The family who lived next door to Auschwitz: As new film tells chilling story of Nazi monster Rudolf Höss, we reveal how his wife fled to the US – while his daughter became a Balenciaga model who hailed her father as the ‘nicest man in the world’

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Written By Maya Cantina

From picnics by the river with her four siblings to a doting father who was ‘the nicest man in the world’, Brigitte Hoss had an idyllic childhood by any standards. 

Her mother described their home in Poland as a ‘paradise’ with cooks, nannies and cleaners to tend to the family’s every need. 

But some of these domestic staff were prisoners from the Auschwitz concentration camp just across the road from the family home, with the prisoner blocks and old crematorium visible from the upstairs window. 

How a family could live such a peaceful existence on the edge of one of the greatest horrors mankind has ever known is explored in a new film by Jonathan Glazer, based on the real life story of Rudolf Höss, the Nazi in charge of Auschwitz.

The Zone of Interest reveals how Höss, along with his wife and five children lived just outside the walls of the concentration camp where more than one million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust.

A new film by Jonathan Glazer explores the story of an Auschwitz commandant’s time in Nazi-occupied Poland with his family, including the picnics they enjoyed at the local river. Pictured anti-clockwise from left: Inge-Brigit, Hedwig and Annagret, Hans-Jürgen, Heideraud, Rudolf and Klaus

The Oscar-nominated movie also takes loose inspiration from the 2014 novel of the same name by acclaimed British author Martin Amis, who died last year.

Höss, who was the longest serving commandant of Auschwitz, oversaw daily mass murder for three and a half years, before returning to his home just 150 metres from the crematorium’s chimney – which pumped out ash and smoke day and night.

He was sentenced to death in 1947 and was hanged outside – next to the crematorium at Auschwitz.

His wife Hedwig – who claimed she was kept in the dark about what was going on in the camp – died in the US in her 80s, while two of his five children have also passed away.

One of Höss’s daughters spoke about her past in a 2013 interview, while his grandson has also been in the news after being accused of fraud.

Here, FEMAIL takes a look at the chilling real tale behind Jonathan’s film, and what happened to the notoriously cruel commandant and his family…

TIME IN AUSCHWITZ 

Höss was appointed commandant of Auschwitz, in the west of Nazi-occupied Poland, in May 1940, when it housed political prisoners.

He then went on to perfect and test techniques for mass murder, leading to the construction of four large gas chambers and crematoria across Auschwitz I, Auschwitz II, and Birkenau.

Although he was replaced as camp commandant in 1943 after being promoted, Höss’s wife Hedwig and children – Klaus, Heidetraud, Inge-Brigitt, Hans-Jürgen and Annegret – continued living at the villa.

The original interior of the house is described vividly by Polish housekeeper Aniela Bednarska in her diary, which also detailed how some of the furniture in the home was made by camp prisoners

The original interior of the house is described vividly by Polish housekeeper Aniela Bednarska in her diary, which also detailed how some of the furniture in the home was made by camp prisoners

Brigitte pictured left

Pictured after the war

One of Höss’s daughters has spoken about her past in a 2013 interview. Pictured left in the 1950s and right (the girl on the left) as a child

Höss was appointed commandant of Auschwitz, in the west of Nazi-occupied Poland, in May 1940, when it housed political prisoners. Pictured in 1947

Höss was appointed commandant of Auschwitz, in the west of Nazi-occupied Poland, in May 1940, when it housed political prisoners. Pictured in 1947

Höss later returned to Auschwitz in May 1944 to oversee the murder of 400,000 Hungarian Jews in less than three months. 

But despite the horrors taking place, the Höss family lived in relative seclusion behind the walls of their home.

The family enjoyed a wholesome childhood with boat rides and playing in the sand – just moments away from where the atrocities were being committed.

His daughter in a later interview – with author Thomas Harding – that they didn’t know ‘what else was there’, insisting there was no ‘smoke’ or ‘smell of something’. 

The original interior of the house is described vividly by Polish housekeeper Aniela Bednarska in her diary, which also detailed how some of the furniture in the home was made by camp prisoners.

The house – which still stands today – was visited by historian Ian Baxter in 2007. His photos and recollections were published by MailOnline in 2021. 

In words collated by Mr Baxter, she wrote that the living room comprised ‘black furniture, a sofa, two armchairs, a table, two stools, and a standing lamp.

‘There was Höss’s study, which you could enter either from the living room or the dining room. 

