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97-year-old ex-Nazi camp secretary found guilty of involvement in over 10,000 murders

By Céline LE PRIOUX / AFP Published Dec 21, 2022 9:00 am

A court on Tuesday, Dec. 20 convicted a 97-year-old former Nazi camp secretary of complicity in the murder of more than 10,000 people in what could be Germany's last Holocaust trial.

Presiding judge Dominik Gross handed a two-year suspended sentence to Irmgard Furchner for her role in what prosecutors called the "cruel and malicious murder" of prisoners at the Stutthof camp in occupied Poland.

Furchner sat in a wheelchair in the courtroom, wearing a white cap and a medical mask as Gross found her guilty of thousands of counts of accessory to murder.

She was the first woman in decades to be tried in Germany for Nazi-era crimes.

Gross noted that justice had come "truly very late" in the case, and only because "the defendant has been lucky to have a particularly long life."

Furchner had expressed regret as the trial drew to a close this month.

"I'm sorry about everything that happened," she told the regional court in the northern town of Itzehoe.

Gross lamented that she had not given a fuller account of her time at Stutthof.

'Stench of corpses'

"We would have preferred a defendant who spoke—she chose to remain silent," he said. 

Gross found that "nothing that happened at Stutthof was kept from her" and that she was aware of the "extremely bad conditions for the prisoners."

"Near to the prisoners, the stench of corpses was everywhere," he said, calling it "unimaginable that the accused didn't notice."

Furchner had tried to abscond as the proceedings were set to begin in September 2021, fleeing the retirement home where she lives.

She managed to evade police for several hours before being apprehended in the nearby city of Hamburg. 

The defendant was a teenager when she committed her crimes and was therefore tried in a juvenile court.

An estimated 65,000 people died at the camp near today's Gdansk, including "Jewish prisoners, Polish partisans and Soviet Russian prisoners of war," prosecutors said.

'Last of its kind'

Between June 1943 and April 1945, Furchner took the dictation and handled the correspondence of camp commander Paul Werner Hoppe while her husband was a fellow SS officer at the camp.

Public prosecutor Maxi Wantzen had asked for a two-year suspended sentence—the longest possible without jail time.

"This trial is of outstanding historical importance," Wantzen said, adding that it was "potentially, due to the passage of time, the last of its kind."

Several Stutthof camp survivors offered wrenching accounts of their suffering during the trial.

Gross thanked them for their testimony, acknowledging that it had been an "agonizing torment" for them to relive their memories.

Stefan Lode, a lawyer representing three survivors who live in the United States, said they were "satisfied that a verdict was reached."

"Our state under the rule of law prosecuted this matter after all these decades and sent the message that there is no statute of limitations on murder or accessory to murder," he said.

Time running out

Hans-Joergen Foerster, attorney for four co-plaintiffs from Israel and Australia, said it was "unimportant" that Furchner would not serve prison time because the conviction itself was "gratifying for victims."

Gross accepted the prosecution's argument that Furchner's clerical work "assured the smooth running of the camp" and gave her "knowledge of all occurrences and events at Stutthof."

Moreover, food and water shortages and the spread of deadly diseases including typhus were intentionally maintained and immediately apparent, the court found.

Although the camp's abysmal conditions and hard labor claimed the most lives, the Nazis also operated gas chambers and execution-by-shooting facilities to exterminate hundreds of people deemed unfit for labor.

Seventy-seven years on, time is running out to bring to justice criminals linked to the Holocaust.

In recent years, several cases have been abandoned as the accused died or were physically unable to stand trial.

The 2011 conviction of former guard John Demjanjuk, on the basis that he served as part of Hitler's killing machine, set a legal precedent and paved the way for several trials.

Since then, courts have handed down several guilty verdicts on those grounds rather than for murders or atrocities directly linked to the individual accused. (AFP)