My Nazi family

Rainer Höß is the grandson of Auschwitz top executioner Rudolf Höß. His quest for truth broke four generations of silence, and turned him into a pariah in a family still infected by the virus of Holocaust denial.

Rudolf Höß and his family at their Auschwitz villa. (Rainer's father, Hans-Jürgen, is sitting next to his mother Hedwig.)
Photo courtesy of Rainer Höß, IFZ

Rainer Höß is the grandson of Auschwitz top executioner Rudolf Höß. His quest for truth broke four generations of silence, and turned him into a pariah in a family still infected by the virus of Holocaust denial.

Rainer Höß has more skeletons in his family closet than most: Adolf Eichmann estimated the number at 2.5 million. Rainer’s grandfather Rudolf Höß, the Kommandant of Auschwitz, initially agreed with Eichmann’s estimate, but after meticulous re-examination of the numbers of Jews arriving in Auschwitz during the Nazis’ “major transport actions”, Höß felt the figure was closer to 1.5 million.

At the peak of his three-year reign of terror in the Nazi death camp, Rudolf Höß supervised the murder of over 400,000 Hungarian Jews in 56 days –more than 7000 people per day. All this just a few metres away from the family villa, where wife Hedwig was busy watching over their five children, the youngest of whom was born there.

But what happened to the Höß family after the Polish authorities executed Rudolf Höß by hanging at the Auschwitz camp in 1947?

While the struggles of the children of Heinrich Himmler, Hermann Göring, Hans Frank and Amon Göth are fairly well documented, little is known about how the descendants of one of the worst mass murderers in history have dealt with their gruesome legacy. One reason is the culture of silence and denial cultivated by the entire family.

“It is still unimaginable for me how my grandfather could have snapped on his belt and pistol, kissed his wife and children goodbye and then gone off to a day of killing thousands of people,” says Rainer Höß.

Unlike previous generations of his family, Rainer Höß has never swept his grandfather’s legacy under the carpet. “My children knew from the beginning who their great-grandfather was. I have never lied to my kids nor concealed anything about my family’s past. My eldest son even chose my grandfather as the subject of an English assignment,” he says.

In 2009, the 48-year-old grandson of Rudolf Höß decided to break the family silence. He visited Auschwitz as the first Höß family member to return to the scene of his grandfather’s unimaginable crimes – and his dad’s childhood playground. Rainer Höß’ journey into his family’s dark past culminated in the publication of Das Erbe des Kommandanten (The Commandant’s Legacy) in 2013, an exposé of the Höß family’s inbred culture of silence, denial and the glorification of their patriarch as an upstanding SS soldier and officer.

Today, in Höß family circles, he, Rainer, not grandfather Rudolf, is the family pariah. “A lying, drug-addicted, fame-seeking, money-hungry, evil young man,” in the words of his 80-year-old aunt Inge-Brigitt.

“My family has managed to keep a lie alive for 60 years with this dogma of not talking about it. They’re just unable to face blame or guilt. I want to hold a mirror up to them and make them look at themselves,” says Rainer Höß. But it is a mirror they are unwilling to see.

Last year, Rainer Höß had a horrifying encounter with an estranged member of the Höß family – in the form of a post published on a Holocaust forum: “I’m a relative of Rudolf Höß living in Australia. I’m not ashamed of the overstated outcomes of the Jews during WWII.

Other nationalities fared much worse – Russians under Stalin and other nationalities under the Iron Curtain. The Jews continue to perpetrate themselves as victims – it’s time they moved on,” wrote Anita Höß on August 7. Anita is Rainer Höß’ estranged Australian niece, the daughter of his cousin Christine and the mass murder’s great-granddaughter.

“Obviously the virus planted by my grandparents has borne fruit in Australia. You can see why I don’t want anything to do with this side of the family,” says Rainer Höß from his home in Baden-Württemberg. But how did the insidious poison of Holocaust denial trickle down to a fourth-generation descendant of Rudolf Höß born and living in faraway Sydney, Australia?

Uncle Klaus

In the mid-1960s, Klaus Höß, the eldest of Rudolf and Hedwig Höß’ five children, emigrated with his German wife Lisolet (Lilo) to Australia.

“Uncle Klaus’ only skill was that of a chemist’s assistant, and they weren’t in big demand at the time,” says Rainer Höß. “According to family legend, the Höß family came up with a half million deutschmarks as a bond so that Klaus could emigrate to Australia.

But Hedwig, as the widow of a convicted war criminal, was unable to get a war pension and the family lived in extreme poverty. Neither did she work. She never had a job. So the money can only have come from the old Nazi network that flocked around her,” Rainer Höß surmises.

The virus planted by my grandparents has borne fruit in Australia. You can see why I don’t want anything to do with this side of the family.

