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Grey Cardigan Man

I sat in one of the two chairs next to the blood pressure machine, waiting for my sons prescription in the pharmacy.

I don’t mind waiting.

I’ve always told Nicholas, “there are people who would give anything to be in this line right now.”

I like watching people.  Making eye contact – smiling.

I sat and a thin, old man approached using a cane. He sat next to me on the blood pressure machines hard seat.

“Would you like to sit here?” I asked.

“No, I’m fine.”

I noticed his ball cap – “Veteran” on the back of it in yellow.  And I noticed his cardigan – grey – atop his checkered button up shirt.  He wore slippers.  I was instantly pulled to him.

I watched him thumb through a magazine that was on the counter.  Meticulously turning the pages – I noticed his tissue paper hands. I was mesmerized.

The seat to my left opened up and he closed the magazine, rose, and took it.

“I love your cardigan.”


“It’s old.” He replied.

“It’s dapper” I countered.

“I bought this in the 50’s.”

“Wow … that’s some quality.”

I noticed the WWII Navy emblem on the front of his cap and debated whether or not to ask.

My curiosity won out.

“Where did you serve?”


“But where?”

“In the Pacific – on a carrier … one of the biggest ones.”  He checked my face  before he went on, “We were hit a couple of times … by the Japs.”


I flinched inside at the slur – but bit my tongue – considering the source and what he must have been through.  Adding the fact that our encounter was brief and who would I be to ‘educate’ this man who had sacrificed for his country and watched his brothers in arms killed in war.

“Lost a lot of men – lucky to make it home.”

I held his gaze – he had surprisingly clear, blue eyes.

“Well … thank you.”  And I meant it.

He seemed to be summing me up.  He looked at me harder then – before saying, “You’re welcome.  And, thank YOU.”

Das Erbe des Kommandanten: The Heritage of the Commandant.

Rainer with his book - October 2013.

Rainer with his book – October 2013.

Here is the link for the whole book in German Das Erbe des Kommandanten – once I have a release date for the English version, I will definitely post it.

Rainer has allowed me to post two excerpts from his book in English.  Estimated time of publishing for the English-speaking market is early next year, 2014.

Incredibly moving and rich with history – I found myself lost in the words I share with you below.

I hope you enjoy it as much as I did – Amanda.



TITLE: The Heritage of the Commandant

Subtitle: On being part of a terrible family

The burden of an infamous surname (excerpt)

“My name, that’s for granted, is that of an outlaw all over the world. And poor you will get in unnecessary trouble over and over again with this name.

Especially the children will have a hard time in their further progress… so it’s the best if – together with myself – my name would vanish too.“

My grandfather Rudolf Höß on April 11th 1947 (a few days before his execution) in a letter to his wife Hedwig.

It was on my second visit to Auschwitz in October 2010 when a teenage-girl from a group of Israeli students asked me:  “If you met your grandfather today – what would you do?“

“I would kill him“, I answered right away.

Some of the students applauded.

I enjoyed that and felt pretty cool – like a cowboy. But later that night, lying in my bed thinking, my hands got clammy.  What a stupid, boasting answer!

What should that mean – kill him?  Was I, like my grandfather, to decide about life and death?

As an offspring of a Nazi-criminal you have to be cautious with what you say.  Whatever you prattle around could suddenly become a sort of significance you didn’t mean and attention you are not entitled to get.

But a fact is – especially in Europe – the name Höß is connected with Auschwitz.  And the name of Auschwitz is connected with millions of murdered

Jewish men, women and children.

So, when you say “My name is Höß ” over there – people get curious. And their interest, I have to admit, is in a way flattering.  All of a sudden you are not one in a crowd anymore, not a John Smith – Hallo and Goodbye. You are somebody, all the same if you are the descendant of a statesman or of a criminal.

It’s really strange with names – famous or infamous – it doesn’t make that much difference in the attention one gets.

I really do sympathize with the children and grandchildren of the holocaust victims when they look at us – the children and grandchildren of the nazi-committers – with distrust and aversion. They have all reason for it: quite often we are in the focus and they are forced to remind people of what their families suffered and went through before anyone listens to them.

But of course, there are some disadvantages too bearing the name of a nazi-killer. Some people judge you right away. Preferably anonymous in the internet. Other people might try to approach you for reasons you don’t ever want them to get closer for – like old or Neo-Nazis.

So, of course, I could have followed the advice of my grandfather and changed my name. For my grandmother Hedwig this was no choice.

She was proud to bear the name Höß, never ever would she give it up. Impossible for them.

Just thinking about how her friends would react to something like that, all those eminent ladies, whose husbands also had been fanatic servants of the so-called Third Reich.  “No, no ” she used to say, “A Höß stays a Höß! There is nothing to be ashamed of“ – That was her point of view.

