Nazi aide, 95, charged over teenage crimes

Smiling sadists: Female guards with nicknames such as “The Beautiful Spectre”. © Gedenkstätte Ravensbrück

Should Irmgard F stand trial? At a Nazi death camp in 1944 a secretary helped send 10,000 Jews to their death. Because she was under 21 at the time she will now be tried in a juvenile court.

The old woman could not quite believe it. More than 75 years had passed since the end of the war; most of the people she knew back then were long dead. But now officials young enough to be her grandchildren were telling her that she must face justice – for crimes that took place when she was just a teenager. Surely it was too late for all that.

Known only as Irmgard F because of Germany’s privacy laws, the woman is accused of aiding and abetting more than 10,000 murders at the Stutthof camp near Gdansk in Poland. According to prosecutors in the city of Itzehoe, she “assisted those responsible at the camp in the systematic killing of Jewish prisoners, Polish partisans and Soviet Russian prisoners of war in her function as a stenographer and secretary to the camp commander” between June 1943 and April 1945.

She is also charged with the attempted murder of prisoners who could easily have died in the camp’s appalling conditions, but who somehow survived. In total, some 65,000 people are believed to have died or been killed at Stutthof. Prosecutors spent five years preparing the case against her, travelling as far as Israel and the US to question witnesses.

It is not yet clear whether she will actually stand trial: the authorities must first decide whether it is realistic to hold one. If she does, she will be tried – bizarrely – by a juvenile court, since she was aged between 17 and 19 when the crimes occurred. The case hinges on how much she knew about the murders at Stutthof and how far she supported them.

Irmgard F has never denied working at the camp. She was questioned several times in the years after the war and gave evidence at the trial of her boss, Paul Werner Hoppe, who was given a nine-year sentence for his part in the deaths of several hundred prisoners.

In her statements, she admitted that she had handled Hoppe’s correspondence with the SS and sent letters and radio messages on his behalf. But she claimed none of these mentioned that prisoners were being gassed to death – and that, because her office was on the edge of the camp and her window faced away from it, she did not see what went on inside.

She added that although she could remember Hoppe ordering executions, she had always believed that these were justified punishments for violent behaviour.

Until 10 years ago, people like Irmgard F seemed safe from prosecution: cases were only pursued against those believed to be directly linked to murders or atrocities. But that changed in 2011 with the conviction of John Demjanjuk, who had been a guard at another camp in Poland. The court declared him to be an accessory to the deaths of 28,000 Jews, not because he had carried out murders but because he had served as part of the Nazi killing machine.

His conviction opened the door to cases against many others, such as Oskar Groening, who had worked as an accountant at Auschwitz, and Bruno Dey, who had been a teenage guard at Stutthof.

Should Irmgard F stand trial?

Never too late?

Some say, no. Even if the facts could be ascertained after such a long period of time, it would be unfair to hold someone who had been a teenage secretary responsible for the actions of the soldiers around her. And no meaningful punishment could be given to a 95-year-old who lives in a care home: a modern low-security prison would not be so very different.

Others argue that it would be appalling if someone involved in any way in such heinous crimes were to escape scot-free. Irmgard F did not have to work at the camp, and she must have known what was going on. Such trials are important because they help establish and publicise the facts of the Holocaust. They undermine conspiracy theorists who claim it never happened.

You Decide

  1. Is there any point in sending very old people to prison?
  2. Some countries have a statute of limitations which means that crimes must be tried within a certain time. Is that a good idea?

Activities

  1. Design a memorial for those who died in Stutthof.
  2. Imagine that you are working in a prison camp and have just learnt that inmates are being systematically murdered. Write a diary entry about your discovery.

Some People Say...

“We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”

Elie Wiesel (1928 - 2016), Romanian writer and Holocaust survivor

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that officials prosecuting Nazi war crimes are involved in a race against time. Very few of those who were responsible for them, or who witnessed them, are still alive. In 2018 a former guard at Stuffhof was put on trial, but was often too ill to appear and – like John Demjanjuk – died before the process was complete. Prosecutors are now pursuing a dozen cases against former Nazi or SS staff who worked at the Buchenwald, Sachsenhausen, Neuengamme or Mauthausen camps.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate is around whether women involved in the Nazi killing machine generally escaped too lightly. Around 3,700 are believed to have served as guards in concentration camps, but very few were ever prosecuted. Jenny-Wanda Barkmann, who chose women and children for the gas chambers at Stutthof, was hanged in 1946. But another guard there, Herta Bothe, served just five years in jail, despite survivors reporting that she had personally killed at least three prisoners.

Word Watch

Stutthof
Initially used to detain Polish political prisoners, it eventually held 110,000 people, many of them Jews.
Gdansk
Poland’s main sea port, it was called Danzig by the Germans. In the 1980s it was the centre of the Solidarity movement which played a major role in ending Communism.
Partisans
Resistance fighters. In politics, to be partisan is to be biased.
Stenographer
Someone who uses a stenotype, a kind of typewriter for shorthand.
Juvenile court
Irmgard F could only have been tried in an adult court if she had been over 20 when the crimes were committed.
Paul Werner Hoppe
A member of the SS, he was stationed at Auschwitz before taking command at Stutthof. Irmgard F described him to prosecutors as “conscientious”.
SS
Short for Schutzstaffel, meaning “protection squad”. The organisation was created in 1925 as Hitler’s bodyguard, and was largely responsible for carrying out the Holocaust.
John Demjanjuk
Though sentenced to five years in prison at the age of 91, he was released pending an appeal, and died before it could be heard.
Bruno Dey
Found guilty last July of complicity in the murder of 5,232 people, he was given a two-year suspended sentence, which one survivor of Stutthof called “insulting”.

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