How a German Jew Caught the Kommandant of Auschwitz

Thomas Harding's History Reads Like a Thriller

Following Orders: In 1941, Rodolf Höss was approached by Heinrich Himmler who asked him to build and run a new concentration camp called Auschwitz.
Getty Images
Following Orders: In 1941, Rodolf Höss was approached by Heinrich Himmler who asked him to build and run a new concentration camp called Auschwitz.

By Malcolm Forbes

Published December 20, 2013, issue of December 20, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

Hanns and Rudolf: The True Story of the German Jew Who Tracked Down and Caught the Kommandant of Auschwitz
by Thomas Harding
Simon & Schuster, 369 Pages, $26

At the end of 2006, journalist Thomas Harding attended the funeral of his great-uncle, Hanns Alexander, in London. After the recital of the Kaddish, two of Hanns’s nephews gave a eulogy that traced their uncle’s life, from his upbringing in Berlin to his family’s flight from Nazi Germany to England, and then to his war effort with the British Army against his native country. Much of this was known to the congregation.

However, Harding was jolted by one detail that had formerly never been aired: In 1945 Hanns had changed from soldier to Nazi hunter and was responsible for tracking down the Kommandant of Auschwitz, Rudolf Höss. His interest thoroughly piqued, Harding began investigating and the result is the meticulously researched and rivetingly reported “Hanns and Rudolf.”

Throughout the book, Harding refers to both men by their first names. In doing so, he brings the reader closer to his subjects. Harding alternates his subjects for each chapter, beginning first with Rudolf’s origins, then switching to those of Hanns in Chapter 2, and so on. Such a structure allows the reader to view the differences between the two men — Catholic and Jew, persecutor and persecuted, vanquished and vanquisher — and affords Harding enough room to flesh each of them out into full-bodied beings.

Harding’s early chapters skillfully set scenes for what will ensue. After a lonely childhood Rudolf signs up to fight in World War I, where he serves on the Mesopotamian frontlines. He shoots his first man and realizes he can kill quickly and efficiently in the heat of battle. Commended and promoted, he ignores the armistice, joins the Freikorps and takes part in massacring Bolsheviks in Latvia. Such slaughtering seems to have little effect on him. However, when he is noticed by Heinrich Himmler and tasked with supervising a newly established political prisoner camp in Dachau, he is appalled by the brutal corporal punishment meted out by sadistic guards. Harding excels at pinpointing these contradictions but leaves the reader to extrapolate the conclusions.

Hanns’s beginnings are calmer and less gripping, partly due to the fact that he was born in 1917, 16 years after Rudolf, and thus missed out on war and the subsequent political mayhem. But when Hitler becomes chancellor and the Nazi stranglehold tightens, Hanns’s affluent Jewish family feels the pressure and fears the worst. Suddenly his father, an eminent doctor, loses patients and income; Marlene Dietrich, Albert Einstein and Richard Strauss are no longer at their dinner table or parties.

Harding’s account of the Jewish boycott and Hanns’s escape out of Germany, aged 19, is laced with tension — a feat that is all the more remarkable since we know exactly what follows in both instances. Hanns makes a new life for himself in Britain. His mother stays behind in Berlin to try to sell the family practice — just as the Gestapo is increasing its roundups. We read on, anxious to discover if she can get out in time.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • The eggplant is beloved in Israel. So why do Americans keep giving it a bad rap? With this new recipe, Vered Guttman sets out to defend the honor of her favorite vegetable.
  • “KlezKamp has always been a crazy quilt of gay and straight, religious and nonreligious, Jewish and gentile.” Why is the klezmer festival shutting down now?
  • “You can plagiarize the Bible, can’t you?” Jill Sobule says when asked how she went about writing the lyrics for a new 'Yentl' adaptation. “A couple of the songs I completely stole." Share this with the theater-lovers in your life!
  • Will Americans who served in the Israeli army during the Gaza operation face war crimes charges when they get back home?
  • Talk about a fashion faux pas. What was Zara thinking with the concentration camp look?
  • “The Black community was resistant to the Jewish community coming into the neighborhood — at first.” Watch this video about how a group of gardeners is rebuilding trust between African-Americans and Jews in Detroit.
  • "I am a Jewish woman married to a non-Jewish man who was raised Catholic, but now considers himself a “common-law Jew.” We are raising our two young children as Jews. My husband's parents are still semi-practicing Catholics. When we go over to either of their homes, they bow their heads, often hold hands, and say grace before meals. This is an especially awkward time for me, as I'm uncomfortable participating in a non-Jewish religious ritual, but don't want his family to think I'm ungrateful. It's becoming especially vexing to me now that my oldest son is 7. What's the best way to handle this situation?" http://jd.fo/b4ucX What would you do?
  • Maybe he was trying to give her a "schtickle of fluoride"...
  • It's all fun, fun, fun, until her dad takes the T-Bird away for Shabbos.
  • "Like many Jewish people around the world, I observed Shabbat this weekend. I didn’t light candles or recite Hebrew prayers; I didn’t eat challah or matzoh ball soup or brisket. I spent my Shabbat marching for justice for Eric Garner of Staten Island, Michael Brown of Ferguson, and all victims of police brutality."
  • Happy #NationalDogDay! To celebrate, here's a little something from our archives:
  • A Jewish couple was attacked on Monday night in New York City's Upper East Side. According to police, the attackers flew Palestinian flags.
  • "If the only thing viewers knew about the Jews was what they saw on The Simpsons they — and we — would be well served." What's your favorite Simpsons' moment?
  • "One uncle of mine said, 'I came to America after World War II and I hitchhiked.' And Robin said, 'I waited until there was a 747 and a kosher meal.'" Watch Billy Crystal's moving tribute to Robin Williams at last night's #Emmys:
  • "Americans are much more focused on the long term and on the end goal which is ending the violence, and peace. It’s a matter of zooming out rather than debating the day to day.”
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.