When the Hoess children would reach for strawberries from the lush garden of the family’s luxurious villa, just a hundred metres from a large chimney, their mother would always caution them.
“Wash the strawberries and the vegetables before you eat them,” she would say. “They’re full of ashes.”
The chimney was connected to a crematorium at the notorious Auschwitz concentration camp, in Nazi-occupied Poland. More than 1.1 million people, most of them Jews, were murdered there, many in the gas chambers, during the Second World War.
It’s a chilling anecdote that Rainer Hoess — the grandson of Rudolf Hoess, the infamous commander of Auschwitz — shares with Toronto secondary students, who listen with rapt attention during a school assembly. On a giant screen, Rainer shows family photos taken at the villa during the 1940s, where his father spent part of his childhood. In one image, children frolic in a pool built by Auschwitz prisoners and in another his father wears a green wool jacket, which Rainer says his grandmother ordered confiscated off a Jewish boy as he arrived from Hungary — the boy’s fate is unknown, but that jacket was handed down through the generations and Rainer himself wore it as a child.
“Take a stand for something,” he told students at Northern Secondary School on Monday, urging them to speak out against intolerance — a message he’ll repeat Wednesday when he is at Riverdale Collegiate and Etobicoke Collegiate. “Be a voice, not an echo.”
Rainer, 54, has dedicated his life to combating the horrific legacy of his grandfather, in part through his organization called Footsteps, which is aimed at educating students on the horrors of the Holocaust, when 6 million Jews were murdered by Germany’s Nazi regime and its collaborators. Amongst his extended family — there are about 85 Hoess relatives — he is the only one who denounces his grandfather, a war criminal who was hanged in 1947 for his atrocities. He has severed all family ties.
“They always said, I opened Pandora’s Box, I took all the secrets of the family out in public,” he tells the students. “I’m really proud of it.”
He lives in Stuttgart, Germany, but most of the year travels the globe speaking about the dangers of hate, which is a timely message given the rise of right-wing extremism. He visits up to 100 schools a year, sharing his story — studies show today’s youth have “critical gaps” when it comes to basic knowledge of the Holocaust. He’s in contact with 177 Auschwitz survivors and has the prison camp numbers for three of them tattooed above his heart, together with the Star of David and the words ‘Never Forget.’
“These are steps in my life to get out of the shadow of my grandfather,” said Rainer, who’s in town as part of Holocaust Education Week that runs until Nov. 10, and is organized by the Sarah and Chaim Neuberger Holocaust Education Centre, which is part of UJA Federation of Greater Toronto.
“For several years we’ve been exploring new ways of presenting Holocaust education — the voice of the survivor, of course, is so important,” explained Dara Solomon, executive director of the Neuberger centre. “But we’re also looking to the future and what happens when that is no longer possible. How do we continue to make those lessons of the Holocaust very real?
“Rainer Hoess, the descendant of the commandant of Auschwitz, really makes that history very real for people because this is a man who grew up with this legacy.”
Born in 1965, Rainer never met his grandfather, nor heard much about him while growing up. “They never spoke about him. It was a secret.”
His father’s hatred of Jews, however, was no secret. When Rainer was 10 a Jewish friend invited him over to Passover and he asked his father if he could attend. The response was a punch in the face, a broken nose and being locked in his room.
“He was really brutal,” recalled Rainer during a wide-ranging interview with the Star.
At age 11, while at boarding school, Rainer says a gardener, who was an Auschwitz survivor, learned his surname and mistreated him — it was the first inkling something was amiss with the family name. That year, a teacher took him to Dachau, a concentration camp set up by the Nazis in 1933 for political prisoners — it’s where his grandfather worked for years before the start of the Second World War in 1939.
“I saw on these walls, in the barracks, everywhere the name Rudolf Hoess: ‘Mass-murderer’ and ‘Genocide’ … I was completely confused.”
He called his father, Hans-Jurgen, that evening, but was assured, “That’s a spelling mistake. It must be Rudolf Hess, the deputy of Hitler.”
Rainer believed his father. But at 15, he spotted two books at his family’s home — the account of an Auschwitz survivor and the memoirs of Rudolf Hoess — and when reaching for them his father flew into a rage. So when his dad was on a business trip — he was an engineer for Volvo — the teen devoured both books, aghast at what he read.
