Divine Mercy and the Commandant of Auschwitz

By Marc Massery

This Jan. 27 marks the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi concentration camp of Auschwitz. With that in mind, we have a powerful story to share.

Though the infamous commandant of the Auschwitz concentration camp, Rudolf Höss, oversaw the murder of millions of innocent people during World War II, in the end, even his horrific sins weren’t bigger than the mercy of God. 

Höss was born in 1900 in Baden-Baden, Germany, to strict Catholic parents. His father wanted him to become a priest, but after his father’s death, Rudolf decided to join the German military instead. 

‘The Final Solution’ 
In the early 1920s, after hearing Adolf Hitler speak in Munich, Germany, Höss renounced his Catholic faith and became one of the earliest members of the Nazi Party. First, he served a few years at the Dachau concentration camp. Having proved himself, in 1940 he was named the first commandant of Auschwitz, which he converted into what would become one of the largest death camps in world history. SS leader Heinrich Himmler put Höss in charge of carrying out in Auschwitz the “Final Solution,” the complete extermination of all Jews in Europe.

Though Höss denied ever killing anyone by his own hand, he was responsible for streamlining the execution process by introducing the lethal poison Zyklon B, which enabled the murder of as many as 2,000 people per hour. 

A Calm Killer
Despite overseeing the execution of millions, eyewitness accounts identified Höss as someone who always seemed calm and collected. He lived in a house with his family mere yards from the Auschwitz crematorium, kissing his wife each morning before work and tucking his five children into bed at night. 

After the war, Höss wrote: 

The gassing was carried out in the detention cells of Block 11. Protected by a gas mask, I watched the killing myself. In the crowded cells, death came instantaneously the moment the Zyklon B was thrown in. A short, almost smothered cry, and it was all over. … I must even admit that this gassing set my mind at rest, for the mass extermination of the Jews was to start soon. 

Also under Höss’ watch, in the basement of block 11, prisoner number 16770 was committed to a starvation cell before dying by lethal injection. That prisoner was the priest and martyr St. Maximilian Kolbe.

Any sense of sanctity, though, was far from Höss’ mind at this point. 

During these same years, however, Höss met a priest who would prove to have an impact on him. The Gestapo had arrested several Jesuits living in Krakow, Poland, and sent them to Auschwitz. The community’s superior, Fr. Władysław Lohn, SJ, happened to be absent at the time of the arrest. When he found out what happened to his religious brothers, he snuck into Auschwitz to find them. When the guards noticed Fr. Lohn, they took him to Höss to decide his fate. Impressed by the bravery of Fr. Lohn, Höss released the priest unharmed. 

The End and a New Beginning
After the war came to an end and Höss was captured, he was arraigned at the International Military Tribunal in Nuremberg and sentenced to death. Following his sentencing, Höss accepted his fate and did not appeal for leniency. Having spent time in a Polish prison, Höss experienced something that would lead to a conversion of heart. He wrote:

In Polish prisons I experienced for the first time what human kindness is. Despite all that has happened I have experienced humane treatment which I could never have expected, and which has deeply shamed me.

In prison, Höss came to realize that everything he had lived, worked, and killed for was based on a flawed ideology, and he repented. He said: 

I have inflicted terrible wounds on humanity. I have caused unspeakable suffering for the Polish people in particular. I am to pay for this with my life. May the Lord God forgive one day what I have done.

On Good Friday, April 4, 1947, awaiting execution, Höss asked to see a Catholic priest. The authorities had trouble finding a priest who spoke German, but Höss happened to remember the name of one: Fr. Władysław Lohn, the Jesuit he had once spared. 

Though it took many days, Höss’ captors finally found Fr. Lohn located in nearby Krakow. He happened to be praying at the Shrine of Divine Mercy, where St. Faustina, the Polish religious sister and mystic responsible for spreading devotion to the Divine Mercy, was laid to rest. 

So, on April 10, 1947, the Thursday after Easter, three days before Divine Mercy Sunday, Fr. Lohn heard Höss’ Confession. The next day, Friday, Höss received Holy Communion. Afterward, he knelt in his cell and wept. 

On April 16, Höss was hanged on a one-person gallows right outside of the gas chambers he had built in Auschwitz. The official report of his death said that Höss remained “completely calm right up to the end and expressed no final wishes.”

“It was a hard struggle,” Höss had written toward the end. “But I have again found my faith in my God.”\

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