As elderly Holocaust survivors slowly pass from the scene, old age and infirmity have also ensnared Hitler’s henchmen, most of whom succeeded in escaping post-war justice administered by war crimes trials.
Seventy-five years later, some of these people are still being hunted down. One of them, identified as “Irmgard F.,” has just been indicted by German prosecutors for “aiding and abetting” in the murders of ten thousand victims, as part of the Nazi killing apparatus at Stutthof.
Stuffhof, the first Nazi concentration camp built in Poland, was eventually expanded into a constellation of over a hundred camps outside of Gdansk (Danzig). There, an estimated 65,000 inmates were murdered by gassing, starvation, brutality, deadly epidemics and savage labor conditions.
Irmgard’s arrest followed a five-year investigation that tracked the identities of the Nazis and guards who ran the camp, and the heinous crimes they committed there.
German prosecutors say the 95-year old suspect assisted Stutthof’s commandant, Paul-Werner Hoppe, in the systematic gassing and execution of Jewish prisoners as well as other Polish and Russian prisoners of war. According to German law, her function as a stenographer and secretary to the camp commandant makes her an accessory to the murder of the victims.
Although prosecutors have been criticized in certain quarters for going after former SS octogenarians, others believe it is important to send the message that no matter how long ago their crimes were committed, time does not diminish their magnitude or exempt the perpetrators.
“Humanity will seek justice until it can no longer do so,” said former federal prosecutor Gregory Gordon regarding the prosecution of elderly SS guards who served at Stuffhof.
The current prosecution of Irmgard, as well as recent trials of other Nazi war criminals in Germany, also reflects a government priority in educating the public about the horrors of Nazi Germany and the dangers of fascist and totalitarian regimes.
The need to honor and keep alive the memory of the victims is another force at play. Additionally, those joining the call to have Irmgard stand trial hope the trial’s disclosures will help reverse the march toward Holocaust ignorance and indifference that defines German society today.
Landmark Case Changes German Policy: All Death Camp Workers Guilty
For decades, some of the most vicious Nazi perpetrators evaded charges because German authorities only prosecuted those they could directly link to actual killings. That changed in 2011 with a new legal precedent in the Demjanjuk case, in which a guard from the Sobibor death camp became the first to be charged as an accomplice to over 28,000 killings.
After that landmark case, anyone who served at a death camp, whether or not they committed murder with their own hands, was to be held accountable for helping the murder machinery operate. That made him or her an accessory to the killings.
During the investigation of Irmgard, authorities interviewed survivors in both the United States and Israel who identified her. The former Nazi secretary has admitted working for the camp commandant in Stutthof but has maintained she was unaware of the mass murder that was systematically carried out, according to various reports.
She carried a great deal of administrative responsibility at the camp, however, which casts doubt on her claims of ignorance. In previous statements to the authorities, Irmgard said all correspondence with the SS Economic Administration Main Office ran through her desk, that the camp’s commandant dictated letters to her every day, and ordered radio messages through her.
Irmgard said she was aware the commandant had ordered the executions of some prisoners, but presumed this was over some incident of “misbehavior,” NDR (Northern German Reporting) reported. She made the improbable claim that she didn’t learn about the mass extermination of Jews until after the war.
The charges against Irmgard mark a rare instance of a woman being charged in connection to serving at a Nazi concentration camp. Onur Ozata, a lawyer representing survivors in the trial, told the New York Times that the case is “a real milestone in judicial accountability.”
If authorities rule she should stand trial, she will be tried in a court for minors as she was 18 at the time. If convicted, legal observers say, she will probably receive a suspended sentence.
“Worst of All Were the Whips”
The case of Irmgard F. bears similarities to that of Bruno Dey, a 93-year-old former Nazi SS concentration camp guard at Stutthof who, in July 2020, was found guilty of complicity in the murder of 5,230 prisoners.
Dey had manned a watchtower at the Stutthof Camp in what was then occupied Poland from August 1944 to April 1945. He was tried in a German juvenile court because he was 17 at the time he served with the SS. He denied ever killing anyone and said he was forced to serve as an SS guard, according to a BBC report.
Though there is no evidence linking him to a specific killing, prosecutors argue that as a guard he helped the camp function, and therefore “supported the insidious and cruel killing of mainly Jewish prisoners.”
One of the key witnesses in the trial was 92-year old Holocaust survivor Abraham Koryski who traveled from Israel to give evidence. He detailed the horrors he and other inmates endured at the Stutthoff concentration camp in the final years of World War II.
“We were beaten constantly, the whole time, even while working,” Koryski told the Hamburg District Court. “Worst of all were the whips.”
