Shalom Life | February 22, 2014

EXCLUSIVE: Interview with 'Hanns and Rudolf' Author Thomas Harding

Shalom Life chats with the non-fiction writer, journalist and former documentary maker on his latest Costa Book Awards-nominated book

By: Zak Edwards

Published: December 12th, 2013 in Culture » Books » News

Like many stories, Thomas Harding’s latest book starts with a funeral, or perhaps more specifically, an obituary.

“Alexander, Howard Harvey, lovingly known as Hanns, passed away quickly and peacefully.”

A nice sentiment and a quiet end for a man who grew up Jewish in Germany, lived through both World Wars, and dedicated much of his life to bringing war criminals to justice.

What Hanns Alexander’s obituary neglected to mention, however, was that he is also responsible in part for the capture and prosecution of one of the Nazis most notorious murderers.

Thomas Harding, non-fiction writer, journalist, former documentary maker and Hanns’ own great nephew, didn't even know it, however, until it was mentioned at Hann’s funeral a few days later.

“I heard the eulogy for my great uncle Hanns’ and my cousin says he was a war crimes investigator after the war and helped track down and arrest the commandant of Auschwitz,” Harding tells Shalom Life in an exclusive interview, “and I was like, ‘What? How could that possibly be true?’”

It was here, after discovering his prankster great uncle Hanns was also a successful Nazi hunter, that Harding’s journalistic instincts kicked in. The result is Hanns and Rudolf: The True Story of the German Jew who Caught the Kommandant of Auschwitz, which was recently shortlisted for the prestigious Costa Book Awards.


John Le Carre, one of the most renowned spy novelists of our time, has described the book as “an essential history” and Harding himself as a “scrupulously dispassionate narrator.”

But at first the story seemed too strange to be true. “My family is very close,” Harding says, “so the first thing I did was ring up my father.” His dad was unsure, citing Hanns’ prankster nature. “[Hanns] was always the one who told us dirty jokes when we were kids, who organized all the pranks and gags at the weddings and such. He was a larger than life character but not one I would imagine to be a war crimes investigator.”

From there, Harding went to the Museum of London, where his questions about a German Jew being a Nazi hunter were met with surprise. “They started laughing, they thought the whole thing was ridiculous.”

But Harding wanted to get to the bottom of the story to find out if it was all true. Luckily, he found his first shred of evidence through a museum outside Chicksands, north of London. “I was led to a sort of back room by a Major Edward, who gave me a cup of milky tea and cookies and he pointed me to a desk containing the official record of the arrest of Rudolf Höss.”

On the record was the initials HHA. Hanns Hermann Alexander, later changed to Howard Harvey Alexander.


(Hanns Alexander, 1947)

Continue reading on Page 2

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