This unusual family memoir is the story of the author’s German-born great-uncle, Hanns Alexander, and his post-war work as a war crimes investigator which resulted in the capture of Rudolf Hoss, the Commandant of Auschwitz concentration camp. The narrative unfolds in chapters alternately focusing on the two principals until fate finally brings them together in 1946. An Author’s Note explains the reasoning behind the use of first names.
Hanns, an unruly twin, was born into the Berlin Jewish bourgeoisie in 1917. He and his family escaped to Britain in 1936.
Rudolf, who is not to be confused with the Hess who flew to Britain in 1941 and ended up in Spandau Prison, was sixteen years younger and served as a boy soldier in Palestine during the First World War. Although wounded three times he survived. Another post-war misfit, or casualty, he joined the SS in 1934. A short while later he took up his first concentration camp posting at Dachau.
Rudolf climbed the administrative ladder as a bureaucrat of the death camps, while, in his adopted country, Hanns enlisted in the Pioneer Corps at the beginning of the war. His first choice had been the RAF; however, the British authorities were wary of refugee recruits from Germany and many were interned. There was a degree of prejudice against them. However, in 1943 Hanns completed officer training; by this time Rudolf had been the Commandant of Auschwitz for three years.
In 1945 Hanns joined the War Crimes Investigation unit as an interpreter. It is here in the final third of the book that the narrative picks up pace. The hunt by the German Jew who had witnessed the liberation of Belsen for the SS Commandant and their eventual encounter provides a real life plot that fiction would struggle to reproduce.
Hoss’s post-war testimony that he oversaw the killing of three million people was the first time that a camp commander had given details of the Final Solution.
His self-serving attempt to dodge culpability and the entrenched denial of his daughter – in the spirit of his forbear, Harding succeeds in tracking her down – represent pathos on a monumental scale.
The enormity of the details of mass murder is difficult to comprehend and impossible to relate as literary art. The rather pedestrian narrative, with its the plain workmanlike writing style is therefore appropriate to the horrors that are described.
Hanns died in 2006 and as the years pass inevitably the participants become fewer. This book, however, is another valuable act of witness to a defining event of the twentieth century.