At age 15, Klaus Höß had the reputation of being the most hated person in Auschwitz for shooting at inmates with a slingshot. A Höß family picture to mark the birth of their youngest daughter Annegret in Auschwitz shows Klaus proudly wearing the black SS uniform presented to him by “Uncle Heini” – SS chief Heinrich Himmler. Rainer Höß’ mother recalled Klaus bouncing on the knee of Lina Heydrich, the widow of SS security chief Reinhard Heydrich, who was killed by British-trained Czech and Slovak commandos in Prague in June, 1942.

Klaus and Lilo Höß settled in Sydney where they brought up their only daughter, Christine Höß, Anita’s mother. They later divorced. In the mid-1980s Klaus died in Sydney from liver cirrhosis as a result of chronic alcohol abuse. Three generations – Lilo, Christine and Anita – supposedly still live in Australia, their exact whereabouts unknown except to Höß family insiders.

Thanks to his post as a baggage logistics specialist with Pan Am and Qantas, Klaus Höß managed to make regular visits to Germany for family events such as weddings and baptisms. At the same time, he managed to build up a reputation as a notorious risk factor for those occasions due to his heavy drinking, often stumbling out of control and being the epicentre of humiliating embarrassments for the “Generalissima”, Grandma Hedwig.

“Uncle Klaus even brushed his teeth with Jim Beam whiskey in the morning. But he was the father I never had. He was the sort of guy you could physically touch and have fun with, unlike my own father, Hans-Jürgen, who was a violent dictator at home, as well as anti-Semitic. There was never any touching, never any warmth, with my father. It was like a boot camp at home.

Yet with Uncle Klaus it was totally different. I never heard him say anything racist about anyone. He even had an Afro-American friend during his time working at a US military base in Stuttgart,” says Rainer Höß. Rather, he traces the roots of Holocaust denial back to his grandmother, Hedwig Höß.

“Whenever I asked her about Auschwitz, she simply swept it under the carpet, saying I wouldn’t understand it anyway. She would just say that they were hard times and were better left forgotten. She did a masterly job of covering everything up. Even hardened, old Nazis turned into lapdogs in her presence. She dominated a room the minute she set foot in it,” says Rainer Höß.

“This type of indoctrination certainly worked with my father Hans-Jürgen. I think it did too with Aunt Inge-Brigitt. My aunt Heidetraut got her portion as well. Only her youngest daughter Annegret didn’t seem to get so infected with all this baggage.” In those conditions it was not easy for the young Rainer to uncover his family past.

Ironically, it was a family heirloom handed down from Rudolf Höß to his grandson that spurred Rainer Höß to put a circuit breaker into the generational silence surrounding the mass murderer’s legacy.

Pandora’s chest

During his time as Auschwitz’s commander from 1941-43, SS chief Heinrich Himmler presented Rudolf Höß with a 30kg chest covered in SS runes and swastikas. Rainer Höß inherited it after Hedwig Höß gave it to his mother at the beginning of the 1960s. Once he opened this Pandora’s box, there was no stopping him.

The chest contained over 2100 pages of previously unpublished records with Rudolf Höß’ personal insights into the darkest chapter in human history, including detailed depictions of scenes he witnessed and observations on how to improve the mass slaughtering process. “My coauthors were in a state of shock after they read them,” says Rainer Höß.

Over 600 pictures of the Höß family idyll in Auschwitz, 50 colour slides, ammunition boxes, clothing, cigarette holders, a gold signet ring (possibly from inmates’ gold teeth), Hedwig Höß’ marginalia on Auschwitz books and letters from Rudolf to his beloved family complemented the find.

“My grandfather’s notes also provide accurate descriptions of individuals and units serving in Auschwitz,” says Rainer Höß, still amazed that only 41 of approximately 8000 Auschwitz guards were ever sentenced. Neither is he happy about the number of ex-SS Auschwitz functionaries that returned to Germany under their real names and assumed positions as bank directors and doctors.

Rudolf Höß’ chest of horrors has now found a new home in Munich’s Institute For Contemporary History. Whether Rudolf Höß’ descriptions of SS functionaries in Auschwitz led to the arrest of three Auschwitz guards, ranging in age from 88 to 94, last February, is a secret the Munich institute director Klaus Lankheit is keeping to himself. But they may well have played a role.

The core of Rainer Höß’ research into his family’s history of denial centred on Rudolf Höß’ cold-blooded and deeply disturbing posthumous memoir Kommandant in Auschwitz, first published in 1958. Together with his grandfather’s unpublished records, they formed a damning case for his confrontation with Kommandant Höß’ family legacy.

Ashes on the strawberries

Another vital piece of the puzzle was Rudolf Höß’ driver in Auschwitz, Leopold Heger. For the young Rainer Höß, Heger took over the role of the grandfather he lost when Rudolf Höß was hung by the Polish authorities in April 1947.

“Leo absolutely idolised Rudolf Höß. He put him up there on a level with Adolf Hitler. He was extremely proud to have been his driver. Leo was a hardcore Nazi till the day he died, but I loved him nonetheless. He always answered my questions honestly,” says Rainer Höß.

