A 96-year-old German woman who was about to go on trial for her role as a secretary in a concentration camp during the second world war was arrested on Thursday after briefly going on the run.
Officials at the court of the north German town of Itzehoe said the woman, identified only as Irmgard F, had taken a taxi from her retirement home north of Hamburg on Thursday and fled “to an unknown destination”. A warrant was issued for her arrest and hours later she was detained.
The woman’s flight “displayed unbelievable contempt for the rule of law and the survivors” of the Holocaust, said Christoph Heubner, deputy executive president of the International Auschwitz Committee.
Prosecutors accuse Irmgard F of being an accessory to the murder of 11,412 people. She worked as a typist in the headquarters of Stutthof concentration camp — not far from the then-German city of Danzig, now Gdansk in Poland — from June 1 1943 until April 1 1945.
About 65,000 people died in the camp and its satellites, and on the death marches carried out towards the end of the war. Prisoners were hanged, tortured and gassed with Zyklon B. Many of them froze or starved or were worked to death.
Media reports said the camp commander, SS-Sturmbannführer Paul-Werner Hoppe, had dictated execution orders to Irmgard F, as well as rotas for the concentration camp guards and lists of prisoners to be deported by train to Auschwitz.
The proceedings against her, which have now been postponed until October 19, are likely to be Germany’s last Nazi trial. Prosecutors are still preparing charges against others accused of involvement in Nazi-era crimes, but most of them are now too old or sick to stand trial.
More than 50 journalists and spectators, 12 representatives of joint plaintiffs and other participants had gathered to attend the first day of Irmgard F’s trial in an industrial building in Itzehoe — the town’s courthouse had insufficient capacity.
The news magazine Der Spiegel reported that the accused, who was aged 18 to 19 when she worked at Stutthof, wrote to the presiding judge Dominik Gross saying she did not want to take part in the trial because of her age and state of health. She also said she did not understand why she should be held to account now, more than 70 years after the war.
However, as the accused, she is required by German law to be continuously present at her trial. An assessment of her capacity to stand trial found that she would be able to attend for one to two hours of proceedings per day.
In her letter to the judge, quoted by Spiegel, Irmgard F denied that correspondence regarding the gassing of prisoners passed through her hands. “I neither saw such orders, nor did Hoppe dictate such letters to me,” she wrote.
She said staff were aware that prisoners were executed, but the killings “did not happen so often that one might have the impression that people were being executed in the camp on a daily basis”.
The proceedings against Irmgard F only became possible after a trailblazing trial in 2011 against John Demjanjuk, a former camp guard, who was convicted of being an accessory to the murder of 28,000 people in the Sobibor extermination camp during the war.
The verdict of the Munich court said anyone who participated in “the machinery of extermination” was complicit and should face justice.
The judgment led to a number of prosecutions of former guards, as well as of Oskar Gröning, who had worked as an accountant in the Auschwitz concentration camp. In July last year, Bruno Dey, a 94-year-old who had served as a guard at Stutthof during the war, was given a two-year conditional sentence after he was convicted of being an accessory to the murder of 5,230 people.