And myself?  Should I do what my grandfather suggested? No. I did not want this Mass murderer  to tell me what I have to do or not to do. So I kept the name.

Chapter 1

The end of a war-criminal / Animal-lover and child of nature

“Along with this letter I was allowed to send you my wedding ring. Full of melancholy I think of the times in the spring of our lives when we put on those rings. Who could ever have expected such an end of our togetherness?“

Rudolf Höß, commander of Auschwitz, in his Farewell-Letter to his wife Hedwig on April 11th 1947, five days before his execution

I still see this ring right in front of me. It used to be kept in grandmothers casket, along with a pile of letters and curls of hair from her children – and her jewellery.

A simple, narrow ring it was, the edges slightly rounded. Inside, in flourish handwriting: August 17th 1929, Hedwig and Rudolf.  The engraving was a little shabby.

My grandfather wore this ring 17 years, seven month and 14 days.

He wore it in the year 1933, when he lifted his hand to take the oath of allegiance with the SS; he wore it, when the Reichsführer SS Heinrich Himmler appointed him in 1940 to be Commandant of the concentration camp Auschwitz – the camp, Höß himself described as “the largest manufacturing plant of all times for the extermination of human beings“.

He even wore this ring when he went to bed with his mistress, the beautiful and mysterious captive Nora Hodys, and he wore it while under his order hundreds of thousand men, woman and children were killed in the gas chambers.

On April 11th 1947 my grandfather rubbed the skin of his right hand with soap in order to make it smooth and pulled off the ring from his finger.

Supposedly he used to do that every night before he went to sleep. Along with his farewell-letter to his “beloved and sweet Mutz“ – that was his pet name for his wife, my grandmother Hedwig – and letters to each one of his five children, he put the ring in a brown envelope.

Five days later he was being executed by hanging right at his former field of activity: in Auschwitz.

Up to one and a half million people, most of them Jewish men, and woman and children were killed in Auschwitz while Rudolf Höß was Commandant there and, later on, when he was a so-called “Standortältester“, which means kind of an elder camp-statesman.

One and half a million is the number he calculated himself . From a simply “technical“ point of view, he measured while in prison in the polish town of Cracow, it might even have been possible to match the number given by Adolf Eichmann, the Organizer of the holocaust. Eichmann named about two and a half million “Exterminations ” in Auschwitz.

Whereas Rudolf Höß, painstaking book-keeper that he was, estimated this number as settled “much too high“.

I did not know the man I dread since I know who he was – and therefore know who I am but not want to be: the grandson of a multimillion contract killer.

It put an imprint on my whole life.

First there was Leo: Leopold Heger, short, wiry, closely cropped hair, strong like a bull and in his sixties when I was born. He was the one who told me more than anyone in my family about my late grandfather when I was a child.

He used to be the official driver of my grandfather in Auschwitz until Rudolf Höß became chief of the so-called Amtsgruppe D1 – Inspection of all concentration-camps – in Oranienburg by the end of 1944.

During the weeks of the dissolution of Auschwitz, the head over heels flight and the collapse of the Nazi-rule Leo again followed Höß and his family, now acting as their in official driver. A loyal vassal he was to his “boss “or the “senior“, how he referred to him until his own death.

This man Leo became my substitute-grandfather. Once in a while he called me “prince“– since for him I was the grandson of the King of Auschwitz.

Whatever I, as a little boy, learned to like about this “grandfather in heaven“, whatever impressed me about him – I got it from Leo. When we were rambling together through the woods of the Swabian Alps he told me his tales about the “senior“.

What a daring horseman he had been. How deeply he had cared for his horses and for Rino, his breed of large German dog. An animal-lover and child of nature through and through. How could I have not adored a man like this – dead or alive?

The truth trickled through to me only many years later and only little by little. In the beginning I was just too naive, later on than I was much too startled and frightened to grasp that this “king“ actually was a slaughterer.

At home in my family? No word about it. You are too young. You are too stupid. You wouldn’t understand it anyway.  Your Grandfather? He died for his fatherland and now he is with the lord in heaven.  Period.

The subject “Rudolf Höß” was a taboo in the family of his second-born son Hans-Jürgen, my father.  The force of law at our house were his orders: Sit still and upright!  Keep your mouth shut!  Don’t you ask questions! And if you do it in spite of it – well then: carpet lifted up, question put underneath it, carpet back in place to cover it up.

With Leo it was quite different: At his house I couldn’t ask enough questions about the “senior“– as long as I did not put anything in question. Neither his former boss nor the Nazi-Ideology and the mass-killings. When I was little this was easy play for me.

And yes, I loved Leo, my substitute-grandfather.


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