‘The room was furnished with a big desk covered with a transparent plastic board under which he kept family pictures, two leather armchairs, a long narrow bookcase covering two walls and filled with books.

‘One of its sections was locked. Höss kept cigarettes and Vodka there.

‘The furniture was matte, nut-brown, made by camp prisoners.

The film stars German actors Christian Friedel (pictured) and Sandra Hüller as Höss and his wife Hedwig

The film stars German actors Christian Friedel (pictured) and Sandra Hüller as Höss and his wife Hedwig

‘The dining room was decorated with dark nut-brown furniture made in the camp, an unfolding table, six leather chairs, a glazed cupboard for glassware, a sideboard and a beautiful plant stand.

‘The furniture was solid and tasteful,’ she added.

Describing Höss and his wife’s bedroom, she wrote: ‘The room had two dark nut-brown beds, a four-winged wardrobe made in the camp and used by Höss, and a lighter wardrobe with glass doors used by Mrs Höss.

‘There was also a sort of couch – hollowed and leather. Above the beds there was a big colourful oil painting depicting a bunch of field flowers.’

The housekeeper of another member of the SS who worked at the camp described in her testimony – detailed by Mr Baxter – how Klaus, the eldest child, was ‘naughty and malicious’.

She described how he used to carry a ‘small horsewhip’ which he used to beat prisoners who worked at the house.

‘He always sought the opportunity to kick or hit a prisoner,’ she added.

Auschwitz prisoner Stanislaw Dubiel worked as the Höss family gardener.

In his testimony, he described one moment where he was saved from execution by Höss and his wife, adding that they were ‘strongly opposed’ to it and ‘got their own way’.

But he said: ‘Frau Höss often reminded me about the incident, thus forcing me to be zealous in doing whatever she asked me to do.’

He said that the couple were ‘both fierce enemies of Poles and Jews’.

The Zone of Interest is based on the real life story of Rudolf Höss (centre), who along with his wife and five children lived just outside the walls of the concentrations camp where more than one million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust

The Zone of Interest is based on the real life story of Rudolf Höss (centre), who along with his wife and five children lived just outside the walls of the concentrations camp where more than one million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust

‘They hated everything that was Polish. Frau Höss often used to say to me that all Jews had to disappear from the globe, and there would even come a time for English Jews.’

Among all the staff who worked at the house, Mr Baxter claimed that Jehovah’s Witnesses they employed ‘were the most trustworthy and caring’.

‘They were particularly touched by the love and consideration they gave the children, and Höss could quite easily see how much the family adored them,’ he added.

Mr Baxter even described how Höss became romantically involved with an Austrian political prisoner at Auschwitz, Eleonore Hodys.

After working in his family’s villa, she described in testimony given in 1944 how Höss became ‘strikingly interested’ in her.

‘He did all he could to favour me and make my detention much easier,’ she added.

She then described how Höss then kissed her when they were alone.

‘The commandant expressed his particular feelings for me for the first time in May 1942. His wife was out and I was in his villa, sitting by the radio,’ she explained.

‘Without a word, he came over and kissed me. I was so surprised and frightened and ran away and locked myself in the toilet.

She added: ‘From then on, I did not come to the commandant’s house anymore. I reported myself as sick and tried to hide from him whenever he asked for me.

‘Though he succeeded time and again in finding me, he never spoke about the kiss. I only ever visited the house twice more, by order.’

The family left Auschwitz in November 1944, when Höss moved to Ravensbrück women’s concentration camp north of Germany’s capital Berlin, to oversee further extermination of political prisoners and Jews.

AFTER THE WAR

After Nazi Germany’s defeat in the Second World War in 1945, Höss evaded capture for nearly a year before being arrested.

Höss testified at the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg. When he was accused of murdering three and a half million people, he replied, ‘No. Only two and one half million—the rest died from disease and starvation.’

He was sentenced to death in 1947 and was hanged outside next to the crematorium at Auschwitz I.

However, the story for the rest of Höss’s family is less clear cut. 

In 2013, his third child Inge-Brigitt – going by Brigitte – was living in Northern Virginia, and gave an interview to the Washington Post. She would be 90 today, but it is not clear if she is still alive.

