Female guards in Nazi concentration camps  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

The Aufseherinnen were female guards in Nazi concentration camps during The Holocaust. Of the 55,000 guards who served in Nazi concentration camps, about 3,700 were women. In 1942, the first female guards arrived at Auschwitz and Majdanek from Ravensbrück. The year after, the Nazis began conscripting women because of a guard shortage. The German title for this position, Aufseherin (plural Aufseherinnen) means female overseer or attendant.

Contents

Recruitment

Female guards were generally low class to middle class and had no work experience; their professional background varied: one source mentions former matrons, hairdressers, streetcar ticket-takers, opera singers, or retired teachers. Volunteers were recruited by ads in German newspapers asking for women to show their love for the Reich and join the SS-Gefolge ("SS-Retinue," an SS support and service organisation for women). Additionally, some were conscripted based on data in their SS files. The League of German Girls acted as a vehicle of indoctrination for many of the women. One head female overseer, Helga Hegel, referred to her female guards as "SS" women at a post-war hearing. She placed the SS in quotes because it was debatable as to whether or not the women employed at the camps were official members of the SS, although many of them belonged to the Waffen-SS and to the SS-Helferinnen. In fact, fewer than twenty women ever served as true SS members. The relatively low number of female guards who belonged to the Allgemeine-SS or SS-Gefolge served in the camps. Other women, such as Therese Brandl and Irmtraut Sell, belonged to the Totenkopf ("Death's Head") units.

At first, new recruits were trained at Concentration Camp Lichtenburg Germany in 1938 and after 1939, at the Ravensbrück camp near Berlin. When World War II broke out, the Nazis built other camps in Poland, France, the Netherlands, Belgium, and other countries they occupied. The female guards' training was similar to that of their male counterparts; the women attended classes which ranged from four weeks to half a year, headed by the head wardresses - however, near the end of the war little, if any, training was given to fresh recruits. Court records cite former SS member Hertha Ehlert, who served at Ravensbruck, Majdanek, Lublin, Auschwitz, and Bergen Belsen, as describing her training as "physically and emotionally demanding" when questioned at the Belsen Trial. According to her, the trainees were told about the corruption of the Weimar Republic, how to punish prisoners, and how to look out for sabotage and work slowdowns. The same sources claim Dorothea Binz, head training overseer at Ravensbruck after 1942, trained her female students in the finer points of "malicious pleasure" (Schadenfreude or sadism).

Advancement

Female guards were collectively known by the rank of SS-Helferin (German: "Female SS Helper") and could hold positional titles equivalent to regular Ranks and insignia of the Schutzstaffel / SS ranks. Such positions were known as Rapportführerin "Report Leader", Erstaufseherin, "First Guard", Lagerführerin, "Camp Leader" and Oberaufseherin the "Senior Overseer". The highest position ever attained by a woman was Chef Oberaufseherin, "Chief Senior Overseer", such as Luise Brunner and Anna Klein. In the Nazi command structure, no female guard could ever give orders to a male one since, by design, the rank of SS-Helferin was below all male SS ranks and women were not recognized as regular SS members but only auxiliaries.

No German concentration camp ever was run by a female commandant. Ravensbrück, the only camp reserved for female inmates, was run mainly by male SS troopers, aided by a minority of female assistants.

Daily life

Relations between SS men and female guards are said to have existed in many of the camps, and Heinrich Himmler had told the SS men to regard the female guards as equals and comrades. At the relatively small Helmbrechts subcamp near Hof, Germany, the camp commandant, Doerr, openly pursued a sexual relationship with the head female overseer Helga Hegel.

Corruption was another aspect of the female guard culture. Ilse Koch, known as "the witch of Buchenwald", was the chief female guard at the Buchenwald camp, and at the same time married to the camp commandant, Karl Koch. Both were rumoured to have embezzled millions of Reichmarks, for which Karl Koch was convicted and executed by the Nazis a few weeks before Buchenwald was liberated by the U.S. Army; however, Ilse was cleared of guilt. On a side note, some sources speculate that she had had the witnesses in Buchenwald murdered.

