Monday, December 16, 2013

Hanns and Rudolf: The True Story of the German Jew who Tracked Down and Caught the Kommandant of Auschwitz by Thomas Harding 2013

"Le Carré is quite correct. The last section of Harding’s book does indeed read like a gripping thriller, no less so because we know how the pursuit of Höss is destined to end." from a review in the Spectator by Miranda Seymour, 9/21/2013

Thomas Harding, grand-nephew of Hanns Alexander, has written this highly readable and thoroughly researched book to honor Alexander who was part of the British War Crimes Investigation Team which was assembled to find Nazis who had fled at the end of World War II. The author knew nothing about his uncle’s service during the war, only learning about it at his funeral.

Harding constructs his narrative by alternating chapters. He writes a chapter about Hanns Alexander and follows it with a chapter about Rudolf Hoess (not to be confused with Rudolf Hess), an important figure in the building and administration of Auschwitz who Alexander was charged with capturing. The book starts at the beginning of both of their lives in Germany, recreating the culture, atmosphere and circumstances out of which they emerged and follows both to their deaths.

Harding describes in interesting detail Alexander’s life as a member of an affluent Jewish family who lived in very comfortable circumstances in the Jewish section of Berlin. His father was a highly regarded doctor who had in his possession what became known as the Alexander Torah commissioned in 1790 by Hanns’ great great great grandfather. Hanns Alexander's mother came from two prominent Jewish families: the Picards and Schwarzchilds. Notables like Albert Einstein came to their house for dinner.

After establishing the family’s background, the author then narrates the rise of Hitler and how incremental restrictions affected German Jews. Luckily, all of Hanns Alexander’s immediate family eventually escaped to England in the late 1930’s when he was a young man. When the war broke out Hanns enlisted, wanting to fight against Germany, a country he had loved but whose ruling party he hated. He was not happy when the British would only take him into the Pioneer Corps, a division which had been recently created for Austrian and German refugees. They were not allowed to have rifles. But once he proved himself more than capable and certainly loyal, he was asked to join the War Crimes Investigation team. The fact that he spoke fluent German helped him immeasurably.

Harding takes us through Alexander’s suspenseful capture of Hoess, the interrogation, the Nuremberg trials and Hoess’s trial in Poland to where he was transported because Auschwitz, where he had committed crimes, was on Polish soil. Throughout, the author describes post-war Europe  - its physical devastation, but especially the scrambling that went on, with very few resources, to set up a system to bring Nazis to justice. His great-uncle Hanns Alexander was an important part of that process. Alexander’s getting Hoess to confess was crucial as his testimony provided information needed to prosecute other perpetrators.

Having conducted interviews with family members and having access to family papers helped Harding flesh out the character of his great uncle. Documents in the public domain that Harding consulted add to the reader's understanding of what Hanns Alexander contributed to the post-war effort to bring Nazis to justice.

This book includes many photos, maps, useful endnotes, a family tree, an end note on Research Sources and an annotated Bibliography.

To see photos of the Alexander family's torah go to the author's website here.
To watch a short video of Rudolf Hoess's testimony at the Nuremberg trials, click here.

People and Places
Moses Alexander – married Sophie Neustein
     Herman Alexander – son of Moses and Sophie; married Bella Lehmaier
     Sophie Alexander – daughter of Herman and Bella; married Albert Simon
     Paula Alexander – daughter of Herman and Bella

                       Alfred Alexander – great-great grandson of Moses; married Henny Picard
                             Bella Alexander – daughter of Alfred and Henny; married Harold Sussmann; 2nd marriage to Julius Jakobi
                                  Peter and Tony Sussmann – sons of Bella and Harold
                                  Julian Jakobi – son of Bella and Julius; married to Fiona
                                  Stephen Jakobi – son of Bella and Julius
                             Elsie Alexander – daughter of Alfred and Henny; married Erich Hirschowitz (Eric Harding)
                                  Frank Harding – son of Elsie and Eric
                                           Thomas Harding – son of Frank; married to Debora;  author
                                                   Kadian and Sam Harding – children of Thomas and Debora
                                           Amanda Harding – daughter of Frank
                                  Michael Harding – son of Elsie and Eric; married to Angela
                                  Vivien Harding – daughter of Elsie and Eric
                            Hanns Hermann (Howard Harvey) Alexander – son of Alfred and Henny; married to Ann Graetz
                                   Jackie and Annette Alexander – daughters of Hanns and Ann
                            Paul Alexander – son of Alfred and Ann (twin of Hanns); married to Elisabeth Heymann; 2nd marriage to Tamara Lesser
                                   John and Marion Alexander – children of Paul

