Article by Kirsten Grieshaber.
BERLIN – Rainer Hoess was 12 years old when he found out his grandfather was one of the worst mass murderers in history.
The gardener at his boarding school, an Auschwitz survivor, beat him black and blue after hearing he was the grandson of Rudolf Hoess, commandant of the death camp synonymous with the Holocaust.
“He beat me, because he projected on me all the horror he went through,” Rainer Hoess said, with a shrug and a helpless smile. “Once a Hoess, always a Hoess. Whether you’re the grandfather or the grandson — guilty is guilty.”
Germans have for decades confronted the Nazi era head-on, paying billions in compensation, meticulously teaching Third Reich history in school, and building memorials to victims. The conviction Thursday in Munich of retired Ohio autoworker John Demjanjuk on charges he was a guard at the Sobibor Nazi death camp drives home how the Holocaust is still very much at the forefront of the German psyche.
But most Germans have skirted their own possible family involvement in Nazi atrocities. Now, more than 65 years after the end of Hitler’s regime, an increasing number of Germans are trying to pierce the family secrets.
Some, like Hoess, have launched an obsessive solitary search. Others seek help from seminars and workshops that have sprung up across Germany to provide research guidance and psychological support.
“From the outside, the third generation has had it all — prosperity, access to education, peace and stability,” said Sabine Bode, who has written books on how the Holocaust weighs on German families today. “Yet they grew up with a lot of unspoken secrets, felt the silent burdens in their families that were often paired with a lack of emotional warmth and vague anxieties.”
Like others, Hoess had to overcome fierce resistance within his own family, who preferred that he “not poke around in the past.” Undeterred, he spent lonely hours at archives and on the Internet researching his grandfather.
Rudolf Hoess was in charge of Auschwitz from May 1940 to November 1943. He came back to Auschwitz for a short stint in 1944, to oversee the murder of some 400,000 Hungarian Jews in the camp’s gas chambers within less than two months.
The commandant lived in a luxurious mansion at Auschwitz with his wife and five children — among them Hans-Rudolf, the father of Rainer. Only 150 meters (yards) away the crematories’ chimneys were blowing out the ashes of the dead day and night.
After the war, Hoess went into hiding on a farm in northern Germany; he was eventually captured and hanged in 1947, in front of his former home on the grounds of Auschwitz.
“When I investigate and read about my grandfather’s crimes, it tears me apart every single time,” Hoess said during a recent interview at his home in a little Black Forest village.
As a young man, he said, he tried twice to kill himself. He has suffered three heart attacks in recent years as well as asthma, which he says gets worse when he digs into his family’s Nazi past.
Today, Hoess says, he no longer feels guilty, but the burden of the past weighs on him at all times.