Hoess after his arrest in 1946 following Nazi Germany's defeat

After Nazi Germany’s defeat in the Second World War in 1945, Höss evaded capture for nearly a year before being arrested 

Höss testified at the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg. When he was accused of murdering three and a half million people, he replied, 'No. Only two and one half million—the rest died from disease and starvation'

Höss testified at the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg. When he was accused of murdering three and a half million people, he replied, ‘No. Only two and one half million—the rest died from disease and starvation’

The Nazis’ concentration and extermination camps: The factories of death used to slaughter millions 

Auschwitz-Birkenau, near the town of Oswiecim, in what was then occupied Poland

Auschwitz-Birkenau was a concentration and extermination camp used by the Nazis during World War Two.

The camp, which was located in Nazi-occupied Poland, was made up of three main sites.

Auschwitz I, the original concentration camp, Auschwitz II-Birkenau, a combined concentration and extermination camp and Auschwitz III–Monowitz, a labour camp, with a further 45 satellite sites.

Auschwitz, pictured in 1945, was liberated by Soviet troops 76 years ago on Wednesday after around 1.1million people were murdered at the Nazi extermination camp

Auschwitz, pictured in 1945, was liberated by Soviet troops 76 years ago on Wednesday after around 1.1million people were murdered at the Nazi extermination camp 

Auschwitz was an extermination camp used by the Nazis in Poland to murder more than 1.1 million Jews

Birkenau became a major part of the Nazis’ ‘Final Solution’, where they sought to rid Europe of Jews.

An estimated 1.3 million people were sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau, of whom at least 1.1 million died – around 90 percent of which were Jews.

Since 1947, it has operated as Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, which in 1979 was named a World Heritage Site by Unesco.

Treblinka, near a village of the same name, outside Warsaw in Nazi-occupied Poland

Unlike at other camps, where some Jews were assigned to forced labour before being killed, nearly all Jews brought to Treblinka were immediately gassed to death.

Only a select few – mostly young, strong men, were spared from immediate death and assigned to maintenance work instead.

Unlike at other camps, where some Jews were assigned to forced labor before being killed, nearly all Jews brought to Treblinka were immediately gassed to death

Unlike at other camps, where some Jews were assigned to forced labor before being killed, nearly all Jews brought to Treblinka were immediately gassed to death

The death toll at Treblinka was second only to Auschwitz. In just 15 months of operation – between July 1942 and October 1943 – between 700,000 and 900,000 Jews were murdered in its gas chambers.

Exterminations stopped at the camp after an uprising which saw around 200 prisoners escape. Around half of them were killed shortly afterwards, but 70 are known to have survived until the end of the war

Belzec, near the station of the same name in Nazi-occupied Poland

Belzec operated from March 1942 until the end of June 1943. It was built specifically as an extermination camp as part of Operation Reinhard. 

Polish, German, Ukrainian and Austrian Jews were all killed there. In total, around 600,000 people were murdered.

The camp was dismantled in 1943 and the site was disguised as a fake farm.  

Belzec operated from March 1942 until the end of June 1943. It was built specifically as an extermination camp as part of Operation Reinhard

Belzec operated from March 1942 until the end of June 1943. It was built specifically as an extermination camp as part of Operation Reinhard

Sobibor, near the village of the same name in Nazi-occupied Poland

Sobibor was named after its closest train station, at which Jews disembarked from extremely crowded carriages, unsure of their fate. 

Jews from Poland, France, Germany, the Netherlands and the Soviet Union were killed in three gas chambers fed by the deadly fumes of a large petrol engine taken from a tank. 

An estimated 200,000 people were killed in the camp. Some estimations put the figure at 250,000. 

This would place Sobibor as the fourth worst extermination camp – in terms of number of deaths – after Belzec, Treblinka and Auschwitz. 

Sobibor was named after its closest train station, at which Jews disembarked from extremely crowded carriages, unsure of their fate

Sobibor was named after its closest train station, at which Jews disembarked from extremely crowded carriages, unsure of their fate

The camp was located about 50 miles from the provincial Polish capital of Brest-on-the-Bug. Its official German name was SS-Sonderkommando Sobibor.

Prisoners launched a heroic escape on October 14 1943 in which 600 men, women and children succeeded in crossing the camp’s perimeter fence.

Of those, only 50 managed to evade capture. It is unclear how many crossed into allied territory.

Chelmno (also known as Kulmhof), in Nazi-occupied Poland

Chelmno was the first of Nazi Germany’s camps built specifically for extermination. 

It operated from December 1941 until April 1943 and then again from June 1944 until January 1945. 

Between 152,000 and 200,000 people, nearly all of whom were Jews, were killed there.  

