How wedding ring identified Nazi monster Rudolph Höss



THE extraordinary tale of how a German Jew captured the kommandant of Auschwitz was told at Manchester's annual Yom Hashoah ceremony.

Thomas Harding described how Hanns Alexander tracked down Rudolph Höss, who was responsible for the death of one million men, women and children.

Mr Harding told guests on Wednesday night: "When Britain declared war on Germany, Hanns and his brother Paul volunteered for the British army and were placed with the Auxiliary Military Pioneer Corps - a unit of refugees who wanted to fight the Nazis.

"Hanns was chosen to take part in a 12-strong team who were tasked with tracking down Nazi war criminals."

When the British government set up a team to look for Nazis, Hanns became one of the first investigators on the No 1 War Crimes Investigation Team.

Mr Harding said: "They realised that his ability to speak German made him an asset.

"After interrogating the Nazi guards at Belsen, he realised the real prize capture would be Höss.

"Hanns began his hunt for him, believing that he would hold the key information to the workings of the Nazi atrocities committed against the Jews.

"After the fall of Auschwitz, Höss and his family had fled towards the Danish border together with numerous other prominent Nazis."

British intelligence had tracked them to the Flensburg area, where Höss' wife Hedwig and their children lived above in an apartment above an old sugar factory.

Mr Harding explained: "Hanns interviewed Hedwig, who was being kept in a prison, and her five children, but they would not tell him anything.

"Their son, Klaus, was thrown in the same prison and Hanns came up with an idea to park an old steam train outside the prison and tell Hedwig that if she did not tell him where Höss was, he would send Klaus on it to Siberia."

Hedwig revealed her husband's whereabouts - he was living at a farm under the name Franz Lang.

Höss denied his true identity but Hanns realised it was German tradition for couples to have their names inscribed on the inside of their wedding rings.

He demanded Höss hand over the ring and inside was inscribed "Rudolph and Hedwig".

Höss was arrested on March 11, 1946, and Hanns' men beat him up.

He stood trial at Nuremberg the following month and was handed over to Polish authorities on 25 May 1946, where he stood trial accused of murdering three million people.

Höss was sentenced to death on April 2, 1947 and was hanged next to the crematorium of the former Auschwitz I concentration camp two weeks later.

Hanns returned to Britain, where he became a naturalised citizen, and married Ann Graetz, a fellow German Jewish refugee.

They had two children and Hanns worked as a low-level banker for the rest of his life.

Presenters Angela Epstein and Rob Kanter recalled that, a year ago, the Manchester Jewish community commemorated the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Jewish people.

Angela said: "Twelve months on and we have gathered again to mark Yom Hashoah - to remember the six million souls brutally slaughtered by the Nazis, simply for being Jews, and to honour the survivors. But just as we are here, one year on, what happened, one year on, to the men, women and children who survived the Holocaust?

"In the months succeeding the end of the war, the world was in chaos.

"For the Jewish people who stumbled out of the hell of Nazi concentration camps, the prospect of beginning life anew seemed an insurmountable challenge."

Rob said many of the survivors found themselves without a home or family.

He explained: "After the war, the instinct may have been to return home, but for some this was a treacherous and wasted journey.

"Anti-Jewish riots broke out in several Polish cities - the largest taking place in July 1946 in Kielce, a city in south-eastern Poland.

"When 150 Jews returned to the city, people living there feared that hundreds more would come back to reclaim their houses and belongings.

"Age-old antisemitic myths, such as the Jews' ritual murders of Christians, arose once again.

"After a rumour spread that Jews had killed a Polish boy to use his blood in religious rituals, a mob attacked the group of survivors.

"The rioters killed 41 people and wounded 50 more.

"News of the Kielce pogrom spread rapidly and Jews realised that there was no future for them in Poland."

After the war, the Allies quickly set up displaced persons camps which, ironically, meant that many liberated Jews remained behind barbed wires.

Rob said: "For all their challenges, and the world's view of the Jewish people as 'broken vessels', many survivors were determined to rebuild their lives.

"Many married quickly, some in the displacement camps.

"Survivors openly celebrated Jewish holidays for the first time and they organised themselves politically to try and influence the allies to create a Jewish state in Palestine.

"Others planned to go to America or wherever they felt they had a chance of a new beginning."

Survivors Chaim Ferster, Leonard Kaufman, Susie Salomon, Danny Herman, Rachel Heiman, Gisela Feldman and Sonja Sternberg all lit memorial candles.