Despite their reputation for brutality, there were certainly some who were relatively kind. Klara Kunig became a camp guard in the middle of 1944 and served at Ravensbruck and its subcamp at Dresden-Universelle. The head wardress at the camp pointed out that she was too polite and too kind towards the inmates, resulting in her subsequent dismissal from camp duty in January 1945. Her fate has been unknown since February 13, 1945, the date of the allied firebombing of Dresden.

Camps, names, and ranks

Near the end of the war, women were forced from factories in the German Labor Exchange and sent to training centers. Women were also trained on a smaller scale at the camps of Neuengamme; Auschwitz I, II, III and IV; Plaszow; Flossenbürg; Gross Rosen; Vught and Stutthof, as well as a few at Dachau, Mauthausen, Buchenwald, and their subcamps. Most of these women came from the regions around the camps. In 1944, the first female overseers were stationed at Neuengamme, Dachau, Mauthausen, a very few at Natzweiler Struthof, and even fewer at Mittelbau-Dora (one is known). Between seven and twenty Aufseherinnen served in Vught, twenty-four SS women trained at Buchenwald (three at a time), thirty-four in Bergen Belsen, nineteen at Dachau, twenty in Mauthausen, three in Dora Mittelbau, seven at Natzweiler-Struthof, twenty at Majdanek, 200 at Auschwitz and its subcamps, 140 at Sachsenhausen, 158 at Neuengamme, forty-seven at Stutthof compared to 958 who served in Ravensbrück (2,000 were trained there), 561 in Flossenbürg, and 541 at Gross Rosen. Many female supervisors were trained and/or worked at subcamps in Germany, Poland, and a few in eastern France, a few in Austria, and a few in some camps in Czechoslovakia.

Oberaufseherin (Chief Wardress), then Lagerleiterin (Camp Leader).

Chief wardresses there were Anne Zimmer (May 1939-May 1941), Maria Mandel (March 1942-October 1942), Johanna Langefeld (May 1941-March 1942/October 1942-1943), Greta Boesel (1944-April 1945), Erna Rose (1944-April 1945), while Dorothea Binz served as their assistant from August 1943 until the camps liberation in April 1945. Binz and Boesel were convicted of war crimes and hanged on May 2, 1947. Ulla Jürß {1942-1944} and Ruth Neudeck {1944} were Blockführerin (Barrack Overseer, Female). Neudeck was later promoted to Oberaufseherin and moved to the Uckermark extermination complex down the road from Ravensbrück. *Rochlitz was headed by Marianne Essmann, Sachsenhausen by Ilse Koch and later by Hilde Schlusser and Anna Klein.

Prisoner Olga Lengyel, who in her memoir, Five Chimneys, wrote that selections in the women’s camp were made by SS Aufseherin Elisabeth Hasse and Irma Grese.

In addition to those already mentioned as having been executed for war crimes, the following female guards were tried postwar, convicted of war crimes and executed: Sydonia Bayer of Litzmannstadt (Łódź), date unknown (in Poland); Juana Bormann of Bergen-Belsen, hanged December 13, 1945; Ruth Hildner of Helmbrechts, hanged May 2, 1947; Christel Jankowsky of Ravensbrück, date unknown (in East Germany); and Gertrud Schreiter and Emma Zimmer of Ravensbrück, both hanged on September 20, 1948. An unknown number were summarily executed by the Soviets at the end of the war.

From the post-war period until today

As the Allies liberated the camps, SS women were generally still in active service. Many were captured in or near the camps of Ravensbrück, Bergen Belsen, Gross Rosen, Flossenbürg, Salzwedel, Neustadt-Glewe, Neuengamme, and Stutthof. After the war, many SS women were held at the internment camp at Recklinghausen, Germany or in the former concentration camp at Dachau. There, between 500 and 1,000 women were held while the US Army investigated their crimes and camp service. The majority were released because male SS were the top priority. Many of the women held there were high-ranking leaders of the League of German Girls, while other women had served in concentration camps.

