By: Fern Sidman
As the number of Holocaust survivors continue to dwindle with the passage of time, those who are still alive are grappling with a panoply of emotions over the delayed and drawn out trials of Nazi war criminals. After more than 75 years since these survivors endured the nightmarish horrors of the persecution they were subjected to under Nazi rule, it is of no comfort to them to see the wheels of justice move at a snail’s pace.
On Tuesday, it was reported that Irmgard Furchner, a 96-year-old former secretary at the Stutthof Nazi death camp who had made an unsuccessful pre-dawn attempt to flee before her trial on war crimes has now been granted a release from custody in Germany ahead of the next hearing scheduled for October 19th, a court spokeswoman said, according to a report in the UK Daily Mail
Last Thursday, Furchner had been scheduled for trial on charges of aiding and abetting in mass murder of more than 10,000 people at Stutthof concentration camp in occupied Poland during World War II. But Furchner had other plans. She took a cab from her retirement home to a subway station in Hamburg to avoid facing a trial of her peers. She was eventually captured outside of Hamburg.
On Tuesday, the court in the northern German town of Itzehoe decided she could be freed under unspecified conditions, as was reported by the Daily Mail. ‘The court has suspended the arrest warrant and released the accused from custody under the condition of precautionary measures,’ said court spokeswoman Frederike Milhoffer. The Daily Mail reported that the spokeswoman declined to give details on the conditions but said ‘it is however assured that she will appear at the next appointment’.
Speaking to the NY Post, Stutthof survivor Asia Shimelman said what occurred was “heartbreaking.” Now, 93, and living in Wayne, New Jersey, she told the Post, “they wanted me to come as a witness to Germany,”
This was not the first time that Shimelman was called upon to be a witness in the trial of a Nazi war criminal. In 2019, Shimelman served as a witness in the trial of Bruno Dey, an SS guard at the Stutthof concentration camp. Dey stood trial in Hamburg, charged as an accessory to the murder of 5,230 Jews from 1944 to 1945. Shimelman contributed witness testimony and the jury rendered a guilty verdict in his case. In 2020 he received a two-year suspended sentence.
As for Shimelman, she has been waiting decades for a small measure of justice in the Furchner case. She endured a year of hell at Stutthof from 1944 to 1945, surviving torture that included a mock execution where guards held a gun to her head, according to the Post report.
Prosecutors accuse Furchner of having assisted in the systematic murder of detainees at Stutthof, where she worked in the office of camp commander Paul Werner Hoppe between June 1943 and April 1945, as was reported by the Daily Mail.
According to the indictment, roughly 65,000 people died at the camp near Gdansk, among them ‘Jewish prisoners, Polish partisans and Soviet Russian prisoners of war’.
She was just 18 when she started work at Stutthof camp in Nazi-occupied Poland, and is the first woman to stand trial in decades over crimes connected to the Third Reich, as was reported by the Daily Mail.
Shimelman said of the former secretary, “They could put her in jail, so she can’t escape anymore.”
The Post reported that Furchner’s lawyer claimed that she could have been “screened off” from the horrors of Stutthof but Shimelman deos not believe that was the case..
“It couldn’t be — there’s a camp only to murder people,” Shimelman told the Post while noting that Furchner transcribed execution orders dictated to her by camp commandant Paul-Werner Hoppe, who was convicted of accessory to murder in 1955.
Shimelman added: “There were gas chambers, slave labor, beatings. She knew everything, and she helped him. It’s hard to hear the denials. We know it’s not true.”
On September 8th, Furchner explained to the court in a written letter that she planned not to attend the trial proceedings because they would be “degrading” for her, as was reported by the Post. She asked to be tried in absentia–something that is not permitted under German law, according to the Daily Mail report.
She wrote: ‘Due to my age and physical limitations I will not attend the court dates and ask the defense attorney to represent me. I would like to spare myself these embarrassments and not make myself the mockery of humanity.’
Efraim Zuroff, of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Jerusalem, who has played a key role in bringing former Nazi war criminals to trial, said Furchner must now stand trial, according to the Daily Mail. ‘Healthy enough to flee, healthy enough to go to jail!,’ he tweeted.
“This was not a big surprise that she escaped,” said Shimelman of the woman who tried to escape her brutal past.
Also speaking to the Post was Aron Krell, a 93-year-old Holocaust survivor from the Upper East Side of Manhattan whose mother was killed in Stutthof.“It’s beneath her to be in the trial, but not beneath her to participate in all the things she’s done?” he queried.
He added that “every person who was there participated in the horrible crimes that they committed,” Krell said. He pointed out that Furchner was discovered within hours after fleeing. “If they could find her now, they could have found her decades ago.”
The Post reported that Krell’s mother Esther, was killed at Stutthof after being sent there from the notorious Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp in southern Poland. Having miraculously survived Poland’s Lodz Ghetto for four years followed by internment in multiple camps — including Auschwitz-Birkenau and Mauthausen in Austria, Krell told the Post that today’s public trials of former Nazis is a “sham.”
Having penned his memoir “Overcoming Evil” in 2008, Krell lamented over the delays in trials of elderly Nazi war criminals, ““What good is it to be on trial now? What is the punishment that they’re going to get? What’s the suffering they will get? Nothing.”
He told the Post:“We were all walking skeletons. I was hardly alive. I was more dead than alive,” he said of his time in the camps. “The Jewish people had to dig their own graves and then they were massacred.”