Brought to book: How my relative captured Auschwitz commandant (The JC)

When Thomas Harding phoned up the Imperial War Museum and asked whether, as he had recently been told, his German Jewish great-uncle might have brought one of the highest-ranking Nazi officers to justice, the woman on the other end of the line burst out laughing, doubtless imagining him to be a fantasist. secretive hero Hanns Alexander

“She thought it was the most ridiculous thing, so that wasn’t very encouraging,” he recalls. “But my journalist nose had a sense that maybe there was something there. I don’t know about most people but I hadn’t grown up with any Jewish avenging war heroes in my family, so I was intrigued.”

As things transpired, his nose was on to something. Harding’s relative Hanns Alexander was indeed a Nazi hunter — among the first. And the story of his mission to track down and arrest Rudolf Höss, the commandant of Auschwitz — recounted at his 2006 funeral — was no exaggeration.

As Harding explains in a new biography, Hanns and Rudolf, Alexander fled his homeland for Britain after the Nazis came to power. He joined the Auxiliary Military Pioneer Corps and was dispatched to Belsen just a few weeks after it was liberated. With no experience, and, at that point, no knowledge of the fate of loved ones who had not escaped Germany, he was assigned as an interpreter for the fledgling war crimes investigation teams, quickly winning a reputation for his interrogative skills. After working to trace another architect of the Third Reich, Gustav Simon, Alexander and his colleagues began hunting for Höss.

Even by the standards of Nazi brutality, Höss stands out. Charged with turning Auschwitz into an efficient mass killing site — which he did with the installation of the gas chambers — his testimony at Nuremberg cited “improvements” to the system of extermination. By 1946, he was hiding in broad daylight as a farmer in rural Germany. Thanks to the perseverance and fortitude of Alexander and his peers, Höss was captured, tried, and subsequently executed at the camp where he had sent some 1,300,000 innocents to their deaths.

Yet Alexander kept largely silent about his exploits, so much so that family such as Harding, and his cousin James, the BBC news director, were in the dark about the war hero in their midst.

“He was definitely traumatised after Belsen,” Harding explains. “He talked about clearing up mass graves and seeing people in terrible shapes. And then he was asked to interrogate the guards, most of whom had come from Auschwitz. There had been rumours in the newspapers but he may have been the first person to actually hear, directly from the perpetrators, about how the selections took place, what happened as people were taken off transports. It would have been horrific.”

There was also the issue of the methods used to capture Höss. “They took axe handles with them. There’s a reason they did that. I think some things happened which may well have scared him about himself. We don’t know if he killed anyone but when Höss was arrested he was beaten up. Some people would say, well that was justified, he deserved it. But I think maybe Hanns got scared by that violence, that there were things that happened that he was not necessarily proud of.”

By and large, we have tended to shy away from discussing the darker sides of the fight for Holocaust retribution. Harding — whose book tells the stories of both Alexander and Höss — argues that this needs to change. It’s more comforting to treat Höss as a monster and Hanns as a victim, but that’s not the real world. It’s much more troubling to see them as the result of their actions and millions of decisions and crossroads. If we forget that, we will forget that other people can do the same thing and will not be able to stop this.

“There’s no relativism here. Höss was one of the worst criminals of all time, a man who had to face justice and I’m very glad he did. However, I do believe you can keep hold of that and understand him as a human being, because to demonise him as a monster is to undermine the terribleness of the crime.”

In researching his great-uncle’s story, Harding came across a chilling example of failure to confront the truth of the past. Reading Höss’s prison letters to his wife and children, Harding was “moved by them and was very conflicted for obvious reasons”. So he tracked down Höss’s grandson — the two visited Auschwitz together in 2009 — and learnt how the family had essentially rebooted history in 1947, avoiding discussion of what had happened.

“I then found Höss’s daughter, who lives near Washington DC. I found that conversation with her deeply distressing, because she was living this all-American life. She described her father as the best father in the world. She remembered him reading to her, going on sled rides, taking boat trips out on the river behind Auschwitz. She slept under her parents’ wedding picture. And even though she was aware of the cultural experiences of the Holocaust that we are — like Sophie’s Choice and Schindler’s List — she was not able to integrate that with her personal experience of her father.”

After six years of research, Harding is looking forward to hearing people’s reactions. More importantly, he hopes it will encourage others to come forward. “I wouldn’t be surprised if more stories come out because that generation really was reluctant to talk,” he says. “Even when I shared my book with somebody recently, she said her father was part of the group involved with the arrest of Höss, but she knew nothing about it. And for me, it’s really important to hear these stories about fighting for justice, fighting back, because growing up I didn’t.”

