When the international trial of the Nazi arch-criminals began in Nuremberg in November 1945, Rudolf Franz Ferdinand Höss (in English, Hoess) was known to have been the commandant of the Nazi concentration camp near Oświęcim in what had been, before September 1939, Poland. During World War II, the Nazi invaders and occupiers had renamed that town Auschwitz. Hoess had, people were alleging, gassed millions, mostly Jews, at Auschwitz. But as the Nuremberg trial began, Hoess was missing, at least a fugitive, perhaps dead.
Almost four months later, in March 1946, soldiers in the United Kingdom zone of occupation captured Hoess near what had been Germany’s border with Denmark. They interrogated him. He confessed that he had, as Auschwitz commandant, on orders from Nazi leader Heinrich Himmler (who had killed himself in May 1945), gassed two million people.
Hoess then was transported to Nuremberg for further interrogation. The four Allied nations had by that time concluded presenting their prosecution cases against the defendants, but Hoess’s evidence was potentially relevant to their cross-examinations and rebuttals that still lie ahead, and perhaps to future trials. He was interrogated, thoroughly and repeatedly, by U.S. personnel. He continued to confess, in expanding detail, what he and his personnel had done at Auschwitz. His confession was put in affidavit form, which he and United States assistant trial counsel Lieutenant Colonel Smith W. Brookhardt, Jr. (IGD), each signed on April 5, 1946.
Hoess’s capture and his presence in Nuremberg were made known to defense counsel. On April 6, British prosecutor David Maxwell Fyfe applied to the International Military Tribunal (IMT), on behalf of defendant Ernst Kaltenbrunner, for a new “witness called Hoess, who was former Commander of the Auschwitz Concentration Camp. My Lord, there is no objection on the part of the Prosecution to that.” The IMT, determining that other defense counsel either concurred or did not object, granted permission.
On April 15, Kaltenbrunner’s lawyer called Hoess as a witness. He testified that he had been commandant of Auschwitz for its first three years, and that he had reported to and received his instructions directly from Himmler’s subordinate Adolf Eichmann (who then was believed to be dead). Hoess’s key testimony, from the defendant’s perspective:
Defense counsel Dr. Kurt Kauffmann: Did the Defendant Kaltenbrunner ever inspect the [Auschwitz] camp?
Dr. Kauffmann: Did you ever talk with Kaltenbrunner with reference to your task?
Hoess: No, never.
U.S. Army Colonel John Harlan Amen, a senior member of U.S. Chief of Counsel Robert H. Jackson’s staff, then cross-examined Hoess. The examination tracked his horrific affidavit to Brookhart. It confessed publicly, without remorse, the enormous, deliberate, exterminationist evil of Auschwitz.
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On the day of Hoess’s trial testimony, Justice Jackson was in Allied-occupied Vienna for diplomatic, military liaison, and other coordination meetings.
The next day, an Austrian woman, Helene Zacchiri, hurriedly typed a letter in quite-rough German and managed to get it delivered to Justice Jackson. She obviously knew that he was in the city, that he was the chief prosecutor in Nuremberg, and that Hoess had just testified there. She had been told years earlier that her son had died in Auschwitz. She had tried to learn more about his fate but had failed. Now she was asking Jackson for help.
Jackson, who did not read or speak German, had an interpreter with him in Vienna. The interpreter shared with Jackson these words from Mrs. Zacchiri:
16 4 46
[April 16, 1946]
Herrn Vorsitzenden Dr Robert H Jakson
[Mr. Chairman Robert H. Jackson]
Ich habe in der Zeitung gelesen das die Verhandlung gegen Kommandaten Hosch demnachst in Nurnberg stattfindet[.] Daher ersuche herrn Vorsitzden in engelegenheit meines Sohnes denselben einzuvernehmen[.]
[I have read in the newspaper that the hearing against Commandant Hosch [Rudolf Hoess] is taking place in Nuremberg. Therefore, I ask you to please question him about the fate of my son.]
Mein son Demeter Odnega geb Wien am 10 Juni 1901[.] Maschinen techniker wurde von der Gestappo Wien am 29 Mai 1941 nach Auschwitz uberstellt[.] Am 10 December hat mir der Kommandant eine Todeserklahrung geschikt[.] Nun bin ich nach Berlin gefahren und habe dort erfahren dass main Son nur Tod erklahrt wurde[.] Nachdem hier unde in Auschwitz alle akte verbrant sind kann ich uber das schiksal meines Sohnes Nicht erfahren[.]
[My son Demeter Odnega, born in Vienna on 10 June 1901, is a mechanic. The Gestapo in Vienna sent him to Auschwitz on 29 May 1941. On 10 December [1941?], the Commandant sent me a death certificate. I went to Berlin and all that I could learn there is that my son is declared dead. Because all the files in Auschwitz were destroyed, I cannot learn about the fate of my son.]
Ich ersuche daher hoflichst Hosch einzuvernnehmen ob mein Sohn getodet wurde in Auschwitz oder verschikt[.] Ich war drei mal in Auschwitz Herr Vorsitzender[.] und habe im Ort erfahren wie diese armen Menschen dort auf Befehl des Kommandanten als auf Auftrag des Schirach dort mishandelt wurden und getodet[.] Ersuche mich schriftlich von der Einvernahme zu verstandigen denn es ist fur eine Mutter furchbar nicht zu wissen funf Jahre wo mein Sohn ist[.]
[Therefore please ask Hosch [Hoess] whether my son was killed in Auschwitz or transferred to some other place. I was in Auschwitz three times, Mr. Chairman. I learned how the poor people there were mistreated on the orders of the Commandant, on behalf of Schirach. Please write back to me what you learn through interrogation. It is awful for a mother not to know for five years where her son is.]
Wien 4 Muhlgasse 20 12
Vienna [Austria] 4 Muhlgasse 20 12]
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In Jackson’s position—he was the important chief of a very large, high profile, high stakes project, asked by an unimportant person to seek information that almost surely would not exist—many people would do little or nothing.
Jackson brought Mrs. Zacchiri’s letter back from Vienna to Nuremberg. He gave it to his secretary Elsie Douglas. He told her what it said, and that it likely was a futile request. But he told her to send it to Col. Amen.
Mrs. Douglas sent the Zacchiri letter to Amen, with a cover note that was less than an order from Jackson to do something but not discouraging of action.
Amen passed the letter along to Sender Jaari, one of his Interrogation Division personnel who had been involved in interrogating Hoess.
Jaari asked the imprisoned Hoess about Mrs. Zacchiri’s son’s fate. Hoess replied that he had no information. Jaari reported that back to Mrs. Douglas.
Mrs. Douglas reported to Jackson what Hoess had said.
Jackson then sent a letter back to “My dear Mrs. Zacchiri” in Vienna:
As requested in your letter of April 16, which was delivered to me during my brief stay in Vienna, the witness Hoesch [sic] has been interrogated as to some possible clue on your son’s whereabouts. I regret to advise you that Hoesch states that he does not know anything about him and therefore can give you no helpful information. I am very sorry we have been unable to help you.
We know, as Mrs. Zacchiri was told in December 1941 and continued to believe, crushingly, in 1946, that her son Demeter Odnega was a Holocaust victim, murdered in Auschwitz—click here for his record in the International Tracing Service database.
I hope that she received Justice Jackson’s letter, and that she felt its humanity.
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