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The Redemption of Rudolf Höss

Nothing happens by accident. Everything happens for a reason. This is what the Sovereign Lord of All Creation, my Lord, the Maker of All Things, did 76 years ago this week. This is a story of healing.

Rudolf Höss (“Herss” is reasonably close enough), the German SS commandant of the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland, was raised as a Catholic. He left the church when he was very young when he thought his priest broke the seal of confession. He made the decision to never trust a priest again, and to never have anything to do with the church ever again.

He was recruited into the Nazi party and the SS by Heinrich Himmler, and was assigned to the Dachau concentration camp near Munich in 1934. From Dachau he went to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp near Berlin in 1938. After that, he was appointed commandant of the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland in 1940.

After Germany was defeated, the Nazi leaders were being prosecuted and tried in Nuremberg, Germany for war crimes committed in the war. During the Nuremberg trials, Rudolf Höss admitted that he was personally responsible for the deaths of two and a half million people. He did not repent. He simply admitted, “Yeah, I did that.”

In 1940, Rudolf Höss, the new commandant at Auschwitz, had Polish Jews and dissidents rounded up and shipped to Auschwitz to be killed. Among these were all the Jesuit priests in Krakow . . . all except for one guy, Father Władysław Lohn, SJ, who wasn’t in the house that day. When Father Lohn returned home, all the other Jesuits were gone. “Hey, where did they go?” “They were taken to the Auschwitz concentration camp.”

So this priest, Władysław Lohn, breaks into Auschwitz, presents himself to the SS guards, and says, “I want to die with my brothers.” The guards say, “What the heck is wrong with you?”

The guards bring Father Lohn to the camp commandant, Rudolf Höss, who asks the Jesuit priest, “What are you doing here?” and hears the story. Höss decides this priest is insane, and kicks Father Lohn out of the camp. He kicks him out of Auschwitz! (You can’t make this stuff up, but you have to realize and know, for sure, just how powerful is the providence of God! It’s awesome!)

That Jesuit priest, Władysław Lohn, survives the war. So does Rudolf Höss, who gets arrested and sent to Nuremberg. Höss gets tried and convicted of his war crimes. The tribunal in Nuremberg makes the decision to send all war criminals back to where they committed their crimes. So Höss gets sent back to Poland.

Höss just happens, just happens, to be sent to a town called Wadowice, where a guy named Karol Józef Wojtyła was born, who many years later becomes Pope John Paul II (1978-2005). Höss knows he’s going to be hanged. He says he’s not afraid of dying, but he’s afraid of being tortured, because the local guards are Polish guys from the town of Auschwitz.

The Polish guards don’t torture Höss. Instead, they treat him with kindness and respect. This so changes the former commandant’s heart that he actually begins to experience grace. (Some of us respond to being touched by grace. Others of us need to be slapped by grace.)

One day, Höss hears church bells ringing, which just happens to be coming from the church where Karol Józef Wojtyła, the future Pope John Paul II, and his childhood family worshiped. The day just happens to be Good Friday, the day Jesus dies on the cross for the redemption of the world, and Höss asks to see a priest.

The local Polish people can’t find anyone who speaks German. Höss remembers the name of the priest he kicked out of Auschwitz in 1940. He writes the name Władysław Lohn on a piece of paper. “Find that man.”

Father Lohn comes to visit Höss, hears his confession, and his profession of faith to follow Jesus, no turning back . . . and the next day, Father Lohn brings the Eucharist. The man whom Rudolf Höss had kicked out of Auschwitz is used by the Sovereign Lord of All Creation to be the hands of God to redeem the former SS commandant of Auschwitz from Satan and Hell.

The guards who were there testified that the man, whom the Polish people and the inmates of the Auschwitz concentration camp called “the animal,” fell to his knees and wept. Rudolf Höss was hanged six days later, on April 16, 1947. He was 45 years old.

When Father Władysław Lohn was meeting with SS commandant Rudolf Höss in prison, he was sitting next to a man who was personally responsible for killing two and a half million people. Father Lohn was meeting with the man who had killed his friends, his fellow Jesuit priests, a man who had done immense wickedness in this world.

In the end, Father Władysław Lohn called SS commandant Rudolf Höss “brother.” This is the healing power of God. This is our Christianity. This is our church. This is what Jesus called us, His followers, to be.

January 28, 2022 – Rudolf Höss – Commandant of Auschwitz Documentary – Bundesarchiv, Bild CC-BY-SA 3.0.

July 16, 2023 – Execution of Rudolf Höss, Nazi SS camp commandant, who sent millions of Jewish people to the gas chambers at Auschwitz. As a youth, Höss served briefly in a military hospital in Germany, and at the age of 15, was drafted into the German army, serving on the Turkish front during the First World War. At 17, he was the youngest non-commissioned officer in the army and was awarded the Iron Cross First and Second Class and other decorations for his bravery in action. Höss joined the Nazi Party in 1922. The Right-wing politics that emerged in Germany after World War I gave reasons why Germany had lost the war and was forced to make such a humiliating peace. According to the prevailing narrative, the Jews with their alleged Communist sympathies had stabbed Germany in the back.

Höss expanded the original concentration camp facility into a vast complex known as the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. Auschwitz comprised three separate facilities. Auschwitz I was the administrative center for the complex. Auschwitz II Birkenau was the extermination camp where most of the murders were committed. Auschwitz III Monowitz was the slave-labor camp. In May 1941, Heinrich Himmler told Höss that the Führer had ordered a “Final Solution” to the Jewish problem and that he had to keep this order completely secret, even from his superiors. Rudolf Höss designed the Auschwitz camp for mass executions to prosecute the final solution of the Jewish question. It was at the Auschwitz camp that more than 2.5 million people were shot or executed in gas chambers. On April 16, 1947, Rudolf Höss was hanged on a short-drop gallows, adjacent to the crematorium of the former Auschwitz I concentration camp that he once commanded.