It has, he says, been a fascinating journey. “We are like most north London Jewish families, in and out of each other’s lives and yet we just didn’t talk about it. The idea of some kind of avenging Jew in the family — I thought it was something to be proud of and I wanted to find out more.” Luckily for us, he did.

This post was originally published in the Jewish Chronicle. Read the original here.


London JW3 Jewish Center Aims for Bit of American ‘Exuberance’ (The Forward)

Flashy JCC-Style Spot Rises on Busy Finchley Road

New Look: An artist’s impression of the sprawling new Jewish community center rising in north London.

Finchley Road, which stretches across London’s northern suburbs, is one of the city’s busiest thoroughfares. Day and night, cars crawl along it, passing supermarkets, furniture stores, a popular multiplex and, lately, a vast construction site for a new project now nearing completion.

What’s about to be unveiled here is broadcast loud and clear by the sign alongside the site. This is to be the home of “a new postcode for Jewish life,” the sign announces — the United Kingdom’s first Jewish Community Centre.

Known popularly as JW3 — a play on the well-known NW3 postal code in which it sits — the JCC takes up 35,000 square feet on four stories. Its opening, set for September 29, will mark a historic moment in British Jewry’s self-definition — and not just because British Jews will have a state-of-the-art, multidimensional cultural center. Unlike New York, where Jewishness seems almost an extension of the city’s identity, Anglo-Jewish life, up to now, has tended to be quieter and more understated.

But JW3, in the words of its outgoing chief executive, Nick Viner, who was in charge of the project’s development stage, is about giving Anglo-Jewry some of the “exuberance of our cousins across the Atlantic.”

For all the waves that Jews have made in Great Britain in entertainment, science and politics, Jewish communal institutions — synagogues, student centers and meeting places — remain broadly beyond the gaze of the wider population. This is partly for security, but it goes deeper. Perhaps as a legacy of Europe’s history, British Jews, as Jews, try to keep their heads down.

“One only has to study the British Jewish press throughout most of the 20th century to appreciate that Jewish leadership put a lot of energy into reminding Jews to be as British as possible,” said Raymond Simonson, the JCC’s new CEO. “I grew up understanding how English Jews mostly regarded U.S. Jews as a bit too loudly Jewish.”

Things have changed on that front lately. Nowadays there are public Hanukkah lightings, Israel rallies and yearly Jewish cultural festivals. But the opening of the JCC as a permanent fixture offering its cultural fare to all of London will mark a boost in the community’s profile by several orders of magnitude.

“It is fairly radical,” Simonson admitted. “I want JW3 to take Jewish life out of the history books and documentaries and exhibition cases, and offer it in full 3-D, surround sound, Technicolor.”

Some still question whether Jewish Londoners need another cultural venue, with the high-brow London Jewish Cultural Centre — which has decades of experience running a successful program — a few miles in one direction, and the thriving Jewish Museum a few miles in the other. With Jewish Book Week and UK Jewish Film, fundraising events, youth movement programs and synagogue-based educational courses, London Jewry already has a crammed calendar — for a community a fraction of the size of New York.

But until now, London has never seen a sprawling Jewish space that attempts to do everything, in the American style: film, dance, food, art, education, highbrow, lowbrow, kindergarten, office space and more, pitched to the affiliated and unaffiliated alike.

The seed for this historic departure from Jewish life in the British mode was planted a little more than a decade ago, when philanthropist Dame Vivien Duffield visited New York. Touring the JCC in Manhattan, on the borough’s Upper West Side, she realized that London had nothing to compare to it or to other institutions, like the 92nd Street Y.

On her return, she fought to convince British Jews that this should change, eventually bringing politicians and communal leaders round.

It wasn’t an easy sell. After the plans were unveiled, concerns about the project as it progressed were aired in the pages of the Jewish Chronicle, British Jewry’s newspaper of record.

“It’s a great idea,” enthused Andrew Gilbert, the chairman of Britain’s Reform movement as the project launched, in 2003. “But…my belief is that the Orthodox rabbinate in this country will destroy it. If it succeeds, it will have to fundamentally change the nature of cross-communal interaction in the community.”

