Rudolf Hoess, the notorious Kommandant of Auschwitz, were revealed when a Belsize Square Synagogue group travelled to Cracow just after Passover.

A quick search on Wikipedia gives the outlines of Hoess’s final years. But there are no names, just the mention of his capture by ‘British troops - some of whom were born in Germany - on 11 March 1946’.

Now, we have a name: the late Hanns Alexander. Members of Hanns’s family were among the 35 Synagogue members on the trip, led by Rabbi Stuart Altshuler and Professor Antony Polonsky, who holds the chair of Holocaust Studies at Brandeis University, Massachusetts. Hanns’s daughter, Annette Hughes, made the journey, as did his nephew, Frank Harding, with his wife Belinda and son Thomas.

On the short coach trip from Cracow to the sombre guided tour of Auschwitz, several of the party explained their own personal links to the site: grandparents lost, a last-minute escape from Germany. Thomas Harding told the group about his research on his great-uncle, which began at Hanns’s funeral in 2006.

Hanns Alexander was 19 when he left his native Berlin for Britain - he flew into Croydon airport in 1937. The rest of his family - twin brother, two older sisters and parents - came separately. As soon as war was declared he volunteered for the army and, like most German-Jewish refugees, was accepted into the Pioneer Corps, mainly digging trenches.

But by the end of war he had been moved to Intelligence and, again like many other German-speaking Jewish refugee soldiers, he was sent to Germany to act as interpreter. Only in his case there was a very specific task.

In Germany he joined a group of British soldiers, Jewish and non-Jewish, intent on finding the ruthlessly efficient Hoess. As the Red Army approached from the east to liberate the 20,000-acre Auschwitz complex, Hoess had sent his wife and five children home from the comfortable villa they occupied on the edge of the site, and then quietly slipped away. The British team went to Hoess’s wife and threatened her with handing over her oldest son to the Russians unless she revealed her husband’s whereabouts.

Under pressure Hedwig Hoess gave the location where her husband was working as a farmer under the assumed name of Franz Lang. He was living in a barn. After he had been severely beaten and confessed to his true identity, Hanns Alexander arrested him and handed him over to the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg, where he gave the first authoritative and detailed account of the entire camp operation. Senior Nazis on trial could no longer claim ignorance of the extermination policy and its implementation.

Hoess was then handed over to the Polish authorities, who tried him in Warsaw for
murder and hanged him on 16 April 1947 on the same spot in view of his villa (now occupied by a retired teacher) where prisoners of Auschwitz were publicly hanged.

After demobilisation, Mr Alexander went into a career in banking, mainly at S. G. Warburg and under successive takeovers. His story, intertwined with a study of Rudolf Hoess, is being written for publication by his great-nephew, Thomas Harding. ‘There were rumours in the family about Hanns’s being a war crimes investigator but nobody really knew,’ Thomas said:
The first time I heard it mentioned was at his funeral in 2006. Most people doubted this was true and put it down to one of his tales. The search for the truth was what got me going on my book, and it was not until I started my research, and found confirmation in the British, American and Polish archives, including Hanns’s field dispatches, that I was able to confirm that Hanns was indeed the man who arrested Rudolf Hoess.

He had backup, particularly Field Security Section 92, but Hanns had been charged by the War Crimes Group to arrest Hoess, and it was Hanns who carried out the arrest. He also delivered him to Camp Tomato, the interrogation centre, where Hoess made his first confession about Auschwitz and the millions who had been murdered there.
But, as his daughter confirmed: ‘Dad was very reluctant to talk about his wartime activities. The past was the past. He was grateful to England for giving him another chance in life.’

Ruth Rothenberg

previous article:Erich Heller – a centenary tribute
next article:AJR representatives at Buckingham Palace for Diamond Jubilee celebrations