Heger went into detail describing to the young Rainer how Auschwitz always stank; of having to dust ash off the strawberries in the Höß family garden; of the Höß children dressing up as inmates in striped uniforms with stars on their chests – until Rudolf Höß barged through the front gate and put a quick stop to their game; how the Höß children visited the Auschwitz death camp with metal name tags hung around their necks to ensure they did not get caught up in the relentless wheels of the killing machinery. He was the one to claim that Klaus Höß had targeted prisoners with his slingshot.

Mountains of police records detailing the names of those arrested, corresponding railway transport records and arrival records in Auschwitz backed up all of the history that generations of the Höß family had tried to sweep under the carpet.

“Everything crossmatches. The statements of Auschwitz survivors back up and support the observations and reports of Leo and SS men like my grandfather. The deportees’ records have their corresponding records in the concentration camps. In Mein Kampf, Hitler spelt out graphically what he planned to do. Goebbels wrote openly about making Germany ‘Jew-free’ and recorded the major transports in his diary. Police records back it all up. How can anyone deny the horrors of Auschwitz?” asks Rainer Höß, dumbfounded.

Auntie Inge-Brigitt

Inge-Brigitt Höß, the third of Rudolf Höß’ five children, is the only Höß family member willing to speak publicly about her infamous father and the effect of Rainer’s book on the Höß family legend. Now 80 and suffering from cancer, she has spent the last 40 years of her life living in Washington, where the former blonde bombshell and model worked for a Jewish-run, upmarket fashion store catering to Washington’s elite.

“What he’s done is extremely bad – he wasn’t even born at the time, so he can’t know what he is talking about. He’s only doing it for money. First he tried to sell my father’s chest to a Jewish museum [Yad Vashem in Israel] and now he’s trying to make money with this book. He must be on drugs – he’s not normal. I couldn’t finish the book. I got too angry,” says Inge-Brigitt in a clear, youthful northern German accent that belies her age by several decades.

Brigitte, as she now calls herself, says she has many Jewish friends in the US, but still wonders how so many survived the Holocaust. A picture of her beloved father hangs on her bedroom wall. “My father was a very loving man. He must have had two sides to him, a side we never knew,” she says.

We knew nothing about what went on inside the camp. No one did. We did simply what children did – played… I can’t recall seeing any smoke or ash on the strawberries… Rainer is an unbelievable liar.

She swears by God the Höß children were never inside the death camp and that it never stunk at their Auschwitz villa, located just metres away from the barracks and a crematorium. “We knew nothing about what went on inside the camp. No one did. And it is untrue that Klaus ever shot at prisoners. Sure, we had prisoners in the garden and house and we played with them but we were never inside the camp. We did simply what children did – played. I was only seven or eight years old at the time, but I can’t recall seeing any smoke or ash on the strawberries,” says Inge-Brigitt Höß. “Rainer’s an unbelievable liar.”

Interestingly, the old woman admits Hitler’s crimes were unpardonable and does not deny what went on in Auschwitz, but believes that behind-the-scenes forces were also at work to slander the name of her father and Germany.

“It is interesting how the Nazis always get a bad press and no one else does. My father was not the only one. There were higher-ups elsewhere that were far worse. My father told me that if he had been told to say there were five million victims by the authorities, he would have said it. The crematoriums got a touch-up – they were far better after the war. There were darker forces at work,” says Inge-Brigitt Höß. The Allies? “Yes,” she replies.

Inge-Brigitt Höß has never bothered to read her father’s memoir. It has never interested her. “I think it is lying in a box somewhere,” she says. Neither does she have any wish or desire to return to Auschwitz, the cradle of her childhood. “I am too old now, too sick,” she says.

Rudolf Höß’s eldest daughter features regularly as an interview partner for world-famous Holocaust denier Dr. Robert Faurisson. As a token of her gratitude, Inge-Brigitt presented him with pictures of the Höß family in their Auschwitz playground. Neither is telling her grandchildren about the darker corners of her past high on her list of priorities. Höß family history is on a need-to-know basis, ensuring that the generational malaise of denial will take root in new generations just as it has in Australia.

Of Rudolf Höß’ remaining three children, his eldest daughter Heidetraut lives somewhere in northern Germany suffering from dementia; Rainer’s father Hans-Jürgen no longer has any contact to the Höß family and was last reported as living in northern Germany as a member of a religious sect; Annegret, the youngest Höß and the sole family member to have Auschwitz as her birthplace in her passport, is also believed to be living in northern Germany. Inge-Brigitt remains in contact with Anita Höß’ grandmother Lilo in Sydney. But she’s keeping mum on where the Kommandant of Auschwitz’s Sydney descendants reside.

Rainer Höß’ numerous attempts to track down his niece Anita in Sydney have run into a brick wall, ensuring that yet another Höß generation grows up with Rudolf Höß’ and Grandma Hedwig’s virus without knowing where it originated. “Let her know she has an uncle in Germany who is very keen to speak to her,” says Rainer Höß as he hangs up the phone.

Originally published in issue #126, April 2014.