Brigitte Höss lives quietly on a leafy side street in northern Virginia.
She is retired now, 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.
Brigitte also has a secret that not even her grandchildren know. Her father was Rudolf Höss, the Kommandant of Auschwitz.
It was Rudolf Höss who designed and built Auschwitz from an old army barracks in Poland to 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’s 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.
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 nor any details that would disclose her identity be revealed.
“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. Is now the time to process her family history? 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.”
According to SS personnel records – held in the National Archives in College Park – Inge-Brigitt Höss was born on Aug. 18, 1933, on a farm near the Baltic Sea. Her father, Rudolf, and mother, Hedwig, met on this farm, which was a haven for German youths obsessed with ideas of racial purity and rural utopia.
Brigitte was the third of five children, three girls and two boys.
She 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 Auschwitz.
From 1940 to 1944, the Höss family lived in a two-storey grey 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. It was a life of luxury only a few short steps from horror and torment.
In April 1945, as the end of the war appeared in sight, Rudolf Höss and his family fled north. They split up. His wife took the children and found refuge above an old sugar factory in St Michaelisdonn, a village near the coast.
Rudolf took on the identity of a labourer 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 to the side of her house. Brigitte lies on an old couch, complaining that her feet hurt. I sit on a loveseat next to a Christmas tree, upon which hangs a star knitted by her mother, Hedwig, the kommandant’s wife.
I start by asking about the time she spent living next to Auschwitz. “It is best not to remember all those things,” Brigitte 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.”
Alexander assembled a team and headed to the barn in the night. Höss was awakened. He denied he was the kommandant. Certain he had his man, Alexander demanded to see his wedding ring. When Höss claimed it was stuck, Alexander threatened to cut his finger off until the kommandant passed the ring over. Inside was inscribed “Rudolf” and “Hedwig.”
The kommandant was the first person at such a senior level to admit the extent of the slaughter at Auschwitz. He was handed over to the Americans, who made him testify at Nuremberg. Then Höss was passed to the Poles, who prosecuted him, then hanged him on a gallows in Auschwitz.
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 her brother Klaus found a job in Stuttgart that the family’s fortunes improved.
In the 1950s Brigitte managed to leave Germany and make a new life in Spain. She was a stunning young lady, with long blonde hair, a slender figure and a “don’t mess with me” attitude. 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 for a Washington-based communications company.
The couple married in 1961. They had a daughter and a son. His work took them to Liberia, then Greece, Iran and Vietnam.
The engineer says Brigitte told him about her father and her life in Auschwitz while they were still dating.
He says they had an “unspoken and unwritten agreement” not to talk about her family background.
In 1972 they moved to Washington. Brigitte’s husband took a senior job with a transportation company, and they bought a house in Georgetown. It was a chance for Brigitte to start over.
Brigitte struggled – she didn’t know how to write a cheque, spoke little English and was without friends or family. After some searching, she found a part-time job in a fashion boutique.
One day a short Jewish lady visited the boutique. She liked Brigitte’s style and asked her to come work in her fashion salon in the District.
Soon after she was hired, Brigitte says, she got drunk with her manager and confessed that her father was Rudolf Höss. The manager told the store’s owner.
The owner told Brigitte that she could stay, that she had not committed any crime herself. What Brigitte did not know, at least not until later, was that the store owner and her husband were Jewish and had fled Nazi Germany after the Kristallnacht attacks of 1938.
Brigitte was thankful for being seen as a person, rather than her father’s daughter. She worked at the store for 35 years, serving prominent Washingtonians, including the wives of senators and congressmen.
The store owner returned Brigitte’s loyalty and hard work by keeping her secret. With the exception of one other manager, none of the other staff knew the truth about Brigitte’s family history.
Brigitte’s life is now full of doctors, hospitals and pills. She and her husband divorced in 1983. He has since married twice and lives in Florida.
Her son lives with her. He knows about his grandfather but has not expressed much interest in looking into his family’s history. Her daughter has died. Brigitte is visited often by her grandchildren.
Once a year she flies 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.
Perhaps one consequence of keeping the past so private is that it remains insufficiently examined. Brigitte tells me she has never visited the National Holocaust Museum.
She does not deny that atrocities took place or that Jews and others were murdered in the concentration camps, but she questions that millions were killed. “How can there be so many survivors if so many had been killed?” she asks.
When I point out that her father confessed to being responsible for the death of more than a million Jews, she says the British “took it out of him with torture”.
“And your father, how do you remember him?” I ask.
“He was the nicest man in the world,” she says. “He was very good to us.” She remembers them eating together, playing in the garden, and reading the story of Hansel and Gretel.
Some time afterward, I call the son of the salon owner. He tells me that the reason his mother had stopped calling Brigitte was that she had simply grown too old to make the calls. “My family holds Brigitte as close as we always have,” he says.
When I ask him why his parents had decided to continue to employ her all those years ago, despite knowing that her father had been a senior member of the Nazi leadership that had driven their own family out of Germany, he told me that it was because of “humanity.”
His parents had seen her as a person, in her own right, apart from her father.
Reflecting on his parents’ decision, he says, “I am proud to be their son.”
Thomas 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). . © The Washington Post