ALEXANDER. Howard Harvey, lovingly known as Hanns, passed away quickly and peacefully on Friday, 23rd December. Cremation on Thursday, 28th December, 2.30 p.m. at Hoop Lane, Golders Green Crematorium, West Chapel. No flowers please. Donations, if desired, to North London Hospice.
Daily Telegraph, December 28, 2006
Hanns Alexander’s funeral was held on a cold and rainy afternoon three days after Christmas. Considering the weather, and the timing, the turnout was impressive. More than three hundred people packed into the chapel. The congregation arrived early, and in full force, grabbing all the seats. Fifteen people from Hanns’s old bank, Warburg’s, were in attendance, including the former and current CEO. His close friends were there, as was the extended family. Hanns’s wife of sixty years, Ann, sat in the front row, along with the couple’s two daughters, Jackie and Annette.
The synagogue’s cantor recited the Kaddish, the traditional Jewish prayer for the dead. He then paused. Looking down upon Ann and her two daughters, he delivered a short sermon, saying how sorry he was for their loss and how Hanns would be missed by the entire community. When he had finished, two of Hanns’s nephews stood to give a joint eulogy.
Much was familiar: Hanns growing up in Berlin. The Alexanders fleeing the Nazis and moving to England. Hanns fighting with the British Army. His career as a low-level banker. His commitment to the family and his half-century of schlepping for the synagogue.
But there was one detail that caught nearly everyone off guard: that at the war’s end Hanns had tracked down the Kommandant of Auschwitz, Rudolf Höss.
This piqued my interest. For Hanns Alexander was my grandmother’s brother, my great-uncle. Growing up, we had been cautioned not to ask questions about the war. Now I learned that Hanns may have been a Nazi hunter.
The idea that this nice but unremarkable man had been a Second World War hero seemed unlikely. Presumably, this was just another of Hanns’s tales. For he was a bit of a rogue and a prankster, much respected for sure, but also a man who liked to play tricks on his elders and tell dirty jokes to us youngsters, and who, if truth be told, was prone to exaggeration. After all, if he had really been a Nazi hunter, wouldn’t it have been mentioned in his obituary?
I decided to find out if it was true.
We live in an age when the waters are closing over the history of the Second World War, when we are about to lose the last remaining witnesses, when all that is left are accounts retold so many times that they have lost their original veracity. And so we are left with caricatures: Hitler and Himmler as monsters, Churchill and Roosevelt as conquering warriors, and millions of Jews as victims.
Yet Hanns Alexander and Rudolf Höss were men with many sides to their characters. As such, this story challenges the traditional portrayal of the hero and the villain. Both men were adored by their families and respected by their colleagues. Both grew up in Germany in the early decades of the twentieth century and, in their way, loved their country. At times, Rudolf Höss, the brutal Kommandant, displayed a capacity for compassion. And the behavior of his pursuer, Hanns Alexander, was not always above suspicion. This book is therefore a reminder of a more complex world, told through the lives of two men who grew up in parallel and yet opposing German cultures.
It is also an attempt to follow the courses of the two men’s lives, and to understand how they came to meet. And the attempt raises difficult questions. How does a man become a mass murderer? Why does a person choose to confront his persecutors? What happens to the families of such men? Is revenge ever justified?
Even more, this story is an argument that when the worlds of these two men collided, modern history was changed. The testimony that emerged proved particularly significant in the war crimes trials at the end of the Second World War: Höss was the first senior Nazi to admit to executing Himmler and Hitler’s Final Solution. And he did so in great and shocking detail. This testimony, unprecedented in its description of human evil, drove the world to swear that such unspeakable atrocities would never again be repeated. From this point forward, those suffering from extreme injustice could dare to hope for intervention.
It is also the story of surprise. In my comfortable north London upbringing, Jews—and I am one—were cast as the victims of the Holocaust, not its avengers. I had never really questioned that stereo-type until I fell into this story. Or, to be more accurate, it fell to me.
This is a Jew-fighting-back story. And while there are some well-known examples of resistance—uprisings in the ghettos, revolts in the camps, attacks from the woods—such examples are few. Each should be celebrated, as an inspiration to others. Even when faced with profound brutality, hope for survival—and perhaps revenge—is still possible.
This is a story pieced together from histories, biographies, archives, family letters, old tape recordings and interviews with survivors. And it is a story that was, for reasons that I think will become clear, never fully told by the men at its heart: Hanns and Rudolf.
Revue de presse
"Fascinating and moving...This is a remarkable book, which deserves a wide readership." (Max Hastings The Sunday Times)
"A gripping thriller, an unspeakable crime, an essential history." (John Le Carré)
"This is a stunning book...both chilling and deeply disturbing. It is also an utterly compelling and exhilarating account of one man's extraordinary hunt for the Kommandant of the most notorious death camp of all, Auschwitz-Birkenau." (James Holland)
"Only at his great uncle's funeral in 2006 did Thomas Harding discover that Hanns Alexander, whose Jewish family fled to Britain from Nazi Germany in the 1930s, hunted down and captured Rudolf Höss, the ruthless commandant of Auschwitz, at the end of World War Two. By tracing the lives of these two men in parallel until their dramatic convergence in 1946, Harding puts the monstrous evil of the Final Solution in two specific but very different human contexts. The result is a compelling book full of unexpected revelations and insights, an authentic addition to our knowledge and understanding of this dark chapter in European history. No-one who starts reading it can fail to go on to the end." (David Lodge)