The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A 96-year-old former Nazi camp secretary was supposed to stand trial. She tried to flee instead.

The empty seat of the defendant in the courtroom where a 96-year-old ex-secretary at the Stutthof concentration camp was scheduled to face trial on Sept. 30. (Markus Schreiber/Pool/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

A 96-year-old woman who worked as a secretary at a Nazi concentration camp during World War II fled her trial hours before she had to face a German court on charges of complicity in the murders of more than 11,000 people.

It was set to be the first of many hearings until June next year. But Irmgard Furchner did not show up Thursday morning, and the court announced she had run away from her nursing home near Hamburg in a cab to a subway station.

Police arrested the defendant a few hours later, a spokeswoman for the state Itzehoe court in northern Germany told The Washington Post. The officers will take her to a court that will decide whether to jail her, despite her old age, for fleeing the hearing, or guarantee by other means that she will not skip the next one in October, court spokeswoman Frederike Milhoffer added.

Irmgard Furchner did not appear Sept. 30, and the court announced she had run away from her nursing home near Hamburg in a cab to a subway station. (Video: The Washington Post)

The case draws on a landmark ruling in 2011, when a Munich court convicted an ex-Nazi guard, paving the way for prosecuting any staff member who once played a role in the death camps as an accessory to murder.

Still, while German courts have tried camp guards and accountants, the former secretary is the first woman to face charges for many years.

Prosecutors accused Furchner this year of aiding “the systematic killing” of prisoners between 1943 and 1945 when she was the stenographer and typist of the commandant of Stutthof camp run by Nazi Germany in occupied Poland. A juvenile court will hear the case because she was between 18 and 19 years old at the time of the alleged crimes.

Law enforcement officials seeking to pursue Holocaust cases and bring closure for survivors face a race against time as more and more alleged Nazi staff, and their victims, die from old age before they can get to court.

The charges against Furchner stemmed from an investigation that started in 2016 and interviews with witnesses that spanned several countries. Her defense lawyer has questioned whether she ever knew the details of the atrocities that unfolded in the camp where she worked — she has claimed she did not know.

More than 60,000 people are believed to have died at Stutthof, where Polish and Soviet victims including Jews were encircled by electric barbed-wire fences in a wooded, secluded part of northern Poland’s Baltic coast. Guards put prisoners to death in a gas chamber, doctors killed others too sick to work with injections, and many died of disease.

According to the public broadcaster that spoke to her last year, the camp’s ex-typist gave her testimony as a witness in other cases in the 1950s. At the time, it said, she testified that she used to type out execution orders for the commandant, Paul Werner Hoppe, and that most of his letters crossed her desk.

Before her escape attempt on Thursday, the suspect wrote to the judge, saying she did not want to stand trial because of her age and health, in a letter excerpt published by German news magazine Der Spiegel last week. She added that she didn’t understand why she should go to court more than 76 years after the war.

The story has been updated to reflect that the Stutthof camp was in Nazi-occupied Poland.