german court sentences ex concentration camp secretary to probation

Irmgard Furchner, who was in her late teens when she worked in the Stutthof camp, was convicted as the authorities make a final effort to seek justice for Nazi-era crimes.

BERLIN — She was rolled into court in a wheelchair wearing a hat, a Covid mask and dark sunglasses. And throughout the 40 days of the trial, she spoke only once, at the very end. It was clear from before the start, 14 months ago, that Irmgard Furchner, 97, did not want to be in court.

In the end, she had no choice. She was ordered to attend her trial and obliged to hear of the terrible suffering that she had helped to organize as a young woman, nearly 80 years ago, during World War II and the horrors of the Holocaust.

On Tuesday, a court in Itzehoe, in northern Germany, convicted Ms. Furchner for her role in the murder of 10,505 people — and the attempted murder of another five — making her the first lower-level concentration camp secretary and probably one of the last living participants in the Nazi death machine to be convicted. She was given a two-year suspended sentence.

Because the murders took place when Ms. Furchner was in her late teens working as a civilian employee of the camp’s commander, she was convicted in youth court in Itzehoe, which is close to her home. The prosecution had asked for the suspended sentence because Ms. Furchner was a minor, age 18 and 19, at the time of the crimes.

Even though Ms. Furchner never held a gun and could not be linked to specific murders, the prosecution was able to prove during the trial that she had known about the killings and that she had willingly supported the running of the camp, Stutthof, in what is now Poland, by fulfilling her duties as the personal stenographer of the camp’s commander.

Dominik Gross, who led the judging panel for the trial, said that, during her time in Stutthof, Ms. Furchner “did not remain unaware of what happened there.” From June 1944 to April 1945, the dates that she worked at Stutthof, more than 10,000 inmates were killed or were allowed to perish under inhuman treatment at the camp, the court heard.

In recent years, German prosecutors have redoubled their efforts to chase down lower-ranked helpers in concentration camps, hoping to secure convictions before the last of those who helped to carry out the Holocaust die. A ruling by the country’s highest court in 2016 held that staff and guards in the Nazi administration could be prosecuted for the murders at concentration camps even if no specific crime could be proved.

A specialized prosecuting office focused on Nazi crimes, which has referred nearly 200 cases for criminal charges in the last decade, still has five outstanding cases, all involving relatively lowly ranked guards and other staff at concentration camps and prisoner-of-war camps. The targets of those cases concern members of the Nazi machine who were overlooked by earlier investigations because there was no particular offense with which to charge them.

Jan Dzban/EPA, via Shutterstock

This summer, a 101-year-old former guard was sentenced to five years in prison for his role as an SS guard at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, north of Berlin, from 1942 to 1945.

Thomas Will, who heads the special prosecutorial office, said that it was important to bring justice to those who were part of the Nazi death system. “Because murder and also accessory to murder do not have a statute of limitations, we continue with our work,” he said.

The court in Itzehoe heard from eight witnesses about life in Stuthoff and from a historian, Stefan Hördler, who described the suffering in the camp during Ms. Furchner’s time there. In 14 days of testimony both in Itzehoe and during a visit to the site of the former concentration camp, in present day Sztutowo, in northern Poland, the court heard about what had happened there.

The testimony included a description of how typhoid fever had spread among the camp’s inmates starting in the fall of 1944. In response to the outbreak, the commander quarantined entire sections where prisoners were left to die without any kind of medical care or treatment, the court heard. The camp’s crematory worked round the clock to incinerate the hundreds who died every day, the court was told.

Ms. Furchner’s lawyer claimed that she had not been aware of the suffering because her desk faced away from the yard.

Onur Özata, a lawyer who represented three survivors during the trial, said the punishment handed down to Ms. Furchner was not the point of the proceedings.

“It is not important that the trial did not lead to a prison sentence. What is important,” he said, “was that there was a trial at all, that survivors had the opportunity to give testimony and that the state shows that it is still prosecuting Nazi-era crimes.”

Josef Salomonovic, a survivor of Stuttoff and the only witness to testify in person in court, told a German public broadcaster, “I’m just saying it’s 80 years too late and now it’s churning in my head and in my soul.”

Ms. Furchner broke her silence at the end of the trial. “I am sorry for everything that happened,” she said, according to news reports, adding, “I regret that I was in Stutthof at that time.”

Ms. Furchner testified against the camp commander in the 1950s when he was tried, but she had not wanted to appear in the court for her own trial. She wrote to the judge asking to be tried in absentia, but when that request was denied, she refused to show up to the first day of the proceeding. The judge had to order police officers to find her and take her to the court for the trial.

Rachel Century, a historian who has written a book on female administrators during the Third Reich, said it was likely that Ms. Furchner knew about the crimes committed at the concentration camp. But, she added, Ms. Furchner might have been fearful of the consequences if she had refused to cooperate or had spoken out in another way.

“It’s very hard to judge these women because the situation for them was complicated,” Ms. Century said.

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