Itzehoe – A German court on Tuesday handed a two-year suspended sentence to a 97-year-old former Nazi camp secretary over complicity in the murder of more than 10 000 people.
In one of the country’s last Holocaust trials, presiding judge Dominik Gross read out the verdict for defendant 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 the verdict finding her guilty of thousands of counts of accessory to murder was read out.
She was the first woman in decades to be tried in Germany for Nazi-era crimes.
The accused, whose image the court ordered blurred in media photographs, had expressed regret as the trial drew to a close this month, breaking her silence for the first time on the accusations.
“I’m sorry about everything that happened,” she told the regional court in the northern town of Itzehoe.
She had tried to abscond as the proceedings were set to begin in September 2021, fleeing the retirement home where she lives and heading to a metro station.
Furchner managed to evade police for several hours before being apprehended in the nearby city of Hamburg and held in custody for five days.
Her lawyers had called for her acquittal, saying the evidence presented in the course of the trial “had not shown beyond doubt” that she knew of the killings.
‘Last of its kind’
The defendant was a teenager when her crimes were committed and had therefore been 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.
Between June 1943 and April 1945, Furchner worked in the office of camp commander Paul Werner Hoppe.
According to the case against her, she took dictation of the SS officer’s orders and handled his correspondence.
Public prosecutor Maxi Wantzen late last month had asked the judges to hand down 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”.
Furchner sat impassively in a wheelchair throughout the proceedings in which several Stutthof camp survivors offered wrenching accounts of their suffering.
Wantzen thanked the witnesses, many of whom also served as co-plaintiffs, saying they had told of the “absolute hell” of the camp.
“They feel it is their duty, even though they had to summon the pain again and again to fulfil it,” she said.
Time running out
The prosecutor told the judges the defendant’s clerical work “assured the smooth running of the camp” and gave her “knowledge of all occurrences and events at Stutthof”.
Moreover, “life-threatening conditions” such as food and water shortages and the spread of deadly diseases including typhus were intentionally maintained and immediately apparent, she said.
Although the camp’s abysmal conditions and hard labour claimed the most lives, the Nazis also operated gas chambers and execution-by-shooting facilities to exterminate hundreds of people deemed unfit for labour.
Wantzen said that despite the defendant’s advanced age, it was “still important today to hold such a trial”, and to complete the historical record as survivors die off.
Seventy-seven years after the end of World War II, 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.
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