Third generation Avrom Aronson sang Avinu Malkenu and recited El Maaleh Rachamim, Chaim Ferster read The Survivor's Legacy and Tal and Zac Walshaw recited The Pledge of the 2nd and 3rd Generation.

The stories of two Polish-born survivors, Sam Gontarz and Icek Alterman, brought tears to the audience's eyes.

Mr Gontarz's son Robbie told his father's tragic tale.

He said: "As the son of a survivor, I have grown up knowing my father's traumatic story.

"I know that given the atrocities he witnessed and the perilous conditions to which he was subjected, he had little reason to hope he would survive the war.

"When the Germans invaded and herded 45,000 Jews into the Lodz ghetto in 1940, my father was a boy of no more than 12.

"Used as forced hard labour under horrific conditions, he was put to work making harnesses for the Germans.

"If a stitch was too big or too small, the kapos would beat him and his workmates over the head with a rubber truncheon.

"My grandfather died of typhus, but the family struggled on until the Germans ordered the liquidation of the Lodz ghetto in 1944.

"Dad was deported by cattle wagon on the arduous journey to Birkenau where, to his enduring horror, his mother and sister were taken straight away.

"He was parted from his brother when he was sent to Auschwitz. He never saw his family again.

"Dad became the number which is still tattooed on this arm: B7965."

In early 1945, with the Red Army closing in, Mr Gontarz was marched in sub-zero temperatures from Auschwitz to Mauthausen.

His son continued: "Dad was sure he had no chance of survival.

"He lived in mud and worked in mud, a boy dressed in thin rags with no shoes.

"Dad said that all he remembers was hunger, terror, the shadow of death stalking his every move.

"Liberation came in May, 1945.

"At the time dad had been marched with a group to another camp in Austria.

"As the Germans knew the war was all but over, they decided on a new method of extermination, poisoning those in dad's group as they fed them thin soup once a day.

"Dad's memories of liberation are unclear - he remembers shooting and shouting and then nothing.

"He woke up, miraculously, to find himself in hospital.

"An American nurse - she must have looked like an angel - leaned over and told him in Yiddish 'you're free'."

Mr Gontarz then spent time in a displaced persons' camps - and learned his sister, Sala, had survived Belsen.

"Dad travelled with friends to be reunited with her," Robbie said.

"As brother and sister made plans to go to then-Palestine, my aunt was killed in a bus accident in October 1946. Dad was alone again."

Salvation came when he arrived in Manchester in July, 1947, as a great-aunt was living in the city. He established a life and career for himself, marrying Sheila in 1958.

Robbie added: "Dad has always said that none of us can live for ever and that no one escapes bereavement.

"But the Holocaust was mass murder. He was subjected to five different camps, was one of only 270 people out of thousands to survive a death march.

"It is something which must not be forgotten and that should not be forgotten.

"The generations - my generation and the ones who come after - have to ask about it, have to talk about it and have to carry on the flame of remembrance."

Mr Alterman's story was preceded by that of Monty Woolfe, who described how a group of survivors who arrived in Manchester at the end of the war became known as "The Boys".

Jewish youth clubs opened to give them somewhere to go, such as Springfield, in Smedley Lane, off Cheetham Hill Road.

Mr Alterman, who was separated from his family during the Holocaust, was interned in Thereisenstadt, Blyzin, Auschwitz, Birkenau and Buchenwald concentration camps.

Liberated in May, 1945, he recalled: "After those long years of hell, what hope could there be for a boy like me - and indeed for so many others like me?

"Where would we go? "What would we do? Our homes had been destroyed, our families decimated. I had suffered yet miraculously survived the worst that a man can do to a man."

Within three months of the war's end, Mr Alterman was on the first transport of 300 children out of Prague and flown by Lancaster bombers to Carlisle and then on to Windermere as part of a scheme, arranged through the Jewish Refugee Committee liaising with the Home Office, which gave permission to bring young orphaned Holocaust survivors to Britain.

After three months of rehabilitation, in November 1945, he was taken with a group of other boys from Windermere to a hostel in Middleton Road, Crumpsall, which was run by Bachad, the organisational arm of the Bnei Akiva youth movement.

Mr Alterman recalled: "I had no idea of what Manchester was or even where it was. I soon discovered it to be a cloudy, rainy place with smog-covered buildings and a dreary grey sky!

"But when you have been to the edge of hell, even this gloomy picture represented more new beginnings.