Chelmno was the first of Nazi Germany's camps built specifically for extermination. It operated from December 1941 until April 1943 and then again from June 1944 until January 1945

Chelmno was the first of Nazi Germany’s camps built specifically for extermination. It operated from December 1941 until April 1943 and then again from June 1944 until January 1945

Majdanek (also known simply as Lublin), built on outskirts of city of Lublin in Nazi-occupied Poland

Majdanek was initially intended for forced labour but was converted into an extermination camp in 1942. 

It had seven gas chambers as well as wooden gallows where some victims were hanged.

In total, it is believed that as many as 130,000 people were killed there. 

Majdanek (pictured in 2005) was initially intended for forced labour but was converted into an extermination camp in 1942

Majdanek (pictured in 2005) was initially intended for forced labour but was converted into an extermination camp in 1942

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In recent years, Höss's grandson Rainer has also made headlines. At first, he shot to fame after making his associated with the Nazi commandant public, and using the opportunity to speak out against right-wing movements

In recent years, Höss’s grandson Rainer has also made headlines. At first, he shot to fame after making his associated with the Nazi commandant public, and using the opportunity to speak out against right-wing movements

Speaking to author Thomas Harding, the daughter of one of history’s most prolific mass murderers explained that she often steered the conversation away from the Holocaust if it ever came up. 

The outlet described how their mother Hedwig and her children ‘scraped by’ after Höss’s execution. 

Shunned because of their connection to the Nazi regime, Brigitte and her family spent the following years in extreme poverty.

During the 1950s she left Germany to make a new life in Spain where she worked as a model for three years with the up-and-coming Balenciaga fashion house.

In 1961 she married an Irish American engineer working in Madrid. When she confessed to him about her background he was understanding and believed she was ‘as much a victim as anybody else’.

Rudolf Höss: The death dealer of the Holocaust 

Rudolf Höss, born in Baden-Baden to a Catholic family in 1901, a lonely child with no playmates of his age, went on to become an architect of one of the most horrifying episodes of human history as the commandant of the concentration and extermination camp, Auschwitz.

However, his history of violence under the Nazis stretched back to his first year as a member of the SS, the Nazi’s paramilitary wing, when he was found guilty of beating to death a local schoolteacher under orders in 1923.

On May 1, 1940 Höss was appointed commandant of Auschwitz, in which more than a million people died, either murdered in the gas chambers, or from disease and starvation.

In June 1941, Himmler gave Höss the order to oversee the physical extermination of Europe’s Jews – the Final Solution.

For three and a half years, Höss oversaw daily mass murder, going home at the end of the day to his wife and five children – just 150 metres from the crematorium’s chimney, which pumped out ash and smoke day and night.

In a signed affidavit read aloud at his trial at Nuremberg, Höss confessed to studying the most efficient means of mass killing, concluding that methods in Treblinka – where 80,000 Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto were murdered in one year – could be improved upon.

The coldness with which he describes the mass murder is chilling.

‘So when I set up the extermination building at Auschwitz, I used Zyklon B, which was crystallised prussic acid which we dropped into the death chamber from a small opening.

‘It took from three to 15 minutes to kill the people in the death chamber, depending upon climatic conditions.

‘We knew when the people were dead because their screaming stopped.’

Höss left his post in November, 1943, but returned in May, 1944, to supervise the transport and mass murder of 430,000 Hungarian Jews during 56 days between May and July, and the burning thousands of bodies in huge open pits.

Towards the end of the war, Höss disguised himself as a German soldier and went on the run, only being captured by British troops after his wife tipped them off on 11 March, 1946.

After his appearance at Nuremberg, he was handed to the Polish authorities where he was found guilty of murder and sentenced to death. He was hanged on 16 April, 1947, on a specially constructed gallows next to the crematorium of Auschwitz I camp.

Days before he was executed, he sent a message to the state prosecutor:

‘My conscience compels me to make the following declaration. In the solitude of my prison cell I have come to the bitter recognition that I have sinned gravely against humanity.

‘As Commandant of Auschwitz I was responsible for carrying out part of the cruel plans of the “Third Reich” for human destruction. In so doing I have inflicted terrible wounds on humanity.

‘I 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.’

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They agreed upon an ‘unspoken and unwritten agreement’ not to talk about her family background.

His work took them to Liberia, Greece, Iran and Vietnam before they moved – together with a young daughter and son – to Washington in 1972.

Initially Brigitte struggled to adapt to her new life, but it helped the she had found a part-time job in a fashion boutique.

