If there was a pin-up boy for the age-old axiom, "You can choose your friends, but not your family," Rainer Höß would definitely be it. The 48-year-old German was born into a clan known for helping perpetrate one of the greatest crimes ever committed against humanity and then denying it ever happened.
It wasn't until the age of 12 that Rainer got the harrowing reality check that his grandfather, Rudolf Höß, was Auschwitz's top executioner. Not only did grandpa Höß supervise the murder of over 1.5 million Jews, gypsies, and political prisoners, he was also the brains behind Auschwitz's transformation from an old army barracks into a killing machine capable of slaughtering 2,000 people an hour. Granddad even designed the gas chambers and introduced the Zyklon B gas used to execute children and the elderly.
If that wasn't horrific enough, Rainer Höß committed all of these atrocities just a few hundred yards away from his family's villa, where Rainer's father grew up playing with toys made by Auschwitz's prisoners and picking strawberries that were dusty with the ash of human remains.
Both of Rainer's parents filled his head with Nazi propaganda about his grandfather being a war hero. He had to learn the brutal truth of his grandfather's past from his schoolteachers—a revelation that explained why older people flinched at the utterance of his last name, why he wasn't allowed on school trips to Auschwitz, and why the school gardener, a Holocaust survivor, beat him black and blue in the schoolyard.
Rainer Höß's father playing in a toy Nazi aircraft made by Auschwitz prisoners as a child
In response to his family's refusal to admit Rudolf Höß's role in the genocide, Rainer cut all ties with them three decades ago and has dedicated his adult life to fighting Holocaust deniers, despite the fact that this turned him into the black sheep of his family.
"There's no way I could be part of a family that perceives a mass murderer as not only a hero, but a victim of the Jews and allies," Rainer told me. "Despite the fact that there are thousands of historical documents and eyewitnesses proving what my grandfather did, they still choose to deny it."
Even his 80-year-old aunt Inge-Brigitt, a former Balenciaga model who spent the last 40 years in Washington, DC working for a Jewish-run fashion boutique (yes, the irony is baffling) called him "a lying, drug-addicted, fame-seeking, money-hungry, evil young man" in an interview with Exberliner.
Although Inge-Brigitt doesn't deny that Jews were murdered in the camps, she doesn't believe millions were killed. Even when Thomas Harding of the Washington Post pointed out to her that her father confessed to being responsible for the death of more than a million Jews, she claimed the British just "took it out of him with torture."
Rainer Höß at Auschwitz's crematorium
Aunt Inge-Brigitt isn't the only Höß who feels that way. According to Exberliner,Rainer's estranged niece Anita Höß, who lives in Sydney, Australia, posted the following on a Holocaust forum in August 2013: "I'm not ashamed of the overstated outcomes of the Jews during WWII. Other nationalities fared much worse—Russians under Stalin and other nationalities under the Iron Curtain. The Jews continue to perpetuate themselves as victims—it's time they moved on."
Shocked and dismayed by statements like these, Rainer said it shows the ideological seeds planted by his grandfather 70 years ago are unfortunately still bearing fruit.
"If I ever get the chance to meet [Anita] in person, I'd simply invite her to travel with me to Auschwitz to talk to survivors," he said.
Visiting Auschwitz is a pilgrimage Rainer first made back in 2009. Visiting has helped him connect with survivors and their families. On one of these trips he met Eva Mozes Kor, who suffered through SS officer Josef Mengele's notorious twin experiments at Auschwitz. Now, they have "such an intimate and familial relationship" that she's adopted him as her grandson
"[Our] relationship symbolizes that hatred between ethnic groups need not exist," Rainer told me.
Another friendship he developed by visiting Auschwitz was with Jewish photographer Marc Erwin Babej, son of a Terezin survivor. Babej recently photographed Rainer for his Mischlinge ("Crossbreeds") photo series, which featured postwar-generation Germans surrounded by relics of the Third Reich.
In 2010, Rainer went to Israel to take part in the Israeli-German documentary titled Hitler's Children. The film is about how the descendants of the most powerful figures in the Nazi regime— Heinrich Himmler, Hans Frank, Hermann Göring, and Rudolf Höss—have dealt with the horrific legacy attached to their surnames. In the film, a group of students asked Rainer, "What would you do to your grandfather if you saw him today?" To this, Rainer responded without a second thought, "I would kill him myself."
"That was an extremely nerve-racking, emotionally charged moment for me," he said to me. "[I stood up] in front of all those young Jewish students as the grandson of a Jewish mass murderer. While their question will never get a real answer, I tried my best to answer it honestly."
In recent years, Rainer inherited a swastika-clad 60-pound fireproof chest—a gift to his grandfather from Himmler—containing over 2,100 pages of Rudolf Höß's unpublished diaries describing his experiences at Auschwitz and how to enhance the genocide process as well as hundreds of family photos and color slides, personal effects, and a gold signet ring.
After attempting to sell the Nazi family heirloom to Israeli Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem in 2009, he came under fire from the Israeli media for trying to make a profit off the Holocaust.
"If it had truly been about the money for me, I would have sold it to a Nazi organization instead," he said. "I'm completely aware that it was a stupid move, one for which I've repeatedly apologized to the public and received an international spanking."
He later donated the chest to the Institute of Contemporary History in Munich, where it remains today. He has provided various documents from the chest to a team of lawyers currently attempting to bring former SS guards to court, even going to the lengths of traveling with them to the US.
Although he's helping bring hiding Nazis to justice, his main tool in the fight against his grandfather's legacy is outreach to young people. Educating the youth about the dangers of neo-Nazism and right-wing extremism in Germany has become his full-time job. To that end, he spoke at more than 70 schools last year.
"The students respond extremely enthusiastically to my story, asking me several questions afterwards and even sharing stories with me that their grandparents have told them," he said.
In addition to his talks, Rainer hopes the German government will also fund school trips to Auschwitz in future so they can feel the emotional weight of the Holocaust for themselves.
"Every time I've visited Auschwitz, I've witnessed young people moved to tears and turn speechless due to the sheer brutality of what happened there," he said.
Although Rainer admits he'll probably always bear the heavy cross his grandfather put on his shoulders, he's taken it upon himself to speak out and do what he can to make sure that Naziism doesn't rise again.
In a video he produced for the Swedish Socialist Youth League's Never Forget to Vote campaign, Rainer said, "I know more than most people about the desire to forget. There have been times when I have wanted to deny my past—pretend I was someone else. But we must never forget our past, no matter how much it hurts. Because, when we forget, history will repeat itself. "
Follow Emily Wasik on Twitter.