Many SS men and SS women were executed by the Soviets when they liberated the camps, while others were sent to the gulags. Only a few SS women were tried for their crimes compared to male SS. Most female wardresses were tried at the Auschwitz Trial, in four of the seven Ravensbrück Trials, at the first Stutthof Trial, and in the second and Third Majdanek Trials and from the small Hamburg-Sasel camp. At that trial all forty-eight SS men and women involved were tried.

Female guards tried today

Not tried but deported by the US Justice Department was 84-year-old San Francisco resident Elfriede Lina Rinkel, who hid her secret for more than 60 years from her family, friends and Jewish German husband Fred. Rinkel fled to the US after the Second World War seeking a better life.

The last trial of a female overseer was held in 1996. Former Aufseherin Luise Danz, who served as overseer in January 1943 at Plaszow, then at Majdanek, Auschwitz-Birkenau and at the Ravensbrück subcamp at Malchow as Oberaufseherin, was tried at the first Auschwitz Trial and sentenced to life imprisonment in 1947. In 1956, she was released for good behavior. In 1996, she was once again tried for the murder of a young woman in Malchow at the end of the war. The doctor overseeing the trial told the court that the proceedings were too much for the elderly woman and all charges were dropped. As of 2011, Danz is still alive at the age of 94.

In 1996, a story broke in Germany about Margot Pietzner (married name Kunz), a former Aufseherin from Ravensbruck, the Belzig subcamp and a subcamp at Wittenberg. She was originally sentenced to death by a Soviet court but it commuted to a life sentence and she was released in 1956. In the early 1990s, at the age of seventy-four, Margot was awarded the title "Stalinist victim" and given 64,350 Deutsche Marks (32,902 Euros). Many historians argued that she had lied and did not deserve the money. She had, in fact, served time in a German prison which was overseen by the Soviets, but she was imprisoned because she had served brutally in the ranks of three concentration camps. Pietzner currently lives in a small town in northern Germany.

The only female guard to tell her story to the public has been Herta Bothe, who served as a guard at Ravensbrück in 1942, then at Stutthof, Bromberg-Ost subcamp, and finally in Bergen-Belsen. She received ten years' imprisonment, and was released in the mid-1950s. In an interview in 2004, Bothe was asked if she regretted being a guard in a concentration camp. Her response was, "What do you mean? ...I made a mistake, no... The mistake was that it was a concentration camp, but I had to go to it - otherwise I would have been put into it myself, that was my mistake."

Fictional portrayals

In the novel The Reader, a young man has an affair with an older woman (later a concentration camp guard) Hanna Schmitz. She is later tried in a court of law. In the film adaptation, she is portrayed by Kate Winslet.

In the film Seven Beauties, directed by Lina Wertmüller, the main character saves his life by having an affair with the female commander of a concentration camp, where he has been imprisoned for deserting the Italian Army.

Aufseherinnen are also portrayed in roles of varying size and importance in several other films:

In Schindler's List, female guards can be seen in scenes involving the Plaszow labor camp and when the Schindler women arrive and depart from Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Though not named, an overseer plays a prominent role in the 1975 film The Hiding Place, during scenes when Corrie ten Boom and her sister Betsie are imprisoned at Ravensbruck. Several other female guards are seen processing new prisoners after their arrival at the camp.

Maria Mandel is portrayed by actress Shirley Knight in the film version of Playing for Time, centered on the Women's Orchestra of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Other Aufseherinnen are portrayed in smaller roles, processing prisoners and attending the orchestra's performances.

Irma Grese has been portrayed as a minor character in Out of the Ashes as well as The Last Hangman, which details her execution following the Belsen war crimes trial. Both films feature additional female guards in much smaller roles. Grese is also briefly portrayed in a non-speaking re-enactment in Auschwitz: Inside the Nazi State.

Polish actress Aleksandra Śląska has played an Aufseherin in two films, first The Last Stage as the Oberaufseherin and later as Lisa in Pasazerka. Both films contain several minor Aufseherinnen characters.

Female guards also appear in very small roles in the films Triumph of the Spirit, Battle of the V-1, and the beginning scene of X-Men.

A character named "Ilsa" is a main protagonist in an exploitation movie Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS

See also




Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Female guards in Nazi concentration camps" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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