Mesa Musings: The horrors of only 70 years ago

He was one of the most merciless human beings ever to walk the planet, yet you've likely never heard of him.

The late Rudolf Höss made personal and career choices that were disturbing beyond belief.

Two years ago Hedy, my wife, and I visited the "canvas" upon which the major bush strokes of his depraved existence were applied. That canvas is located near the small town of Oświęcim, in rural southwestern Poland.

Höss' "canvas" was a place called Auschwitz, which epitomized man's inhumanity to man. Built to dispose of human beings in the cruelest of fashions, the former Nazi death camp remains one of the Holocaust's enduring symbols.

Holocaust Remembrance Day (Yom HaShoah) is next Monday.

Höss (not to be confused with Rudolph Hess, Hitler's deputy) served as the commandant of Auschwitz for three-and-a-half years. During his tenure, an estimated 1.1 million people — 90% of whom were Jews — were put to death at Auschwitz.

Höss seemed not the least discomfited by the appalling numbers. In fact, in his detailed testimony following the conclusion of World War II, he claimed to have been responsible for "at least 2.5 million victims (who) were executed and exterminated by gassing and burning."

Whatever the accurate figure, the enormity of his crimes boggles the mind. We denizens of the 21st century look back on events of 70 years ago and are tempted to utter one of the more banal clichés of our time: "What was he thinking?"

But, truly, what was he thinking? A lifetime is but three score and 10 years. Did Höss never contemplate divine retribution — exacted if not in this world then certainly the next? Did he somehow expect the cosmos to give him a pass?

I recently met Höss in a book titled "The Nuremberg Interviews." The book contains 1946 conversations with defendants and witnesses called to the docket at the Nuremberg Trials, held in post-war Germany. It's a fascinating read.

U.S. Army physician and psychiatrist, Dr. Leon Goldensohn, conducted the interviews. Dr. Goldensohn died in 1961, and members of his family organized and arranged his notes and his typed interviews years later. The extraordinary research was compiled into what I experienced as an absorbing yet deeply troubling book.

Like so many other Nuremberg defendants and witnesses, Höss possessed unremarkable credentials. Born in Baden-Baden in 1900, he was the son of a former army officer. Höss saw action as a German soldier in World War I, and married in 1929. By the end of World War II he had five children.

While commandant of Auschwitz, Höss and his family lived in a comfortable home within the precincts of the death camp itself. How, I wondered as I visited the camp, could one possibly do that?

Dr. Goldensohn asked Höss if it bothered him to kill children the same ages as his own.

"It was not easy for me or other SS men,'" Höss replied stoically, "but we were convinced by the orders and the necessity of these orders.'"

Goldensohn asked Höss if he occasionally felt upset over what he'd done:

"'I thought I was doing the right thing. I was obeying orders, and now, of course, I see that it was unnecessary and wrong. But I don't know what you mean by being upset about these things because I didn't personally murder anybody. It was Hitler who ordered it through Himmler and it was (Adolf) Eichmann who gave me the order regarding transport.'"

Oh, please!

Höss' hands were clearly at the controls of a killing machine.

Goldensohn probed Höss' heartlessness. He asked if thoughts of the executions, gassings or the burning of corpses "in any way haunt you (today)?'"

"'No. I have no such fantasies,'" replied the man who lacked a conscience.

I saw the Auschwitz gallows where Höss was hanged on April 16, 1947. It was mere steps from his family's former comfortable quarters.

Here's hoping his first moments in eternity were as horrifying for Höss as his victims' last temporal moments were for them.

JIM CARNETT lives in Costa Mesa. His column runs Tuesdays.

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