Photo by Karsten Winegeart on Unsplash

End the Vengeance

Begin the Compassion

On the eve of the start of her trial, a 96-year-old woman fled from a nursing home in Germany on Wednesday to avoid charges that as a Nazi concentration camp secretary in World War II she was complicit in the murders of more than 11,000 people.

Is it vengeance, is it justice, is it revenge or all three to prosecute the elderly woman and what and who would be served? The answer will say a great deal about compassion and humanity so many years after the horrible onslaught of Nazi Germany.

Hearings expected to last until next June, were scheduled to start on Thursday but the accused, Irmgard Furchner, did not show up in Itzehoe court in northern Germany as she allegedly had fled the nursing home near Hamburg in a cab to subway station. She was arrested a few hours later.

After the war ended, Furchner moved to Schleswig-Holstein where she worked as a typist and as a pensioner, lived in a retirement home in the Pinneberg district for six and a half years. Investigations only started in 2011 against simple guards and helpers like clerical workers in death camps. German law has determined that a person can be found guilty of complicity to murder crimes even if he or she has not pulled a trigger or switched on the Zyclon B gas chamber.

There is no statute of limitations for prosecuting former Nazis but it raises many ethical questions about prosecuting a 96-year-old woman more than 75 years after the war.

Those who would call for the prosecution of this old woman who is likely near her natural death would likely include Genowefa Michalska, Abraham Koryski, Abba Naor, three of the few, living survivors of the Stutthof concentration camp in Danzig, Poland, who saw the results of actions by civilians like Furchner.

If the reason is vengeance, survivors like Michalska, Koryski and Naor, deserve to see the harshest penalties against those, like Furchner, who were part of the apparatus that fed the Nazi killing machine no matter how much time has passed. If the reason is justice, there is little gray area because countless former Nazis have been prosecuted many years after the war and many have been sentenced to death. But if the reason is to avoid further similar acts, it is absurd to believe that a 96-year-old woman, who was 18 or 19 years old during the war, could participate today in anything more than meeting her immediate and finite physical needs.

The world must be continually educated and reminded of the abomination known as the holocaust but this many years later, the evils of the Nazis should not strip the world of compassion, even against those who were guilty. Are the alleged crimes so horrendous that time will not rescue the guilty? Should the government end investigations after 20, 30, 40, 50 years after the war ended?

Vengeance is defined as punishment inflicted or retribution exacted for an injury or wrong, often in an extralegal fashion without due process. Justice is supposed to not be a matter between people but a matter of law to teach the wrongs of a person’s actions, provide compensation to the victim and prevent further conflict.

But revenge is a powerful and basic human emotion, even if it is seen as barbaric. It is as old as the hatred between the Montagues and the Capulets. And any discussion of the need for vengeance, justice or revenge requires an understanding of the reality of the alleged crimes.

Prosecutors claim that Furchner aided in “the systematic killing” of prisoners between 1943 and 1945 when she was the stenographer and typist of the commandant of Stutthof camp in Poland. Furchner has claimed that she was unaware of the atrocities while she worked at the camp but she also has testified that as part of her job, she typed execution orders for the commandant, Paul Werner Hoppe. More than 60,000 Polish, Russians and Jews died, including many who were killed in gas chambers by the poison gas Zykon B, fatally shot in the neck or were killed with lethal injection while surviving in the electric, barbed-wire enclosed camp. Many others died from a typhus epidemic, which the Nazis did not try to limit.

To mark the 76th anniversary of the liberation of the Stutthof concentration camp on May 9, 1945, the Arolsen Archives and the Muzeum Stutthof have published a #StolenMemory online exhibition focusing on the fate of 20 prisoners from the concentration camp. The Arolsen Archives have found the families of six of the persecuted individuals. The remaining 14 families are still being sought.

Among those interviewed for the archives, was Abraham Koryski, 92, who testified in an earlier trial of a Stutthof guard about the horrors of the camp, including sadistic torture, whipping and other beatings. Koryski was in Stuffhof in 1944 when he was 16 and in 1945 he survived a Nazi death march as he was freed by the Red Army.

Another, Abba Naor, 93, was taken to Stuffhof at the age of 15. Naor has testified that at Stuffhof her only goal was to live, not be beaten to death and be able to find something, anything to eat.

The U.S Holocaust Memorial reports that between 1933 and 1945, Nazi Germany and its allies established more than 44,000 camps and other imprisonment sites including the infamous Warsaw ghetto and other ghettos. The Nazis used the locations for forced labor, detention of people deemed to be “enemies of the state” and mass murder.

In September 1939, the Germans established the Stutthof camp in a wooded area west of Stutthof (Sztutowo), a town about 22 miles east of Danzig (Gdansk). The area was secluded, situated along the Danzig-Elbing highway on the way to the popular Baltic Sea resort town of Krynica Morska.

Originally, Stutthof was a civilian internment camp under the Danzig police. In November 1941, it was turned into a “labor education” camp, administered by the German Security Police. In January 1942, Stutthof became a concentration camp and death camp.

Some prisoners worked in SS-owned businesses such as the German Equipment Works (DAW), located near the camp. Others labored in local brickyards, in private industrial enterprises, in agriculture, or in the camp’s own workshops. In 1944, as forced labor by concentration camp prisoners became increasingly important in armaments production, a Focke-Wulff airplane factory was constructed at Stutthof. Eventually, the Stutthof camp system became a vast network of forced-labor camps; 105 Stutthof subcamps were established throughout northern and central German-occupied Poland.

The painful memories of the Holocaust should be remembered forever but the penalties for those involved so many years ago should be limited.



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