“I left my parental home and never went back,” recalls Rainer, who fell into drug and alcohol use for a couple of years. He became a father at age 17 — he has four children and four grandchildren, all of whom support his work. He cut ties with his extended family because he didn’t want his kids “poisoned by that stuff,” although he reunited with his mother after his parents divorced.
He says his relatives are Holocaust deniers and Nazi sympathizers. He has a photo of his grandmother’s scribblings in the margins of the book penned by an Auschwitz survivor — she wrote such comments as “All lies” and “Invention of the Jews and Allies.”
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As a young man, Rainer juggled working as a chef with his “obsession” of learning more about his grandfather. Rudolf was the longest serving commander of Auschwitz — except for a brief period, he ran it between 1940 to 1945 — expanding it and introducing poisonous insecticide Zyklon B into the gas chambers, making the camp integral to the “Final Solution,” the Nazis’ plan to eradicate Europe’s Jews.
As the war came to a close and Soviet liberating forces neared Auschwitz, the Hoess family fled. Rudolf was captured in Germany in 1946, appeared before the Nuremberg war crimes tribunal and was extradited to Poland where he was found guilty of war crimes. In prison there, he wrote his memoirs, and tender letters to his family, says Rainer, who remains truly perplexed how a beloved family man could also be a mass murderer.
In the beginning, Rainer did question, “What have I inherited from him? What is in the DNA? But that’s stupid. Everybody knows nothing evil is inherited in blood. That’s only from the Fascists and Nazis — they think everything is inherited in blood.”
A stroke at age 39 prompted Rainer to sell his catering business and dedicate himself full-time to Holocaust education — initially, some survivors spit on him, others trembled at hearing his name, but overall he says he has been well-received.
When Rainer visited Auschwitz for the first time in 2009 — he has since been there 35 times with about 4,000 students — he visited the family villa, and says from the second-floor bedrooms one clearly sees a crematorium and a gallows used to hang prisoners. He also saw the spot where former prisoners built a gallows specifically for his grandfather.
“It was a good feeling,” says Rainer of visiting the spot where his grandfather was hanged, adding if he knew where he was buried “I would pee on his grave.”
In the auditorium at Northern, the teens listen intently to Rainer as he speaks to Canadian students for the first time. One of his photos shows a 153-gram gold ring with his grandfather’s initials, which was made by prisoners using gold tooth fillings of the deceased. He notes that back then, people typically had between two to three grams of gold fillings.
“How many people have to die to get a ring that’s the size of 153 grams?” asks Rainer, adding there were six such rings.
He’s been accused him of trying to turn a profit by selling his grandfather’s items, which he inherited from his mother. Rainer denies this, saying he donated them to the IFZ, an institute of contemporary history in Munich.
Afterwards, student Jordan Weintraub, who’s Jewish and lost relatives in the Holocaust, said Rainer’s message “resonated with me, because he’s going against his past and speaking out on behalf of people victimized by his grandfather.”
Classmate Andrew Dayton, also Jewish, was “very moved. He’s doing exactly what I would hope someone in his situation would do … he’s speaking out and making sure that what happened in the past won’t happen again.”
In Ontario, the Holocaust is part of Grade 10 Canadian history — but teachers decide how much time to dedicate to it. Eleven schools in the Toronto District School Board, including Northern, offer a Grade 11 course called Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity, which includes the Holocaust, as well as genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda and Darfur.
Teacher Tim Dingwall helped organize the assembly and says Rainer’s “unique perspective” is a way of addressing “Holocaust fatigue.”
“We’re a multicultural society, we have students coming from a variety of different backgrounds where Holocaust education isn’t as valued and students hear about it every year. At some point in time, I think it is natural to shut down. So we as educators, it’s our responsibility to find meaningful ways to communicate and to learn that engage our students.”
Earlier this year, the Azrieli Foundation released a Canadian study of 1,100 millennials, aged 18-34, that found “critical gaps” in basic knowledge of the Holocaust. Among its findings, 22 per cent haven’t heard or are not sure if they have heard of the Holocaust, 52 per cent cannot name one concentration camp or ghetto.
A Holocaust survivor who lives in Toronto applauds Rainer’s efforts.
“Rainer is doing a terrific job in devoting his time and energy to going around and telling people the truth,” said Nate Leipciger, 91, who lost his mother, sister and other relatives in Auschwitz and has been involved in Holocaust education for 40 years.
“It is too bad that we have to continue to remember, and remind people, of how man can be cruel to man.”