Following on from his talk at last night's Lord Merlyn-Rees Memorial Lecture, Thomas Harding tells us how he uncovered the story of his great-uncle Hanns and why he realised that it had to be told.
In December 2006, my great-uncle, Hanns Alexander, died. Seven weeks later, his wife, Ann, passed away. They had been married for sixty years.
A few weeks later, I visited their apartment in Chalk Farm, North London. Inside I found their two daughters, packing boxes, overwhelmed by their parent’s death. I walked into the living room, where I had taken part in so many family celebrations and Jewish holidays.
At the center of the living room stood a sofa, next to it was a small side-table, upon which lay a single book. It was the Autobiography of Rudolf Höss, The Kommandant of Auschwitz. Lifting the cover, I saw on the first page a single word in grey pencil, it was Hanns’ name. It appeared that until the very end of his life, my great-uncle had been tracking the story of the Kommandant of Auschwitz.
This was the moment that I realised that this story had to be told, the tale of a young German Jew who, in 1936, was forced to flee his native country, and yet returned at the end of the Second World War, as a war crimes investigator, to face his persecutors.
Growing up, my Jewish heroes had been scientists, film producers and musicians. I didn’t know the name of a single Jew who had fought back. Inspired by my uncle’s story, and disturbed by the Kommandant’s, I started on my journey to answer some key questions: How does one become the Kommandant of Auschwitz? What is it like to have a father who is one of the world’s worst mass murderers? Why was my great-uncle so reluctant to share his amazing story?
Seven years later, the book now published, I realise that it is more important than ever to tell people about the Holocaust, especially the younger generation. This task will become even more difficult as we move into the post-survivor era, but it is all of our responsibilities to meet this challenge.
Thomas Harding is the author of Hanns and Rudolf: The German Jew and the Hunt for the Kommandant of Auschwitz.