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Sunday, April 26, 2020

Book Review: HANNS AND RUDOLF: The True Story of the German Jew Who Tracked Down And Caught the Kommandant of Auschwitz


The True Story of the German Jew Who Tracked Down And Caught the Kommandant of Auschwitz 

(By Thomas Harding, New York: Simon & Schuster 2013. 348 pp.)

Reviewed by Judge Megan E. Shanahan

Reviewed By Megan E. Shanahan

It begins with a funeral, not a state funeral, but a private one. Those gathered celebrated the life
of Hanns Alexander. Tracing Hanns's life, two nephews offered words of remembrance: a childhood in Berlin, the family escaping the Nazi regime, and Hanns joining the British army. But there were no lofty eulogies.

While Thomas Harding listened to the eulogy, he learned that his great-uncle captured the Commandant of Auschwitz. Curiosity followed his astonishment. Hanns didn't speak often of his war-time service. Let alone, his tracking down the individual responsible for over one million deaths.
Hanns and Rudolf, written by Thomas Harding, meets a challenge of our time - preserving the stories of the World War II generation and recording the accomplishments of the veterans who captured war criminals. Rudolf Hoss, the Commandant of Auschwitz, was captured, tried, and executed for his crimes. But, who caught him? And how? Hanns and Rudolf answers these questions.

While both Hanns and Rudolf called Germany home, their meeting each other was unlikely.
Hanns Alexander was born in 1917, the son of a prominent doctor whose patient list included
many of Berlin's socialites. In 1936, Hanns's family joined thousands of other Jews who fled
eastern Europe for Britain. When Germany invaded Poland in 1939, he enlisted in the British Army. Hanns became a member of the British War Crimes Investigations Team.

Rodolf Hoss was born in 1901 and spent his early childhood in a small house in Baden-Baden. He was raised in a middle-class Catholic family. His father hoped he would become a priest. In 1922, Rudolf heard Adolf Hitler speak in Munich. Before leaving the hall, Rudolf became a registered member of the National Socialist Party. During the spring of 1940, Rudolf received orders that he had been selected, by Heinrich Himmler, to establish a concentration camp in Poland.

When British Army Captain Hanns Alexander arrived in Belsen in 1945, the city had only recently been liberated. Harding described the destruction along the road to Belsen as disorienting. Hanns was an interpreter who assisted in SS officer interrogations. The Germans were gone by the time Hanns arrived at the camp. What they left behind, however, changed the arc of Hanns's military service.

"There were dead bodies walking about, dead bodies lying about, people who thought they were alive and they weren't. It was a terrible sight," is how Hanns described his initial account of the
Belsen concentration camp. Hanns cleared bodies during his first hours in Belsen.

This experience led Hanns to request that his superiors change his mission from interpreting statements of captured German officers to active Nazi hunter. The answer was no. The request seemed a formality and the answer didn't matter. Hanns had made his decision.

Hanns and Rudolf is a tightly written book. Harding's technique of alternating chapters with Hanns's and Rudolf's life stories allows the reader space to absorb their parallel biographies.

Harding's storytelling brings the reader along with each tip Hanns follows, building toward Rudolf's capture.

The story ends in Hanns's family plot near a marker with the inscription - "Service before self."
The final chapter sings to its conclusion and if these pages serve as Hanns's final eulogy - it soars.

Megan E. Shanahan is a Hamilton County Court of Common Pleas Judge. She resides in Mt. Lookout with her family.

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