If there is one thing I have learned in my life, it is that there is no room for hatred. As a Holocaust survivor, I learned this long ago. It is what allowed me to move on from the darkest days in my life, through the death, the pain, the loss. To me, hatred is the root of evil. I live my life free from this feeling, despite what I endured.
A few months ago, I was fortunate to talk to someone I never thought I would – Rainer Höss. On paper, we are polar opposites. Rainer, well, his grandfather was one of the men who kept me imprisoned in Auschwitz, one of the four camps I survived before being liberated from Dachau. Who killed. Who showed no mercy. No compassion. He killed thousands of people, including my family.
But, not Rainer. This man is like me, although from a very different world. His background is one I would have feared in my childhood, when I was walking those death marches. Today, that is not the case.
How did I meet Rainer? It happened a few months ago. On January 26th, I was reading The Wall Street Journal and came across an article about him. At first, reading the name and seeing “Höss,” I was stunned. Horrified. His grandfather, Rudolf Höss, was one of the leaders of the Nazi party, a commander of Auschwitz and responsible for the deaths of upwards of one million men, women and children. Among those victims were my little brother, Tuli and my eldest sister, Goldie. As prisoners in Auschwitz, uncle, my cousin and me had also been brutalized and starved by his grandfather.
But, as I read this article about Rainer, this young man fascinated me. Despite carrying a name that is universally despised, he had opted to be a role model for peace. How could I feel anything but respect for this man, an innocent offspring of one of history’s most evil men, who had decided to move from that dark story and create his own, filled with respect, love and peace?
Reading the story, my heart felt pain for him. His grandfather caused him suffering, too, albeit not the same. But, the results were the same: courage. Determination. A desire to tell the truth. While we have come from entirely opposite sides of the human experience we were united in one purpose: to show others understanding, mutual respect and peace are possible, even in unexpected circumstances.
After learning about Rainer’s mission, I reached out to him via Twitter to express my gratitude for what he is doing with his life: informing, educating, helping people show tolerance – basically the same goals as I-SHOUT-OUT. The greatest thing we have in common is that we want to ensure something like what happened to me and the six million others never happens again.
After our initial Twitter conversation, we spoke on the telephone. Thousands of miles and lifetimes separating us, but it didn’t matter. Speaking on the phone, our pasts were our pasts and our only concern was the future.
“We all have family secrets,” he said. “My families secret was that my grandfather was one of the cruelest mass murderers in the Second World War.”
We spent hours on the phone, sharing stories about triumphs in our lives, overcoming adversities and discussing our joined mission for peace and education. On that call, I realized we were one and the same.
“Auschwitz for me it is part of my heritage,” said Rainer. “It is a place we should never forget.”
Rainer didn’t separate himself from his heritage until two years after his son was born.
“My father called him a bastard and not welcome in the Höss family,” he said. “In 1985, I cut all ties and lines with the Höss family. I was no longer able to stand it, or be a helper in denying the facts that my grandfather and my grandmother were so deeply involved in these crimes.”
It takes a lot in life to let go of pain and that vile hatred that can bubble within us. I know, all too well, that hate can consume, but also the importance of letting hate go with the wind and moving forward and using that to learn to be strong, to be resilient.
People ask me how I can be friends with Rainer, since his grandfather murdered my family. The answer is simple: we cannot control what we are born into, but we can control how we choose to live our lives. I look past his family’s past and see the man before me: a strong man, a caring man and one who wants to help make the world right, despite the actions of those who helped bring him into this world.
It was never an easy road for Rainer, either.
“It’s a nightmare, for me. A never ending nightmare,” he said of his upbringing. “The lies about the so upright soldier and grandfather who never did anything wrong. All others were to blame, not just him. Orders are orders, the recurring excuse. Life in this family was like living under a cheese cover, a familiar autism. You permanently felt suffocated by this environment of hiding and praising, covering up and denying.”
