This is an incredible story. Brigitte Höss, the daughter of the commandant of Auschwitz, has been living for most of her life in northern Virginia. She spent part of her childhood living in the shadow of Auschwitz, where Daddy went to work. When she first came to America, she barely spoke English, and got a job at a Washington salon owned by a Jew whose family had been driven out of Germany by the Nazis. And then:
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.
After Brigitte retired a few years ago, the store owner called every month to see how she was doing. “She is very nice,” Brigitte says. Then about a year ago, she stopped calling. Brigitte knew the store owner had visited Israel and wondered if she had, after all the years, become angry. “People do change,” she said.
You find out in the story that Brigitte is deeply conflicted by her apparent desire to love and to respect the man she loved as a father, and the undeniable fact that he’s one of history’s greatest mass murderers. There’s a lot of pathos there. Brigitte engages in some repulsive rationalizing (e.g., yes, Jews died, but it couldn’t have been that many), but toward the end of the story, you can see that she is unable to reconcile the man she loved as her father and the man who killed a million people. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not at all excusing her, only noting her broken humanity. What if your father were taken away from you in childhood because he was a monster? I imagine I would rationalize too, lying to myself for the sake of trying to maintain some kind of affectionate connection with him. Or maybe not. It’s impossible to say. What a stain to carry.
But that’s not the most amazing part of this story. More:
Sometime 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 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. “The one has nothing to do with the other. She is a human being,” he says. “She was not responsible for her father.”
Reflecting on his parents’ decision, he says, “I am proud to be their son.”
As he should be. My God. How do people do that? How do people find it in themselves to think and act in such a way? Brigitte Höss suffers from her broken humanity, but the love and charity of this anonymous Jewish family shows what it means to have one’s humanity healed, made whole.
Do read the entire story, by Thomas Harding; it’s amazing.