Sunday magazine, February 5, 1999
At Nuremberg, the Auschwitz commander Rudolf Höss wanted to make one last thing clear, but even his translator found it incomprehensible.
By Harry Fiss
CAN still visualize the dimly lighted corridors of the labyrinthine "Palace of Justice," and especially room No. 167, where the interrogation took place, furnished with a polished table, a wooden bench and two shoddy chairs. I'll never forget the sensation I felt when he entered the room, an icy chill that turned my breath to frost.
I was 19 that fall of 1945 and was serving as an interpreter at the Nuremberg International War Crimes Tribunal. I had grown up in Vienna, and just days before the outbreak of World War 11, we arrived in New York penniless but thankful. Friends and family were not as fortunate. I eventually enlisted in the United States Army; by the end of the war, I was a corporal named Booth, and was sitting next to him when Rudolf Höss, the former commander of Auschwitz, silently approached us to sign his own death warrant.
When Höss was no more than an arm's length away from me, he came to an abrupt halt, bowed stiffly and clicked his heels together. A once-dreaded master, he was now an obedient slave, wearing faced black hoots, rumpled gray knickerbockers and a heavy, gray woolen sweater.
So this was the infamous Höss, I thought, ruler of the largest killing field in history - and how easily he could have been my executioner! I wanted to scream obscenities at him, but I just sat there, frozen to my chair, numb except for a buzzing in my head. Höss calmly sat down, crossed his legs and folded his hands in his lap. What was he doing? Praying? I noticed the cordlike veins showing through his skin. I noticed his wedding band. A husband and a father? a human being? What kind? Decades later, William Styron tried to answer that question in "Sophie's Choice," depicting Höss as a strapping young SS officer. But the Höss I saw was old and haggard.
"Your name?" I barely heard Booth ask.
"Wie heissen Sie?" I translated, rather unnecessarily, it seemed to me.
"Rudolf Höss," a hollow voice replied.
"You were at one time commander in chief of the concentration camp at Auschwitz. Is that correct?" Mechanically, the questions were converted from on language into another. Höss nodded, his eyes colorless, fathomless pools embedded in ash-gray flesh.
Booth beckoned me to offer Hoes a cigarette from an open pack in front of me. I tried to do as he requested, but I couldn't get my hand to move. After a tense moment, Booth, muttering about insubordination, flipped the pack in Höss's direction. Höss reached for it, uttering a nearly inaudible "danke." Booth opened a manila folder, ceremoniously took out the top paper, scanned it, then handed it to Höss awkwardly, as if the paper weighed a ton.
"You told us that you would be willing to sign this," he said. Höss studied the document, then stammered, "Ja ... aber. ... "
"Na ja, you see here," Höss began, "da stimmt was nicht," and pointed to a word on the second line.
"Something wrong?" Booth asked, raising his voice ever so slightly.
"Ja, right here," Höss replied softly running his finder across the pages as he read. "It says here that I personally arranged the gassing of three million persons between June 1941 and the end of 1943."
"Well, isn't that what you told us earlier?"
"Nein. I'm afraid not." Höss sounded almost annoyed. "I told you earlier that only two million were gassed. The others died of other causes,"
"Ja, das übliche, you know: malnutrition, dysentery, typhus." he hesitated, as if it were all so obvious. "Sie wissen doch, we had an awful lot of typhus cases in the camp."
"I see." Booth leaned back, sighing. "O.K. changed it then." He tossed a fountain pen across the shiny table.
Höss picked up the pen, unscrewed the top and crossed out the words "three million" and wrote "two million." I shall never forget the scratching sound that pen made. Then Höss scrawled his signature and blew on the paper to dry the ink. I don't quite remember what happened next. I don't even remember Höss leaving. Had the whole thing been a vision? But there was the signed confession, and the cigarette still smoldering in the ashtray.
1. See this website summary of the Höss confession. Despite Fiss's narrative above, Höss does not appear to have signed the one in Nuremberg archives held in the U.S. National Archives -- although, curiously, the witnesses to the signature signed.
2. The archivede confession also begins with the apparently untrue preamble that he, Höss, is familiar with the English language; in which case, why the interpreter?
3. Booth and Fiss are not mentioned in our summary.