91-year-old woman in Auschwitz trial
A former SS radio officer at Auschwitz is to go on trial in Germany for being an ‘accessory to murder’. What is the point of punishing someone so long after the crime was committed?
Over 70 years ago there was a young German woman who worked as a radio operator. It sounds innocent enough — what damage can a radio operator do? But her boss was Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS, the elite Nazi paramilitary organization responsible for many of World War Two’s worst crimes, and her place of work was Auschwitz.
This woman, now 91, will be tried in the northern German state of Schleswig-Holstein for being an ‘accessory’ to the murder of 260,000 Jews. The woman, who has not been named, worked at the most notorious of all Nazi death camps between April and July 1944. In these months Auschwitz was at the height of its murderous efficiency: the gas chambers of Birkenau (the part of Auschwitz used purely for extermination) wiped out half of Hungary’s pre-war Jewish population — 437,000 people. In total, 1.1 million people died at Auschwitz.
The case strongly echoes that of Oskar Gröning, the so-called ‘accountant of Auschwitz’ who was recently sentenced to four years in jail at the age of 94 for his small part in the genocide.
Trials like this present several strong moral questions: are the accused too old to be punished? What good would punishing them do? Did these people who, after all, killed nobody themselves, really do anything wrong? And perhaps most interesting of all: what would you have done in their position?
We tend to think of convicts as being young, but a surprising number of old people are in prison. When people are sentenced to life, this often means they spend over 50 years behind bars. A life of confinement is hard enough for an able-bodied person in their twenties. Imagine what it would be like for a 91 year-old to see out her life in prison.
Primo Levi, a survivor of the Holocaust, once said that ‘More dangerous than monsters are the common men, the functionaries ready to believe and to act without asking questions’. In other words, this woman needs to be punished. Without people like her, the Holocaust could never have happened.
Forgive and forget?
What use is imprisoning someone now in their nineties for a crime committed in the 1940s? There is no hope of rehabilitating someone that old. Rather than face a traumatic last few years of her life, this woman should stay free to live out her days in peace. Locking up a 91 year-old is just plain unpleasant.
Others say there are two main reasons she should be punished. First, there is a need for society to see that while justice may be slow, it is ultimately unavoidable. Second, it is a strong deterrent. In short, this is not mainly about her, but about us.
- Imagine if the person who made the Auschwitz guards’ uniforms were still alive. Should they go to prison?
- Could something similar to the Holocaust ever happen again?
- Imagine you were forced to work for the Nazis. Write a letter to your sister justifying your job.
- The government’s education reforms include the teaching of the Holocaust as a ‘unique evil’. As a class, discuss whether you agree with this description.
Some People Say...
“People over 65 shouldn’t be in prison.”
What do you think?
Q & A
- All this happened a long time ago — why should I care?
- Over one million people died at Auschwitz: it is quite likely that someone in your school has a relative who died there; it was just one part of a state-organised extermination machine. And though nothing has reached the scale of the Holocaust, genocide has not yet been consigned to history. In 1994 one million people were massacred in Rwanda.
- So she’ll go to prison if found guilty?
- Well, maybe. Her punishment would be dependent on the advice of doctors, who may well say that a prison sentence for someone so old would be an inhumane punishment. However Oskar Gröning is currently sitting in jail at the age of 94, so you can never be sure.
- Heinrich Himmler
- Himmler was one of the people most directly responsible for the Holocaust. His SS massacred huge numbers of Jews and built many concentration camps. He committed suicide shortly after the end of the war.
- Short for ‘Schutzstaffel’ which means ‘defence corps’.
- Located in Silesia in Southern Poland, the site of Auschwitz was chosen because of its convenient rail links. It was split into three parts: Auschwitz I, which was the main camp and a prison of hard labour — a concentration camp; Auschwitz-II Birkenau was built purely as a death camp, while Auschwitz III was a chemical factory where prisoners worked as slaves. It was liberated by the advancing Soviet army on 27 January 1945.
- Sentenced to life
- A life sentence means that the convicted person must stay in prison until they die or are paroled, which is the early release of prisoners under certain conditions.
- Primo Levi
- An Italian Jew whose memoirs from Auschwitz are recorded in his book If This Is a Man. Levi survived the war and died in 1987.