Brigitte Höss lives quietly on a leafy side street in Northern Virginia. She is retired, having worked in a Washington fashion salon for more than 30 years. She recently was diagnosed with cancer and spends much of her days dealing with the medical consequences.
She also has a secret not even her grandchildren know: Her father was Rudolf Höss, the Kommandant of Auschwitz.
It was Rudolf Höss who designed and built Auschwitz, turning an old army barracks in Poland into a killing machine capable of murdering 2,000 people an hour. By the end of the war, 1.1 million Jews had been killed in the camp, along with 20,000 gypsies and tens of thousands of Polish and Russian political prisoners. As such, Brigitte Höss’ father was one of the biggest mass murderers in history.
For nearly 40 years, she has kept her past out of public view, unexamined, not even sharing her story with her closest family members.
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I discovered where she lived while doing research for “Hanns and Rudolf,” a book on how Höss was captured after the war by my great-uncle, Hanns Alexander, a German Jew who had fled Berlin in the 1930s.
It took three years to find her. She would be interviewed only on the condition that neither her married name be revealed nor any details that would disclose her identity.
“There are crazy people out there. They might burn my house down or shoot somebody,” she says in a thick German accent.
If the subject of the Holocaust comes up, she steers the conversation in another direction. “If somebody asks about my dad,” she says, “I tell them that he died in the war.”
But she has just turned 80 and wonders if it’s time to tell her grandchildren her story. She was a young girl caught in epic historic forces she could little understand, much less be responsible for. Does she pass on the fear of discovery that she has lived with all her life? Or does she take her story to her grave?
“It was a long time ago,” she says. “I didn’t do what was done. I never talk about it — it is something within me. It stays with me.”
According to SS personnel records — held in the National Archives in College Park, Md., — Inge-Brigitt Höss, the third of five children, was born Aug. 18, 1933, on a farm near the Baltic Sea. Her father, Rudolf, and mother, Hedwig, met on this farm, a haven for German youths obsessed with ideas of racial purity and rural utopia.
Brigitte had an extraordinary childhood, moving from the farm to one concentration camp after another as her father scaled the ranks of the SS: Dachau from ages 1 through 5; Sachsenhausen from 5 to 7; and from 7 to 11, in perhaps the most notorious death camp, Auschwitz.
From 1940 to 1944, the Höss family lived in a two-story gray stucco villa on the edge of Auschwitz — so close you could see the prisoner blocks and old crematorium from the upstairs window.
Brigitte’s mother described the place as “paradise.” They had cooks, nannies, gardeners, chauffeurs, seamstresses, haircutters and cleaners, some of whom were prisoners.
The family decorated their home with furniture and artwork stolen from prisoners as they were selected for the gas chambers.
The children were aware their father ran a prison camp. Men with black-and-white striped uniforms worked in their garden.
In April 1945, as the end of the war appeared in sight, Rudolf Höss and his family fled north. His wife took the children and found refuge above an old sugar factory in a village near the coast. Höss took on the identity of a laborer and hid on a farm four miles from the Danish border. The Höss family waited for the right moment to escape to South America.
We sit in a small, dark den in her house. Brigitte Höss lies on an old couch, complaining that her feet hurt. I sit on a plump love seat next to a Christmas tree, upon which hangs a star knitted by her mother.
I start by asking about the time she spent living next to Auschwitz. “It is best not to remember all those things,” she says.
She is more willing to talk about when the British captured her father. One cold evening in March 1946, Hanns Alexander, my great-uncle — a German-born Jew but by then a British captain — banged on the family’s door.
“I remember when they came to our house to ask questions,” she says, her voice tight. “I was sitting on the table with my sister. I was about 13 years old. The British soldiers were screaming: ‘Where is your father? Where is your father?’ over and over again. I got a very bad headache. I went outside and cried under a tree. I made myself calm down. I made myself stop crying, and my headache went away. But I have had migraines for years after that. These migraines stopped a few years ago, but since I received your letter, they have started again.”
The story continues. “My older brother Klaus was taken with my mother. He was beaten badly by the British. My mother heard him scream in pain from the room next door. Just like any mother, she wanted to protect her son, so she told them where my father was.”
Rudolf Höss was awakened and arrested in the barn.
He was handed over to the Americans, who made him testify at Nuremberg. Höss was passed to the Poles, who prosecuted him, then hanged him on a gallows next to the Auschwitz crematorium.
Hedwig and the children scraped by. They stole coal from a train to heat their home. Shoeless, they tied rags around their feet. As a family connected to the Nazi regime, they were shunned. It was only when Klaus found a job in Stuttgart that the family’s fortunes improved.
In the 1950s, Brigitte Höss managed to leave Germany and make a new life in Spain. She worked as a model for three years with the up-and-coming Balenciaga fashion house. And she met an Irish-American engineer working in Madrid.
The couple married in 1961. They had a daughter and a son.
The engineer says his wife told him about her father and her life in Auschwitz while they were dating. “I was at first a little bit shocked,” he says. “But then as I discussed more and more with her, I realized that she was as much a victim as anybody else. She was just a child while this all happened. She went from having everything to having nothing.”
Brigitte Höss’ life is now full of doctors, hospitals and pills. She and her husband divorced in 1983. He lives in Florida.
Her son lives with her. He knows about his grandfather but has not expressed much interest in family history. Her daughter has died. Her grandchildren often visit her.
Once a year she goes to Florida to spend time with her sister Annegret, who flies in from Germany. Klaus died in the 1980s in Australia. Her other brother, Hans Jürgen, and elder sister, Heidetraud, both live in Germany.
None of the siblings talks about their childhood. It’s as if their history started in 1947, after Rudolf Höss was executed.
Harding is the author of “Hanns and Rudolf: The True Story of the German Jew Who Tracked Down and Caught the Kommandant of Auschwitz” (Simon & Schuster Hardcover; September 2013).