Rainer didn’t know his grandfather. The elder Höss was executed shortly after the war ended, ironically, in the place where he killed so many. But, his reputation was one he constantly dealt with. He recalls his grandmother who would praise the so-called “wonderful times” of the Third Reich, who clung tight to her husband’s reputation as a “brave soldier and decent commander.”
What happened to me was through no fault of Rainer’s. I know this and I move past it. I know his bloodline leads directly to a mass executioner, but that does not make Rainer one, too. Who am I to lump him into the same category as those killers when he is not one? And, if I did, wouldn’t that make my entire mission with I-SHOUT-OUT movement hypocritical?
I believe in speaking out, for sharing what you believe, for fighting against intolerance and ensuring past atrocities never occur again. In truth, these are Rainer’s beliefs, too.
It is absolutely essential that people like Rainer exist. Hopefully more will follow his example and make their stories available to the public. Arguments and debates don’t really help much in achieving peace. In order for people to live in peace, they must first understand each other. With understanding, comes respect and appreciation. The first step in understanding is communication. Rainer’s courage in communicating his experiences as a German and as the grandson of a mass-murderer, helps us to understand that he and his generation are not responsible for what their predecessors did. That he feels a responsibility to bring truth to the world, is testimony to his integrity. While that which was destroyed by past generations can never be replaced, those who work together can build new bridges of peace.
In fact, when I spoke with Rainer on our initial call and told him about the I-SHOUT-OUT movement, he was on board immediately.
I am touched that he wants to help spread the word, and in our new partnership, he will do just that. As an avid speaker and traveler, he is now a brand ambassador for the program and has made it his goal to help garner the six million shout-outs for the six million souls who were silenced (some directly as a result of his grandfather’s actions).
“It helps us to inform and educate young people, to walk around with open eyes and minds. To remember the crimes of the second World War, especially the genocide which took place on grounds like Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Dachau, Bergen-Belsen, Treblinka, Majdanek, Sorbibor and many others,” Rainer said regarding the importance of our new partnership. “As in our modern times, hate and fear grows. The new social networks which are used by all these groups and movements, to influence our youth. We have stopped to treat each other with respect. The world is in trouble. Hate and terrorist groups seat hate and fear in it. And I worry about the future, that’s why it is important to speak out and take a stand for minorities. It is not important which religion, sexuality, skin or nationality they have, they are all human beings. And hate and fear is a powerful weapon and easily to use.”
Powerful words, yes?
On April 29th, we will meet for the first time. Some say it is a historical meeting. A Holocaust survivor coming face-to-face with the grandson of a man who murdered so many, including my family. And, it is. But, it is so because now, the two of us are an example of putting hate aside, of putting intolerance aside and creating a new and strong and powerful friendship with one mission: never again.
Together on April 29th, we shall stand side-by-side at Dachau, a place that holds pain for both us for very different reasons, and meet for the first time in person. I look forward to working with Rainer in bringing the truth about the Holocaust, its perpetrators, and its victims, to the world. We hope to show the world the strength can form from letting go and coming together. Our partnership is a unique and important component in increasing the dialog not only for those who have been touched by the Holocaust, but who are victims of oppression everywhere. If a member of a family whose blood contains so much evil can partner with a victim of that evil in order to promote world peace, then there is hope for everyone. Rainer and I share the same message: That the only way for people to live in peace is to stop the hate. This is a constant process that requires people to become educated, so that they can communicate effectively with those who are different, and thereby build understanding and respect.
What will it feel like when we meet? How do you think it will feel? Stay tuned for the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Dachau when we meet.
To learn more about Ben Lesser and his mission, please visit: www.zachorfoundation.org.
To learn more about Rainer Hoss and his Footsteps Team, please visit: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Footsteps/759104724179734
To be part of a powerful movement in efforts to stop intolerance and speak for the six millions souls that were silenced, please visit I-SHOUT-OUT. SHOUT-OUT for what you believe in TODAY: www.i-shout-out.org
Ben Lesser blog article written by Diana Edelman