Rainer Hoess, the grandson of the former commandant of Auschwitz, Rudolph Hoess, spoke at the opening of Toronto’s Holocaust Education Week on Nov. 3. After learning about his grandfather’s legacy as a teenager, Hoess distanced himself from his family and now travels the world fighting racism, fascism and intolerance. In 2013, survivor Eva Kor unofficially adopted Hoess as her grandson.
You said there are some Jews who haven’t forgiven the Germans. There are people who still hold a grudge against you for what your grandfather did. What’s your response to them?
I completely agree with these people. I never would expect them to forgive Germany. I think everybody should find their own way to live with it. I know that many people, many survivors, hate Eva Kor because she forgave the Nazis. That forgiveness was her way of living with it. And I think it would be a mess if I told survivors, “you have to think like that, Germany is not that country of Nazis anymore.” No, we still have Nazis in Germany. So I’ll leave it up to individuals. It’s not a problem for me, and it shouldn’t be a problem to travel to their countries to meet them in their homes where they feel safe, where they feel comfortable. They don’t have to come to Germany.
But I saw it on the other hand with survivor Ben Lesser. Five years ago, he was in Germany for the first time. He said, “OK, I will come for the Liberation of Dachau ceremony and let’s meet up there.” And after, he said, “When can you arrange another invitation for me to come over? I really like Germany, it has completely changed since the time after the Second World War.”
So we should be patient to give countries or people the chance to see that things can change. We are able to change things. Of course, not everything – fascism, racism, stuff like that, you never will get it out of the world. It still exists. And it will always exist in the world. So it would be really a tricky business to say, “no, we challenge that.” You can’t. There are always some idiots who think it’s the best way.
What do you want people to take away in terms of how they can fight racism and fascism themselves?
Start thinking and don’t go with the flock. Think by yourself, research before you repeat what someone told you. I wish the news media would be more objective than they are right now. So they pick something out and it should be really spooky, really scary, a lot of blood in it, then everybody will read it. But most people never read the whole article. They only read the headline, and maybe the underline of the headline, and say, “wow, now I know everything.” That’s stupid.
Research, find out if it’s the truth, listen to both sides, not only to one side. Pre-judgement is really easy. So that is what I deliver. Be a voice, not an echo. That’s the main sentence I gave to students. And I think it’s a clear sentence. Stand up for your own voice, stand for it. And don’t follow the masses and be only an echo of thousands of others. That never leads to a good end – never.
Some people have called you an opportunist. What’s your response to them?
It’s easy. It’s easy to call me an opportunist or fake or something like that, it’s the easiest way to take it down from the table, not discuss with me. So I live with it. I have no problem at all. I get hated from this side, I get hated from that side, I get hated from my own family. So I know the feeling, but I learn to live with it.
For me, it’s a good feeling that people don’t judge me by my grandfather. They judge me by what I’m doing. They see the difference between me and him. OK, I have his name. I’m from his family. But that doesn’t mean I’m a mass murderer or criminal in any way.
Why have you not changed your name?
To be the descendants of a mass murderer is not something I would wish on anyone. Neither I, nor my children, are guilty for the terrible sins of Rudolf Hoess, but we have to live under his dark shadow. My children stand behind me like a fortress when it comes to my work, supporting me in every aspect of it. It has not always been easy for them either, especially when I was in the news or my motives were attacked. But like me, my children have decided to keep the name Hoess. Like me, they believe our name can be used as a powerful tool against the strengthening modern Nazis, far-right groups and right-wing populists in this world.
The legacy of the Hoess name has come to an end with my family. We point blank refuse to carry it forward. My children and grandchildren will carry the new Hoess heritage and reject all that has come before. That is something I can be proud of. My goal is not only to remember and respect the silenced victims, but also to keep their voices alive. Keeping their stories in the hearts and minds of present and future generations is the key to a better future for all mankind.
This interview has been edited and condensed for style and clarity