A few years later, when the economic crisis led to a suspension of work on the project, Allan Morgenthau, then vice-president of the London Jewish Cultural Centre, commented, “A lot of donors feel that money is required for social services, which are under enormous pressure.”

But ten years and some $76 million of Duffield’s and other donors’ money later, such skepticism is, for now at least, in abeyance. Both supporters and those who have harbored doubts are waiting to see London’s response to the imminent unfolding of a strikingly rich inaugural program: 1,000 events over the first few months, bringing in art, drama, film and more.

Hollywood actor Kevin Spacey will be stopping by, as will Nicholas Hytner, director of the National Theatre, acclaimed author Edmund De Waal and myriad others. To attract those for whom participation comes via the stomach, there will be a kosher restaurant, helmed by chefs who previously worked for Yotam Ottolenghi, the Israeli-born master chef. “We will offer a chance to experience the very best of living Jewish arts, culture, learning, community and life,” Simonson said.

With a tree-lined piazza, a plush 60-seat screening room, an auditorium that converts into a function room, a kindergarten, a rehearsal space and offices, the London JCC is clearly different from anything the community has had before in scale and style — a reality evident to advance visitors on preview tours, even as construction workers in hard hats put together the finishing touches.

Duffield wants JW3 to become one of London’s key cultural landmarks for Jews and non-Jews alike. That includes especially “people who are Jewish but have forgotten,” she said at an invitation-only preview event in July. She expressed the hope that the center’s offerings will entice them to dip in again.

To encourage this, board members have been drawn from all backgrounds, including the historically unaffiliated. In a bid to challenge intra-communal divides, Duffield has also engaged as much with Orthodox leaders like Lord Jonathan Sacks, Great Britain’s outgoing chief rabbi, as with leaders of the more liberal Jewish streams, like Rabbi Julia Neuberger. There will be no religious services at JW3, enabling everyone, from the traditionally observant to those who are atheist, to take part.

Limmud, the annual festival of Jewish programs and learning that originated in the U.K., and to which some 2,500 U.K. Jews flocked last year, offers a model of the approach the London JCC will take, albeit in a permanent site, and all year round. It’s thus no coincidence that Simonson was recruited after serving as Limmud’s first full-time executive director, nor that other prime movers came via the organization – from the erstwhile creative director, Juliet Simmons (a onetime Limmud conference chair), to Clive Lawton, a board member and Limmud co-founder.

“I don’t think JW3 is really about uniting all shades of Jewish life, and don’t think it’s going to have a huge take-up from the Haredi communities,” said Richard Verber, co-chair of this year’s Limmud festival. “But with a kosher restaurant and sensitive Shabbat policy, it should be able to attract religious and secular Jews from mainstream Anglo-Jewry.”

This post was originally published by The Forward. Read the original here.

Recent writing

It’s been a while since I updated, mainly because I have just moved on from my role at the JC and started work in public affairs. But before I left, I covered my fair share of stories, including the Queen’s Birthday Honours and new research into the contribution of refugees. I interviewed carers on the subject of community networks, and spoke to Claire Bloom about her lengthy career in acting.

With nearly a year until the UK (and other countries) marks the start of what was supposed to be the war to end all wars, I looked at how Jewish soldiers fought not only for this country but on behalf of Germany. On a lighter note, I discovered how one Disney animator made Piglet live in a Jewish home, wrote about the continued relevance of Israel tour, and singlehandedly (possibly. Nobody has said otherwise) convinced Leonard Cohen to reschedule a concert planned for Yom Kippur.

I reviewed the Jewish Museum’s exhibition about Amy Winehouse, arguing that she was “a bona fide Jewish celebrity, whose connection with her faith extended beyond a few choice Yiddish words”. I interviewed an entrepreneur who has essentially been there and done that with almost every notable person in the last few decades, wrote about a businessman turned zookeeper, and reported on the launch programme for the new JW3 centre. And I had a jaunt around Google’s central London office, learning about how it can make religious life easier.

In comment, I responded to claims that Hollywood colluded with the Germans in the years before the Holocaust, arguing that even if that was the case, “with fewer survivors to share their stories, we need the might of Hollywood to ensure the Shoah stays in the public consciousness”.

Elsewhere, I reviewed both the BP Portrait exhibtion at the National Portrait Gallery – “paintings that display in the most basic sense what a gifted individual can achieve” – and the Club to Catwalk show at the V and A for the culture blog Lawfully Chic. And for The Forward I wrote about how the emphasis on motherhood is not just a part of royal life.