TERRE HAUTE, Ind. — A message that has spread like wildfire across Europe can easily translate to America.
Never Forget To Vote is a campaign for a Nazi-Free Europe, to stop a political party that uses violence to intimidate minorities from gaining a foothold in the European Union. The point of the campaign is to get the non-Nazi majority of people to the polls on election day.
The public face of that campaign is a man whose grandfather was commandant of the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland during World War II. Rainer Hoess has lived with the legacy of his grandfather Rudolf Hoess since he found out as a teenager that his ancestor participated in the largest mass extermination of humankind in history.
Hoess now speaks out against hate groups, especially the resurgence of Nazis in Europe, and this week he has been in Terre Haute visiting the CANDLES Holocaust Museum and its founder, Eva Kor, a child survivor of Auschwitz.
“Tolerance is a word I don’t use. I don’t like it,” Hoess told the Tribune-Star on Thursday.
That may sound ironic coming from a man who supports the rights of all people. But having tolerance for hate groups — allowing them to demonstrate and share their viewpoints — makes no sense to Hoess.
His family has dealt with the guilt of having a high-level Nazi as a patriarch. In fact, Hoess lost respect for his own father when the man who lived for part of his youth outside the concentration camp tried to explain that Rudolf Hoess was misunderstood, that history was wrong and that the commandant was only doing his duty. Hoess was convicted of war crimes and executed by hanging just a few years after the war ended.
In the years that followed the war, many Germans put their own spin on their family involvement in the war. Some hid their identities. Most simply refuse to talk about it. But Hoess said that current issues in the world — concerns about immigration and economic troubles — can be a springboard used by hate groups, such as the Nazis of World War II.
“Denial starts on the fringes,” Hoess said of how people today downplay the Holocaust and the reflections of hate seen today in the world. “People say it didn’t really happen. Immigration tends to ignite the fear in people, and that ignites other things. In a bad economy, people are a little more desperate.”
That can lead to finger-pointing at immigrants or racial and ethnic minorities as takers of jobs and freeloaders off the government, he said. Those were some of the arguments used against Jews in Europe to seize their property and assets, and to send millions to work camps and concentration camps where they were starved and killed.
As a grandson of Rudolf Hoess, Rainer was featured in the recent documentary “Hitler’s Children” as one of five family members of Nazi leaders of the Holocaust. The 50-year-old Hoess is also featured in the Nazi-free Europe advertising campaign that is available online at neverforgettovote.com.
Hoess has had a long journey in coming to grips with his grandfather’s actions. For years, his family name prevented him and his children from making trips to the concentration camp to see where the atrocities happened. But he was recently at Auschwitz when he saw a woman small in stature but big in forgiveness explaining her story to some German schoolchildren at the camp. That day, Hoess met Eva Kor, who as a child was ripped from her family and subjected along with her twin sister to medical experiments. She never saw her parents and other siblings again.
Kor now calls Rainer Hoess one of her grandchildren, and she was shocked but pleased a few days ago to learn that Hoess was coming to Terre Haute to see the CANDLES museum.
It was on July 4 at Auschwitz that Kor stood with Hoess and two others with Nazi ancestors “to remember, to teach and to act.”
A pledge for action signed that day states that the perpetrators of the Auschwitz war crimes rose to power because of bad economy and apathy.
“Today, 70 years later, bad economy and apathy of the voters has given rise to Neo-Nazis, terrorists and racists who are gaining power in many parts of the world; and with it we see the rise of Anti-Semitism and hatred,” states the pledge signed by Kor and Hoess. “Every single person must vote and fight against Neo-Nazis, terrorists and racists to prevent another Auschwitz.”
Hoess participated in the voting campaign in Sweden because racism is a growing problem there. His campaign extends into schools to reach children as young as age 10, to explain to them how fear of immigrants and others is manipulated by hate groups.
“The good people should be concerned about what’s going on,” Kor added. “They are not. They are staying home and not voting.”
Hoess said that for many years, Germans did not speak of the second world war, or their family’s participation or about the extermination of the Jews. Today, school children are being taught about their country’s history as the nation tries to quell an upsurge in Nazi activity.
“With closed eyes, it’s easy living,” Hoess said of living in denial that the Holocaust caused a national wound that hasn’t healed. “When you open your eyes and see into the abyss, it’s not about what you see in the abyss, but what the abyss sees in you.”
He said he has spoken to the adults who say that Germany has paid for its past and question why people continue to bring up the Holocaust and its atrocities.
“But we all have to look back to see in the present, to educate our youth so it cannot happen again,” he said. “The youth is the future. These people have to be educated about the past to make a better world.”
Hoess notes that America and many other countries seem to be facing the same economic and racial tension that started out small in Germany, but was exploited into an attempt at world domination. He pointed out that some Americans don’t like to talk about slavery as anything other than history, yet it devastated people on multiple continents and resulted in a civil war.
“I think if you have such crimes in your country, people get very arrogant,” he said of their attitudes and justification for the wrongs of the past.
“Whenever the economy goes bad, it is the next thing to blame your neighbor who doesn’t look like you and to say the immigrants took my job,” he said.
Social media are also being used to carry some of those messages, so parents should pay attention to what their children are tuned in to read and watch.
Hoess said that to people who cannot grasp the enormity of the Holocaust and its long-lasting effects, he points out the focused extermination of Hungarian Jews — more than 500,000 people in just 56 days at Auschwitz.
“That means that Stuttgart, where I live, is empty in 56 days,” Hoess said. “That’s 12,000 people a day, about 1,200 people an hour.”
One haunting legacy that Hoess shares is how he found out about a suit that his father had enjoyed wearing as a child. He found a photo of his father in that suit and then he found paperwork that showed that the suit had come from a Auschwitz warehouse called “Canada” where the clothing and possessions of Jews were stored after being confiscated. Hoess said he was disgusted that his own father could enjoy wearing something that had come from some other child who had been killed in the camp.
While visiting at CANDLES on Thursday, Hoess witnessed the announcement of a new partnership between the museum and Indiana State University to develop educational curricula and public outreach on the topics of the Holocaust, genocide, human rights, bioethics, diversity and inclusion.
Hoess, who wears a Star of David necklace along with a small seashell from Israel, said he plans to continue his efforts in Europe to educate the public, especially youth, on the need to vote. His next project is to meet with youths in Malta to talk about racism and politics.
But he also plans to return to America to continue to share about his family history and the Holocaust.
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