Family of author’s paternal great-grandmother
Moritz Lazarus Schwarzchild – married Clementine Schwab
Lucien Picard – married Amalie Schwarzchild
      Henny Picard – daughter of Lucien and Amalie; married Alfred Alexander (see above)
Cacilie Bing – great-aunt of Hanns Alexander; exact relationship not clear

Author’s great-uncle Hanns Alexander’s wife Anneliese's family
Sarah Graetz
     Paul Graetz – son of Sarah; married Kate
            Anneliese Graetz – daughter of Paul and Kate; married Hanns Alexander (see above)
            Wolfgang Graetz (Grey) – son of Paul and Kate; married Antonia

Friends and Acquaintances
Edmund Dreyfus
Robert Serebrenik
Anita Lasker
Lucille Eichengreen
Bernard Clarke
Karl Abrahams
 Stephen Abrahams – son of Karl
Gustave Gilbert
Leon Goldensohn
Leo Genn
Herbert Levy

Thalmassing, Germany
Berlin, Germany
Wilmersdorf, Berlin
Neue Synagoge, Berlin, Germany
Frankfurt, Germany
Gross Glienicky, Germany
Basel, Switzerland
Sachsenhausen camp
London, England
Belsize Square Synagogue, London

Monday, December 2, 2013

Once We Were Brothers by Ronald H. Balson 2013 (fiction)

"Ben Solomon's tale is gripping . . . Balson's first novel is hard to put down." from a review by Miriam Bradman Abrahams posted on the website of the Jewish Book Council

This engrossing novel, focusing on the intertwined life of a Polish Jew and a Nazi, was privately published in 2010 and sold 120,000 copies. Because of its popularity, St. Martin’s Press has published what is described as “a different version,” probably a reworked version, of the novel.

Set in Chicago in the year 2004, Ben Solomon is convinced that the philanthropist Elliot Rosenzweig, also a resident of Chicago, is really Otto Piatek who grew up with him in Zamosc, Poland and who later became a Nazi officer. The bulk of the novel, though anchored in 2004, takes place in the years 1933 through 1944 where we read about the lives of Ben Solomon and his childhood friend, Otto Piatek.  Has Otto Piatek disguised himself as Elliot Rosenzweig? What are the clues? What is the evidence? Are Solomon and his lawyer going to be able to put together a convincing case and expose him?

The chronological history of the Holocaust in Poland is no mere background in this suspenseful, highly readable novel. In order to construct a historically accurate novel, the author, a lawyer who has made a number of trips to Poland, has included a lot of conscientiously researched material about World War II and about what happened in Poland, in particular. It is clear that Balson is attempting to reach out to a broad audience to educate them about the Holocaust that goes beyond a familiarity with Anne Frank and Auschwitz.

One literary strategy Balson uses is to make Ben Solomon’s lawyer, Catherine Lockhart, a non-Jew which creates an opportunity for the author, through his character Solomon, to explain many terms that he assumes she and many readers may not know, like Judenrat, Aktion Rheinhardt, kapo, the Nuremberg Laws, and the Anschluss. Sometimes he has Lockhart ask questions for clarification which prompt informative answers. For example, Solomon explains what ghettos were really like; he differentiates between slave labor camps, transit camps, and exterminations camps; and he creates scenes that involve the theft of property, the means of escape and the geography of escape routes, the existence and strategies of the Polish resistance, the danger in encountering informers, and the presence of helpful Catholic priests and nuns. Balson also introduces readers to the complications inherent in post-war prosecutions of Nazis and the strategies lawyers use to litigate these cases.

Although, as stated above, this is a suspenseful novel and is easy to read, it does feel a little like the plot is contrived to teach a history lesson. Balson deserves credit for having succeeded in presenting a number of aspects of the Holocaust, and in doing so he provides a useful and credible overview of the plight of Jews in Poland. However, Balson is less successful in the area of character development – his characters are not complex. That being said, the novel is a worthy addition to stories about the Holocaust. Interestingly, it joins Michael Lavigne’s Not Me in its shocking premise. In each novel the author imagines a Nazi posing as a well-respected Jew. Whether this is just a literary device or has its roots in reality is not clear.

To read an interview with the author in the Chicago Tribune, click here.
To read an article about Poles who have been honored for helping Jews during World War II, click here.

Ronald Balson - married to Monica; author
     David and Matthew Balson- sons of Ronald
Linda Balson - sister of Ronald

Friends and Acquaintances
Rabbi Victor Weissberg

Zamosc, Poland
Krasnik, Poland