Not long after she was hired, she confessed her family background to her boss. Fortunately for Brigitte, the owner told her that she understood that she had not committed any crime herself and she ended up working at the same boutique for the next 35 years.

Brigitte and her husband divorced in 1983 and her daughter is dead, but her son was living with her at the time of the 2013 interview. She explained then that she saw her grandchildren often but as yet had not been able to bring herself to discuss her dark secret because she didn’t want to upset them.

She explained that she had spent much of her life afraid to talk about her father and even though she knew what he did was terribly wrong, she remembered him fondly.

‘He was the nicest man in the world,’ she said. ‘He was very good to us.’

She also told Harding that her father was ‘sad inside.’

She maintained that he was forced to do a lot of things and didn’t have a choice.

‘He had to do it. His family was threatened. We were threatened if he didn’t. And he was one of many in the SS. There were others as well who would do it if he didn’t.’

Brigitte didn’t deny the atrocities at Auschwitz and other camps took place, but she questioned the numbers that were killed.

‘How can there be so many survivors if so many had been killed?’ she asked.

When it was pointed out that her father confessed to being responsible for the death of more than a million Jews, she said the British ‘took it out of him with torture’.

In a video of the interview, Brigitte also said her father was always ‘tired’ when he came back from work.

‘It seemed sometimes like he was not very happy, but he was nice. I could see things maybe bothered him, also.

‘I’m sure he wanted to get away. But if you’re in something, you’re in.’ 

The outlet also revealed that Brigitte’s mother Hedwig visited her daughter every few years. 

By the 1960s, Höss’s widow was living near Stuttgart, in Germany, with one of her daughters.

Other reports also say she remarried and moved away to the US.

She had passed away in Washington, aged 81, in 1989.

According to Findagrave.com, Höss had deliberately kept Hedwig in the dark about what was happening in Auschwitz to prevent from any future ‘finger pointing’.

She had eventually, allegedly, overheard comments about the atrocities going on a the camp from another Nazi and then refused to share a bed with her husband.

What happened to Höss’s remaining children is less known. According to the Washington Post, his eldest son Klaus died in the 1980s in Australia, while Hans Jürgen and Heidetraud were – as of 2013 – living in Germany. However, according to Israel Hayom, Haidetraud died of cancer ‘a few years’ before 2020.

In recent years, Höss’s grandson Rainer has also made headlines. At first, he shot to fame after making his associated with the Nazi commandant public, and using the opportunity to speak out against right-wing movements.

In 2014, he urged British voters not to vote for far-right anti-immigration parties.

However, in 2020, the Irish Times reported that Rainer was accused of exploiting and defrauding survivors.

The outlet said a court found him guilty of defrauding one businessman of €17,000. Rainer alleged this was money he wanted to finish a movie about the Holocaust but the court heard there was ‘no such film, just €200,000 in personal debt’.

LEGACY 

Now a new film available in the UK tells the story of the Auschwitz commandant’s time in Nazi-occupied Poland with his family, including the picnics they enjoyed at the local river.

The film stars German actors Christian Friedel and Sandra Hüller as Höss and his wife Hedwig.

The Zone of Interest is directed by Englishman Jonathan Glazer (pictured), whose previous work includes 2000 hit Sexy Beast and horror Under the Skin in 2013

The Zone of Interest is directed by Englishman Jonathan Glazer (pictured), whose previous work includes 2000 hit Sexy Beast and horror Under the Skin in 2013

It does not show any scenes inside Auschwitz itself but instead focuses on the everyday lives of Höss and his family. 

It is directed by Englishman Jonathan Glazer, whose previous work includes 2000 hit Sexy Beast and horror Under the Skin in 2013. 

Speaking to the BBC, Jonathan revealed that he wanted to use a ‘fly-on-the-wall technique’ to tell the story.

‘The phrase I kept using was “Big Brother in the Nazi house”,’ he told the outlets, evoking the feeling that filming was going on without visible camera crew set-ups. 

‘The idea of eavesdropping felt like the way to show the drama – although there is no drama… It was a way of being in the house with them.’

Speaking to The Guardian, Jonathan added it was challenging for him to humaniae the real Nazi commandant and his family.

‘To acknowledge the couple as human beings… was a big part of the awfulness of this entire journey of the film,’ he revealed.

‘But I kept thinking that, if we could do so, we would maybe see ourselves in them. 

‘For me, this is not a film about the past. It’s trying to be about now, and about us and our similarity to the perpetrators, not our similarity to the victims.’

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