They would seem to be unlikely friends. Unlikely allies. Unlikely acquaintances, even.
But when Ben Lesser introduces Rainer Hoss at Midbar Kodesh Temple, it’s with a hearty and sincere hug.
Lesser is a Holocaust survivor who lost all but one member of his family to the Nazis and who was imprisoned in four Nazi death camps, including Auschwitz, during World War II. Hoss is the grandson of Rudolf Hoss, commandant of Auschwitz for just more than three years, who was hanged in 1947.
During a program Wednesday at the temple, Lesser and Hoss, along with war crimes prosecutors Markus Goldbach and Khubaib Ali Mohammed, presented a multidimensional perspective on the Holocaust and the continuing fight against intolerance and bigotry.
Lesser, who was born in Poland and now lives in Las Vegas, became acquainted with Rainer Hoss in January when he saw a profile of him in The Wall Street Journal.
“It gave me a jolt,” Lesser said, because Rudolf Hoss, Rainer Hoss’ grandfather, “was responsible for the killing of a million people, most of them Jewish, including members of my own family. When I saw his name, I had to keep reading.”
Lesser’s foundation, the Zachor Holocaust Remembrance Foundation, fights intolerance and hate. Lesser learned that Rainer Hoss, through his foundation, The Footsteps Team, has made it his mission to speak out “about intolerance, and love instead of hate, and against bullying.”
Lesser was amazed.
“All of the things I’m doing here, this man is doing the same thing,” Lesser said, “and he is the grandson of this murderous Nazi.”
Through their shared mission, Lesser and Hoss became friends. Earlier this year, Hoss told Lesser that he’d like to visit Lesser in Las Vegas and that he’d like to bring with him attorney Khubaib Ali Mohammed, a German Muslim attorney who has prosecuted Nazi war criminals.
During that visit in June, the men presented a program at Temple Beth Sholom in Summerlin. Last weekend, they presented a program in Los Angeles and, on Wednesday, spoke before more than 100 people at Midbar Kodesh Temple in Henderson.
Lesser remains impressed by Hoss’ dedication to speaking out against the bigotry and intolerance that helped to set the stage for the Holocaust.
“I feel that, as a survivor, it is thrust upon me the mission to talk, to travel, to tell the whole world, to keep the whole world from acquiring amnesia,” Lesser said. “But this man didn’t have to do it. He divorced himself from his whole family.”
Hoss, 50, said that he learned as a child about his grandfather’s wartime sins after reading about him in a German news magazine. But when Hoss asked his father about it, “my father says, ‘No, no. Everything is not true.’ ”
Further questions Hoss asked as he grew older were met with denial or even physical admonishment by his father. Then, as a teenager, he found a copy of Rudolf Hoss’ autobiography in the family library. While his father was away from home, his mother allowed him to read it, and Hoss learned of his grandfather’s life.
Eventually, in 1985, HÃ¶ss said, “i cut the lines completely to (my) family.”
Panel member Markus Goldbach, an attorney who specializes in Nazi war crimes, said alleged Nazi war criminals continue to be prosecuted around the world even today. Prosecuting alleged Nazi war criminals — even alleged criminals who now are in their 80s or 90s — is important in helping to ensure that “people, especially in Europe, learn about the atrocities so they know they should never happen again,” he said.
Lesser said audience members are struck by “just the idea that you have a survivor, you have a German who happens to be the grandson of the biggest murderer in Nazi and world history, and then a Muslim lawyer, and all of us are (united in) one purpose, and that purpose is ‘never again.'”
“So, it’s very powerful,” Lesser said. “It’s once-in-a-lifetime. I don’t think this is going to happen again.”
Rabbi Bradley Tecktiel of Midbar Kodesh Temple agreed.
“It’s fascinating to think, here’s a gentleman who was a prisoner, a victim of the Holocaust in Auschwitz, and the grandson of the commandant who is now a close friend,” Tecktiel says.
“We always talk about how our role as the next generation of Jews is to make sure that Hitler doesn’t get a posthumous victory and, here, the grandson of one of the perpetrators of evil is now coming out and speaking out against intolerance and hatred. That is, to me, just very powerful.”