Koryski was taken from Lithuania to Stutthof in 1944, when he was 16 years old. In early 1945 he survived a death march to the west after being freed by the Soviet Army.
During the trial, Dey listened to witness statements but maintained he had been forced into his role as a guard at the camp and had not been involved in the killings.
Facing questioning from the judge, Dey described on different occasions seeing a group of prisoners being taken into the crematorium building. He admitted witnessing the interior of the crematorium on a previous occasion where he saw corpses stacked in piles, and knew what the building was used for.
An expert witness from the North Rhine-Westphalia office of criminal investigation told the court that there was an execution room in the crematorium, and that prisoners were deceived into entering the room before being shot in the back of the head, the German paper DW said.
Although Dey acknowledged knowing of the Stutthof gas chambers and admitted seeing “emaciated figures, people who had suffered”, his defense team argued that he was a relatively unimportant figure in the camp and was not directly involved in the 5,230 deaths.
But prosecutors argued he had known what was happening, had had contact with the prisoners and had actively prevented their escape.
“When you are a part of mass-murder machinery, it is not enough to look away,” prosecutor Lars Mahnke said in his closing arguments.
The court heard from a historian who testified that Dey had been sent to the camp initially as a Wehrmacht soldier and had not joined the SS until September 1944. So, it was argued, he could have asked for a transfer to another unit before becoming part of the SS mass murder machine.
Sentencing Dey, the judge acknowledged his willingness to take part in the trial but said he had refused to acknowledge his own complicity in what was going on. “You saw yourself as merely an observer,” the judge said.
Prosecutors had sought a sentence from 6 months to 10-years but Bruno Dey was given a two-year suspended sentence “in view of his advanced age.”
Planet of Horrors
Stutthof, located in Poland about 20 miles east of Danzig, became the first camp established by the Germans on Polish territory. Opened in September 1939, it began as a harsh labor camp for civilian POWs. In early 1942 Stutthof was transformed into a concentration camp and became the hub of a vast network of camps.
A crematorium and gas chamber using Zyklon B were added to the main camp in1943. When the number of victims exceeded the gas chamber’s maximum capacity of 150 people, mobile gas vans were used.
Jews from the Baltic states, Hungary, and other camps were sent to Stutthof in 1944. Besides the thousands of prisoners murdered in the gas chamber, thousands more were killed by lethal injections to the heart, by being clubbed to death or drowned in water or mud.
Others succumbed to starvation and draconian treatment including being overworked to death. Many died in typhus epidemics that swept the camp in the winter of 1942 and again in 1944.
A total of 295 women guards worked as staff in the Stutthof complex of camps. Many were vicious people, beating prisoners and inciting German Shepherd dogs against them. Thirty-four of the Stutthof female guards were later convicted of committing crimes against humanity. They stood trial in a Polish criminal court; four were executed by hanging and others received prison sentences.
Eliminating Survivors Through Death Marches
As the German eastern front collapsed in 1944, the Nazis began a comprehensive retreat towards Germany. With the Soviets closing in from the east, the Germans began clearing out the concentration camps and forcing the prisoners on death marches.
Himmler’s orders were to not allow Allied armies to liberate living prisoners in the concentration camps, as they had done in Majdanek, where survivors not only pointed out Nazi murderers to Allied forces, but in some cases killed them with their bare hands.
The first camps to be evacuated were in the Baltic States and in eastern and central Poland. At that time the camps were usually evacuated by train, occasionally by boat. Shortly afterwards a massive wave of death marches began, continuing throughout the next ten months.
Many marches had no specific destinations. Nazi guards herding the sick, starving prisoners across great distances, sometimes hundreds of miles in frigid cold or blazing heat, without food or water, intended to kill them this way.
Historians calculate that between 200,000 and 250,000 victims were killed in these inhuman evacuations. The victims perished throughout central Germany and Western Austria from suffocation, heat, starvation, hunger and thirst in freight cars, or were murdered on the foot marches.
In January 1945, the evacuation of the rest of the camps in Poland began. The larger death marches of that month left from Auschwitz in the south and Stutthof in the north. Historians attest that 4,000 prisoners at Stutthof were killed in a gas chamber shortly before the 1944 evacuation of the camp.
Some 26,000 of the 50,000 inmates of Stutthof perished in the marches or were forced into the Baltic Ocean and shot to death.
This mass murder continued until Germany’s surrender on May 8, 1945.
After the war, hundreds of mass graves with the corpses of tens of thousands of inmates who perished on these marches were found all along the routes of the marches.
“We Only Wanted to Survive as Jews. Nothing Else Mattered.”
