Those who survived Auschwitz called the man in charge an “animal.” Rudolf Höss presided over the extermination of some 2.5 million prisoners in the three years he was commandant of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. Another half a million died there from disease and starvation. A year after his tenure came to an end, he returned to oversee the execution of 400,000 Hungarian Jews.
And yet even an “animal” such as he was not beyond the reach of God’s mercy.
My wife and I learned about Höss when a young nun from Poland spoke at our church. I was taken aback when I first heard the telling, in part because I thought Sister Gaudia was speaking of Rudolf Hess, the deputy to Adolf Hilter. The names sound similar. But what happened to Höss, who held a less prominent position in the Third Reich, was perhaps more stunning.
The lecture was part of the parish’s observance of the Jubilee Year of Mercy, declared by Pope Francis. Sister Gaudia and Sister Emmanuela, members of the Congregation of the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy — the congregation to which St. Faustina Kowalska belonged — are touring the United States, speaking about Christ’s revelations to St. Faustina and the image and devotion of the Divine Mercy. Sister Gaudia, by the way, is part of the planning committee for World Youth Day 2016, which will take place in Krakow this summer.
Seventy or so years ago, Krakow, and all of Poland, was a very different place than it is today. Sister Gaudia spoke of Auschwitz, one of the Nazis’ deadliest camps, with its extensive use of gas chambers and medical experimentation, set right in the heart of her country. One in six Jews killed in the Holocaust died there.
But the camp was not only for Jews. Catholics, such as Saints Maximilian Kolbe and Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein), were here as well.
“One day they took the whole community of Jesuits here,” Sister Gaudia said. “Only the superior was not at home,” so he was not captured. “When he came home, he was in such pain that he said, ‘I need to be with my brothers.’”
Somehow, he snuck into the camp and searched for his brother Jesuits. The guards found him and took him to Höss. “They were totally convinced that he would simply kill him, without any questions,” Sister Gaudia said. But he let him go, much to the guards’ surprise.
After the war ended, Höss was captured, tried and convicted of crimes against humanity. He was sentenced to death, and the execution would be in Auschwitz, where he had worked diligently to implement Hitler’s “final solution.” He would be held in a prison in Wadowice (which, of course, was the birthplace of Karol Wojtyla, the future Pope John Paul II).
Höss was in great fear — not of death, but of prison, Sister Gaudia said. “He was totally convinced that the Polish guards would take revenge on him and he would be tortured as long as he was in prison, and that it would be unimaginable pain. How great was his surprise when the guards — men whose wives, daughters and sons were killed in Auschwitz, treated him well. He couldn’t understand.”
And that, she said, was the moment of his conversion. “They treated him mercifully,” she said. “Mercy is the love we know we do not deserve. He doesn’t deserve their forgiveness, their goodness, their gentleness. And he received all that.”
Höss was a cradle Catholic but had abandoned the faith in his youth. Now, facing his mortality at age 47, and perhaps encouraged by the guards’ treatment, he asked for a priest. “He wanted to confess his sins before he died,” Sister Gaudia said.