It’s been almost a week since five people were killed in Calgary, each stabbed to death at a party. I have no immediate connection to the victims but I can’t help but think about how their families, and the suspect’s family, are dealing with an immense amount of tears, pain and confusion. It’s a horror I can’t even imagine can be put into words.
Some terrible things can be written down though, perhaps only because of the hindsight of history. I’ve been reading Hanns and Rudolf, The True Story of the German Jew Who Caught the Kommandant of Auschwitz by Thomas Harding. It’s a look into the lives of two men – Hanns Alexander, a German-born Jew who moved to England during the rise of the Nazis, and Rudolf Höss, a German-born man who became the overseer of a horrific concentration camp. The book follows Alexander and Höss from their beginnings as children, to their entry into military service in World War II (one in the British Army, the other as a Nazi official), to Alexander hunting Rudolf, capturing him and making him face justice for what he did – the mass murder of at least 3 million victims.
Three million people died under Höss’ authority. That’s a tremendous amount of souls. The thing that stands out to me in the book is that Höss claims he was just following orders. He did have doubts about what he was doing but didn’t want to appear soft in front of his superiors or subordinates. So he never said a word to help those poor, poor people.
After the war, Höss was eventually captured by Alexander and taken to be a witness at the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg in 1946. After Höss gave his testimony, he was sent to Poland to be tried for war crimes in that country. It’s here he was encouraged to write his stories. And he did.
In the pages of his memoir he related facts about his youth, his wife and family, his thoughts and deeds at Auschwitz. Throughout it all he claimed to be a normal person – not a wicked one. A man with a heart. Not a monster.
Poland sentenced Höss to death and hanged him on April 16, 1947. His legacy remains as one of death and the ripping apart of families for generations. His stories remain as a reminder to us that anyone can turn against a fellow human.
Alexander, the Nazi hunter, stayed silent about his accomplishments for many years. Until his stories surfaced at his funeral. That’s when his great-nephew decided to pick up a pen and write his uncle’s story. To finally share Alexander’s legacy as a witness to the atrocities with the rest of the world.
History is not just in text books. It’s in our memories. It’s good and it’s bad. With our World War II and Korean War veterans disappearing, there are many more stories to be told. We just need to catch them in time. To let them leave their historical legacies.
“The choices we make about the lives we live determine the kinds of legacies we leave.”
― Tavis Smiley, PBS host