From left: German Nazi officers Richard Baer, Josef Mengele and Rudolf Höss on the grounds of the SS retreat outside of the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland in 1944. Credit: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum via Wikimedia Commons.
From left: German Nazi officers Richard Baer, Josef Mengele and Rudolf Höss on the grounds of the SS retreat outside of the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland in 1944. Credit: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum via Wikimedia Commons.
featureHolocaust & Holocaust Survivors

Living in the literal ‘shadow’ of Auschwitz

“We live in a world of conspiracy and denial, and we have to fight it by making films such as ours,” says Daniela Völker, who wrote, produced and directed a film about Rudolf Höss.

As a teenager, Kai Höss found out that his grandfather, Rudolf, was the commandant of Auschwitz and one of the greatest mass murderers in history.

He decided to take part in the documentary “The Commandant’s Shadow” because he wanted to educate people about crimes based on hate. In the film, Höss confronts his grandfather’s actions as he travels to Auschwitz with his father, Hans Jürgen Höss, 87, who had never been in the camp itself despite living next to it as a child. Together they also go to the home of Auschwitz survivor Anita Lasker-Wallfisch and visit with her, and her daughter Maya Lasker-Wallfisch, who is a psychotherapist and an expert in transgenerational trauma.

“I went to Auschwitz, and saw the platforms and the ideology of people willing to commit genocide,” Höss told JNS. “For those who are deniers, this happened; my grandfather wrote it all in his diary.”

Höss was hanged at the age of 45 in 1947 following a trial before the Polish Supreme National Tribunal. He was ordered to write his autobiography in the weeks before his execution. It was released as a memoir in English under the title Commandant of Auschwitz: The Autobiography of Rudolf Hoess.

In the book, Höss wrote that Jews were considered enemies of the state, and when tasked with making sure Auschwitz was constructed quickly and Jews were executed in mass numbers, he didn’t consider the moral questions.

There are voiceovers in the film from Höss’s writing and testimony, including: “I myself watched the killing, protected by a gas mask. The door was closed, and the gas was poured into through openings. Some shouted ‘gas,’ and then mighty yelling and pushing towards both doors ensued. But they withstood the pressure … that is when I saw gassed corpses for the first time in a heap. I did not give any thought to the killing itself. It had been ordered and I had to execute it.”

“I don’t let that fly,” Höss told JNS. “You have a choice. He knew it was not right. But he decided to do what he felt he needed to do for his career. At Auschwitz, I was in tears. I have children. I have a family. They separated little children, pregnant women and the aged, and they were immediately gone. It broke my heart.”

He said it wasn’t easy to learn about what his relative had done.

“There was shame,” he said. “Who would want that person as a grandfather?”

Now a pastor in Stuttgart, Germany, he said that he believes in heaven and hell. Does he think his grandfather is in hell?

“I can’t judge who goes to hell,” he said. “Only God can.”

Höss said he went to the Western Wall in Jerusalem last year, adding: “I love Israel.”

Asked about anti-Israel protesters calling Israelis Nazis after Oct. 7, he said it was and is disturbing. “To me, it’s nonsense,” Höss said. “Oct. 7 was a heinous and horrible crime.”

Some of the producers told JNS that there was consideration to reshoot interviews after Oct. 7, but in looking at the dailies, there were already scenes speaking about current antisemitism and the danger of not learning from history.

Warner Bros. and HBO acquired the film, which was shown in limited theaters on May 29 and May 30 through Fathom Events.

Film Still From “The Commandant's Shadow”
From left: Hans Jurgen Höss, Kai Höss and Maya Laker-Wallfisch, the daughter of Auschwitz survivor Anita Lasker Wallfisch. Credit: Courtesy of Warner Bros.

‘A formidable capacity to withstand hell’

The climax of the film is when Höss and his father visit the home of Auschwitz survivor Anita Lasker-Wallfisch in England, who survived because she filled an empty position as a cellist in a women’s orchestra at Auschwitz, “a very lucky position to have,” she says. (Lasker-Wallfisch later learned that all the concentration camps had orchestras since the camp guards needed entertainment.)

