Thomas Harding is the author of the new book Hanns and Rudolf: The True Story of the German Jew Who Tracked Down and Caught the Kommandant of Auschwitz. He has written for a variety of publications, including The Sunday Times and the Financial Times. He lives in Hampshire, England.
Q: Why did you decide to write this book?
A: In 2006 I was listening to the eulogy at my great-uncle Hanns’s funeral. There was much that was familiar—that he was born in Berlin, fled to London, joined the British army, and ended up [serving] at Belsen. But what I had never heard before was that he had been [a Nazi-hunter] and had captured the kommandant of Auschwitz.
I asked my father about this, and he said that [Hanns] was a bit of a prankster, and that he wasn’t sure. It piqued my interest.
Q: What has been the reaction to the book from your family members?
A: Overwhelming support, pride, interest. There’s a real sense of excitement.
Q: What surprised you the most as you researched the book?
A: On Hanns’s side, that he caught the kommandant of Auschwitz, and that he showed foresight in not killing the man. He did allow [the soldiers with him] to beat him, but not to kill him. [Rudolf] Hoss’s [subsequent] testimony at Nuremberg changed the momentum of the trial, and his memoirs [also were important].
On Rudolf’s side, the ordinariness of his family. I had to challenge myself to see him as a human being. It was more scary than seeing him as a two-dimensional monster.
Q: You write that you don’t mean to equate your uncle and Hoss by referring to them by their respective first names. Have you heard any complaints about calling them by their first names?
A: At first I did. Now that people have read the book, I [don’t]. I first was [thinking of it] as Hanns and Hoss, but I felt I had to tell it as it was. It is important that Rudolf Hoss’s crimes—he was maybe the worst mass murderer in history—be acknowledged. It is important that my great-uncle captured him, and that [Hoss was hanged]. It’s a way of acknowledging the crimes, while trying to answer the question of how does one become the Kommandant of Auschwitz? What would lead one to become a mass murderer? For me, that was much more interesting. This information could try to help [prevent something similar from happening] in the future.
Q: What has been the reaction to the book from Rudolf Hoss’s family members?
A: The grandson has been very supportive. I went to Auschwitz with him, and he and his mother were visibly moved. I’ve been meeting with [Hoss’s] daughter who lives outside Washington. I think she’s conflicted. She wants to help and to tell the story, but she doesn’t want to move from her primary story, her love for her father, and this challenges that.
Q: How did you conduct the research for this book?
A: It took a long time. I met with lots of people, I interviewed family members, I listened to recordings from family and witnesses from Auschwitz collected by the Shoah Foundation, I looked at Army declassified documents.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: The book has been translated into 11 languages.
It’s really a contemporary story of how does evil come about? What drives a man to face his persecutor? When is revenge justified? These are big questions.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. This interview was conducted in conjunction with The Lessans Family Annual Book Festival at The JCC of Greater Washington. Thomas Harding will be speaking at the festival on Tuesday, November 12, at 8:15pm.