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Nazi secretary, 97, convicted for role in 10,000 murders at death camp

Defendant Irmgard Furchner, a former secretary for the SS commander of the Stutthof concentration camp, before the continuation of her trial in a courtroom in Itzehoe, northern Germany, on June 28. (Marcus Brandt/AFP/Getty Images)
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A 97-year-old former secretary at a Nazi concentration camp was convicted Tuesday by a German court for her role as an accessory to more than 10,000 murders during the Holocaust, concluding what could be one of the last trials of its kind against Nazi staffers.

Irmgard Furchner, a stenographer and typist for the SS commander of the Stutthof concentration camp in modern-day Poland, was accused of being a key member of a death camp that murdered 10,505 people while she was there during World War II. Prosecutors alleged that Furchner, who has been dubbed “the secretary of evil” by German media, “aided and abetted those in charge of the camp in the systematic killing of those imprisoned there between June 1943 and April 1945 in her function as a stenographer and typist in the camp commandant’s office.”

She was sentenced to a two-year suspended sentence at the Regional Court of Itzehoe in northern Germany, according to a court spokesman. The trial was held in juvenile court because Furchner was 18 and 19 when she worked as a secretary for the SS commander.

Furchner, who fled hours before the start of her trial in 2021, remained silent for most of the trial. Her attorneys argued that the evidence presented had not shown beyond doubt that she knew about the systematic killings at Stutthof, according to German news reports. She has previously claimed that she did not know the details of the atrocities that unfolded in the camp where she worked.

“I’m sorry for what happened, and I regret that I was at Stutthof at the time,” she said during her closing statement, according to the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel. “I can’t say any more.”

The conviction, which comes during the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, unfolds as prosecutors rush to prosecute people for Nazi-era war crimes before they die. At least two cases in recent years resulted in people being found guilty of accessory to murder in German courts: Oskar Gröning, a former accountant at Auschwitz, and John Demjanjuk, a former guard at Sobibor. Furchner’s case draws on the landmark 2011 ruling in the conviction of Demjanjuk, an ex-Nazi guard, which paved the way for prosecuting any staff member who once played a role in the death camps as an accessory to murder.

More than 60,000 people died at the Stutthof camp near Gdansk, according to data from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. At the concentration camp, Polish and Soviet victims including Jews were encircled by electric barbed-wire fences in a wooded, secluded part of northern Poland’s Baltic coast. Many of the victims at Stutthof were killed by lethal injection or in the camp’s gas chamber. Others died of starvation or disease.

The charges against Furchner stemmed from an investigation that started in 2016 and from interviews with witnesses that spanned several countries. According to the public broadcaster that spoke to her last year, Furchner 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.

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

Last year, before she fled, Furchner wrote a letter to the judge, saying she did not want to stand trial because of her age and health, according to a letter excerpt published by Der Spiegel. She added that she didn’t understand why she should go to court more than 76 years after the war.

During the trial, prosecutor Maxi Wantzen quoted a former colleague of Furchner, Ellen Steussloff, who said during an interrogation in the 1950s that it was common knowledge that Jewish prisoners were gassed at Stutthof, and that anyone claiming otherwise was not telling the truth, according to German newspaper Die Welt.

Others, such as Josef Salomonovic, who was 6 years old when he entered the camp, addressed the court December 2021 while holding a photo of his murdered father.

“It’s difficult to talk about these things,” he told reporters afterward. “For me, she’s indirectly guilty. Maybe she only stamped the death certificate of my father.”

Wantzen also rejected Furchner’s claim that she was unaware of what was going on at the concentration camp.

“If the defendant looked out of the window, she could see the new prisoners who were being selected,” Wantzen told the court during the trial, according to Die Welt. “Nobody could miss the smoke from the crematorium or not notice the smell of burned corpses.”

Tuesday’s conviction was celebrated by Efraim Zuroff, a top Nazi hunter at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, who called the outcome “the best that could be achieved, given the fact that she was tried in a juvenile court.”

“In view of Furchner’s recent statement to the court that she ‘regretted everything,’ we were concerned that the court might accept her defense attorney’s plea for an acquittal,” Zuroff said in a statement to the Associated Press. “Yet given her claim that she had no knowledge of the murders being committed in the camp, her regret was far from convincing.”

Ellen Francis and Sofia Diogo Mateus contributed to this report.