The meeting was set up by her daughter, Maya, who stated that her mother was strong, determined and talented. “Her innate character, along with the incredible sense of self, gave her a formidable resourcefulness and capacity to withstand hell,” Maya told JNS.

She said her mother, now 98 years old, never told her the story of what exactly happened, and it impacted her psyche. She found out one day when looking for cigarettes and saw horrific images.

Maya acknowledged that she remains deeply troubled and fears that something similar to the Holocaust can happen again.

“We all have the capacity for doing good or doing bad,” she said. “It’s the choices we make and the need to communicate. We all bleed red.”

Film Still From “The Commandant's Shadow”
Auschwitz survivor Anita Lasker Wallfisch. Credit: Courtesy of Warner Bros.

“The Commandant’s Shadow” will most likely get more exposure than it might otherwise would have since it arrives after “The Zone of Interest” won this year’s Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. That production, too, focused on Höss and his family, though it was fictional and didn’t include any Jewish characters by name. Nazis referred to “The Zone of Interest” as the 15-mile restricted area that served as the grounds of Germany’s biggest concentration camp.

Daniela Völker, who wrote, produced and directed “The Commandant’s Shadow,” said her film uses psychological devices while “The Zone of Interest” uses stylistic ones.

“There’s a place for everything,” Völker told JNS. “I hope people will be intrigued by what the real story is.”

She said she was surprised by one thing.

“I thought Höss was a psychopath, like the guy who shot Jews from his balcony in ‘Schindler’s List,’” Völker said in reference to the portrayal of Amon Goeth (played by Ralph Fiennes, who was nominated for Best Supporting Actor in 1994 for the role), the commandant of the Plaszow concentration camp outside of Krakow, Poland, which held some 10,000 inmates at its most crowded.

“I came to realize from interviewing his children that he wasn’t a total psychopath,” she continued. “He was not a very pleasant person. But he’s someone I feel I’ve met before, at least in the sense that he is a careerist, ambitious and focused only on pleasing his boss. I’ve seen this in my film about [genocide] in Rwanda and Argentina. It’s unsettling that these people are amongst us. The psychologist at Nuremberg said he was normal with dissociative tendencies.”

Kai Höss
Kai Höss, the grandson of Rudolf Höss. Credit: Starpix Celebrity Pictures.
Daniela Völker
Daniela Völker, wrote, produced and directed “The Commandant’s Shadow.” Credit: Starpix Celebrity Pictures.

Völker said she is disturbed by Holocaust denial and denial of the Hamas attack of Oct. 7, “even though it was livestreamed” and filmed by the terrorists themselves. “We live in a world of conspiracy and denial, and we have to fight it by making films such as ours.”

Hoss said he was pleased that “The Zone of Interest” was made to bring attention to the story but added that: “if you didn’t know anything about the Holocaust and watched it, you wouldn’t learn what it’s about.”

Neil Blair, one of the documentary’s producers, told the audience before a film screening in New York City that in “contrast to Jonathan Glazer’s comments, no one is revoking their Judaism.” His statement was followed by applause.

In accepting the Oscar for “The Zone of Interest” Glazer said: “We stand here as men who refute their Jewishness and the Holocaust being hijacked by an occupation that has led to conflict for so many innocent people … .” That statement also got some applause as well as 1000 Jewish creatives signing a letter denouncing it and another 150 supporting it.

Rudolf Höss on Trial
Rudolf Höss, commandant of German Nazi concentration and death camps of Auschwitz, during his trial in Warsaw, after which he was declared guilty and then hanged in 1947 in Auschwitz on the place of his crimes. Credit: Polska Agencja Prasowa (PAP) via Wikimedia Commons.

Blair told JNS that he was troubled by the denial of Oct. 7 in many places.

“People need to accept facts, or we can’t learn from it,” he told JNS. “If we don’t understand this, history can repeat itself, which is very worrying. There is something wrong with Holocaust education in the world that many young people know so little.”

Volker pointed out that there are great challenges in the world and referred to one of the last lines in the film, said by Wallfisch, who survived Auschwitz.

“We can’t end antisemitism,” Volker said. “What we can do is make people aware that the past is not just the past. We have to draw conclusions about the present and how we will act in the future. Alisa said it best: ‘That it’s all about what we do in the present.’”

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