In a final initiative to bring Nazi war criminals to justice, investigators from Germany’s Federal Justice Office, aided by FBI agents, visited Mrs. Judy Meisel’s home in 2017, to see if she could identify any of the SS men from the Stutthof camp in the photographs they showed her.
Judy Meisel passed away three months ago at the age of 91. The interview she gave the investigators almost four years ago opened a window into some of the most harrowing moments of her Holocaust saga. Four hours into the interview, the Nazi-hunters held up a photo of a young SS guard, prompting a cry of recognition from the 88-year-old Holocaust survivor.
“Meidele! That is Meidele!” Judy exclaimed, repeating the Yiddish term for “young girl” with which she had secretly referred to the guard with the bizarrely girlish facial features. Now in his 90s, the man still lives freely in Germany, reported the Minnesota-based Star Tribune.
The German investigators who visited Judy in Minnesota sought eyewitness information about her months inside the secluded camp, the killings she witnessed, and the actions of the guards.
In her testimony, the elderly survivor spoke of her early beginnings. “I was born in Josvainai, Lithuania on February 7, 1929. We were ordinary people deeply rooted in Judaism. My father was a lumber and cattle merchant in our shtetl. I was the youngest of three children. My mother schooled us at home…”
She revisited the misery of the Kovno ghetto followed by the unimaginable nightmare of Stutthof… a guard ripping off a handful of her hair to adorn a child’s doll; the terror and agony of having her fingernails pried off; and her shattering separation from her mother as she watched her enter the gas chamber.
Judy was a heartbeat away from being gassed that day as well, she said, when a drunk guard inexplicably shouted at her to get out. She fled in terror, one of several miraculous escapes she experienced.
Holt Zich Ein, Der Milchomah Vet Zich Endegen!’
She recounted sneaking around the camp to search for her older sister Rachel, witnessing Nazi doctors inject sick prisoners and then dump their lifeless bodies outside. That horrific sight spurred her to pull her typhus-stricken Rachel from bed so as not to be “selected” for death, as the Nazis ordered the inmates to begin the death march in the brutal winter of 1945.
Shortly before she left Stutthof with her sister, Judy said, a letter was tossed to her feet from the men’s side of the camp. On it was a message scrawled in Yiddish: “Holt zich ein, der milchomah vet zich endegen... Hold on, the war will soon end!”
Noticing a Nazi officer nearby, Judy shoved the note into her mouth and choked it down. But her furtive action caught the commandant’s attention. He tore off her fingernails with his pliers as punishment.
In all the years since, she has polished her nails only once, she told the Star Tribune.
“I could never put anything on because it reminded me of that terrifying incident,” Meisel said, her voice breaking. “I never wanted to talk about it to anybody, even my children because it’s so gruesome. I don’t want to teach them a gruesome thing. I want to show them how to make a better thing of life.”
She and her sister Rachel had escaped the Stutthof death march during a terrifying bombing raid. They had disguised themselves as non-Jews and found work with an abusive German family who never suspected the girls’ true identities. When the area was evacuated, the girls were put on a boat to Denmark. The boat was torpedoed and they were hurled into the frigid water. They clung to a piece of wood and were eventually rescued and brought ashore.
The sisters were liberated by British forces the following spring. Judy was 16, weighed 47 pounds and was ill with tuberculosis. It took her two years to recover her health.
Years later, the sisters reunited in Toronto with their brother, Abe, who had survived Dachau.
Fifty Years Later
It was nearly 50 years before Mrs. Meisel returned to Stutthof with her son and his son, Aaron. She closed her eyes and felt the metallic prick of the barbed wire. She stepped inside the ruined but still standing structure of the gas chamber.
“I walked in there and started talking to G-d,” she said. “My heart spilled out.…”
Before meeting the investigators, Mrs. Meisel sketched maps of the camp from memory, and felt herself caught up in memories of unbearable suffering. A grandson flew in from New York for the interview. He and other family members listened to their mother and grandmother describe how she was torn from her own mother at the entrance to the gas chamber, a moment of unbearable loss that had never found closure.
In one of the most captivating moments of the interview, Judy Meisel described a fateful decision she and her sister Rachel made after crawling across the frozen Vistula River in the dark to escape the Nazis.
“We crawled on our hands and knees along the ice until we reached the other side. There was a convent on the other side of the river. The nuns bathed and fed us, and gave us new clothes. Then they told us they needed to baptize and convert us in order to stay. We could have been safe and warm there. But we decided to leave. We only wanted to survive as Jews. Nothing else mattered. One hundred and forty six members of my family in Lithuania were all shot in a mass grave. Hitler tried to kill us all. But we survived. As Jews.”