"We boys would receive a stream of visitors wanting to 'look' at us and find out about us - especially about previous educational and religious life. From Middleton Road I moved to a hostel on Singleton Road, in Broughton Park.

"By now I had given up any hope of finding my family - my parents, my sister and brother.

"It is a remarkable testimony to the power of even the most broken human spirit that so many of us began to look forward, to think about how we could make our own way in life and to earn a living."

Mr Alterman made a career in the jewellery business and married Myra in 1952.

They had two daughters, Elaine and Fione, and two grandchildren, Danielle and Mitchell. Myra died 25 years ago.

"For all the wonderful things that slowly came to me in the years that followed my liberation, as a survivor you never forget the ache in your heart for the family you lost," Mr Alterman said.

"As a survivor, your memories are burned on to your soul. I will never forget my loss.

"But when I came to Manchester, one year on after my horrendous ordeal, I began to live.

"We must never forget the horrors brought to bear on our people by the Nazis simply because we were Jews. Let our survival be victory for the continuity of the Jewish people."

Lauren Clyne told the story of her Austrian-born grandmother, Ruth Edwards, who in February, 1939, at the age of 12 left her home in Vienna - despite not speaking a word of English and having never been away from her mother and father before.

"For her parents, it was an agonising, wretched separation from their only child, a little girl they doted on and who loved them back in equal measure," Mrs Clyne said.

"Grandma still has the cards she sent to her own mother, scripted when she was just a little girl."

Mrs Edwards had experienced a taste of life under Nazi occupation, with restrictions on trips to parks and cinemas.

And her father was temporarily interned in Dachau after Kristallnacht in November, 1938.

He was released the day before Mrs Edwards left Vienna. She was sent to a distant relative in Manchester.

"What could she know as a young girl, an adored only child?" Mrs Clyne asked.

"She had been enveloped in her parents' love, so much so that until the day she left, her parents had dressed her every day and she had not been allowed to do so much as bend down when she dropped something for fear that she might hurt herself.

"Every night her father would sit by her bed and recite the Shema with her. The last words grandma remembers hearing her parents say, came from her mother.

"Turning to her husband, she said of grandma, 'Perhaps she doesn't want to go'.The agony of this phrase, even today, is palpable."

The trip to England saved her life, but she was never reunited with her parents.

They had somehow made it to Zagreb in the hope it would be safer in Yugoslavia, but were shot by the Nazis in 1942.

Mrs Clyne explained: "My grandmother is a wonderful, stoic and determined lady and even now will not acknowledge how terrible that parting must have been for her.

"She soldiered on, supported by the friends, especially other refugee children, she made in Manchester. Grandma wept bitterly for the parents she had lost.

"As the world outside began to put back together the pieces broken by war, she felt desolate.

"How could she ever put the pieces of her own world back together again?"

Mrs Edwards decided to go and live with an aunt in Macclesfield and went to night school to learn bookkeeping and shorthand.

After meeting Sidney Edwards at a Sunday afternoon dance at The Ritz in Manchester, they married in 1949.

Mrs Clyne said: "Today, grandma is the matriarch of our family surrounded by children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

"Often she wonders what might have happened had she not got on that train.

"So many of her family had perished, including her dear parents, her adored grandfather who was murdered in Auschwitz, another uncle and his 22-year-old niece, Ella, who had also written to grandma begging for her to help.

"Unlike six million others, life began again for grandma.

"So many years on we mourn their loss, but we know that as for my grandma, we, her family, are her salvation and her victory."

Jackie Field, chairman of Manchester's Yom Hashoah committee, said she hoped that Ruth's extraordinary testimony would help promote understanding of the terrible anguish and suffering of families ripped apart by the Nazis.

She explained: "Ruth made her journey at such a tender age.

"We especially hope her story will resonate with the youth in our community - the next generation -who will be responsible for continuing the message of remembering the Shoah."

She said that despite the Nuremberg trials in 1946, many ordinary people didn't want to know of the suffering of the Holocaust survivors.

"Too many countries had been broken by war and were trying to restore some sort of normality," she explained.

"Many survivors spent years searching for lost family members.

"They scoured Red Cross records and searched through newspaper pictures which were published all around the world.

"Even now when images appear on TV screens or on the internet, survivors scan faces in case there is a relative in case, by chance, someone else survived.

"The nightmares and the memories do not go away.

"The Holocaust deniers have not disappeared - and, though one day all the witnesses to the horrors will, there is fear that those deniers will be perpetuated in new generations looking for somewhere to aim their hatred and bigotry."

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