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How the Commandant of Auschwitz Found God’s Mercy


Public Domain

John Burger - published on 03/04/16

Not even an "animal" like Rudolf Höss is exempt from Christ's forgiveness, Polish nun says

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.

Anxious not to scandalize her listeners, she reminded us that all of this transpired right after the end of a brutal war, when “wounds were very fresh.” The guards agreed to look for a priest, but “it was not easy to find a priest who would like to listen to the confession of Rudolf Höss. They could not find one.”

And then Höss remembered the name of the Jesuit he had let go a few years before: Father Władysław Lohn. He gave the guards the name and begged them to find him.

And they did find him — in the Shrine of Divine Mercy in Krakow, where he was chaplain to the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy. He agreed to go hear Höss’ confession.

“It lasted and lasted and lasted,” Sister Gaudia said. “And then he gave him absolution. ‘Your sins are forgiven. Rudolf Höss, you animal, your sins are forgiven. Go in peace.’”

Father Lohn saying “you animal” during absolution is no doubt a flourish Sister Gaudia threw in there, but the point was clear: no one is beyond the mercy of God.

The next day Father Lohn went to the prison again, to give Höss the Eucharist before he died. “And the guard who was present said it was one of the most beautiful moments in his life seeing this ‘animal’ kneeling, with tears in his eyes, looking like a little boy and receiving Holy Communion, receiving Jesus with his heart,” the nun said. “Unimaginable mercy.”

Devotions and FeastsPolandWorld War II
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