A 96-year-old woman who worked as a secretary for a Nazi concentration camp commandant has been caught several hours after she absconded from her care home and missed the start of her trial in northern Germany.
Irmgard Furchner, who was 18 when she started work at Stutthof camp on the Baltic coast in Nazi-occupied Poland, was due to stand trial on Thursday on charges of aiding and abetting the murder of thousands of prisoners.
After she failed to appear, the court spokesperson Frederike Milhoffer said an arrest warrant had been issued. “She left her home early in the morning in a taxi in the direction of a metro station,” Milhoffer said.
Furchner did not make it far. On Thursday afternoon, Milhoffer announced she had been caught and that a doctor was assessing whether her health would allow her to be detained.
Charges cannot be read unless Furchner, who faces trial in juvenile court because of her young age at the time of the alleged crimes, is present in court in person. The next hearing is scheduled for 19 October.
Holocaust survivors, some of whom were imprisoned at the camp that was close to the port city of Gdansk, were due to appear at the trial in Itzehoe district court, close to Quickborn, north of Hamburg, to give evidence about their experiences.
Furchner is charged with aiding and abetting murder in 11,412 cases, as well as complicity in 18 cases of attempted murder. She is the first woman to stand trial in decades over crimes connected to the Third Reich.
The prosecution case against her is being brought as a result of the trial of John Demjanjuk, a former camp guard at Sobibor concentration camp, who in 2011 was convicted of aiding and abetting the murders of 28,000 people, setting a new legal precedent. The judge at the time said regardless of how small a person’s role had been, as long as it could be proved they had been “cogs” in the “machinery of destruction”, they could be held responsible for the crimes committed.
The ruling opened the door to more prosecutions. In 2016, 94-year-old Oskar Gröning, who worked as a bookkeeper at Auschwitz, was sentenced to four years in prison for his participation in the systematic mass murder of thousands at the camp. The same year, Reinhold Hanning, 94, a guard at Auschwitz, was given a five-year prison term for his involvement. Demjanjuk, Gröning and Hanning died before having to serve their sentences, as they waited for the outcome of their appeals.
Another former Stutthof guard, Bruno Dey, was sentenced to two years on probation by a juvenile court in July 2020 and did not appeal. He accepted his guilt and expressed remorse. He is still alive.
Prosecutors in Furchner’s trial will have to prove whether and to what extent the first secretary to the camp commandant Paul Werner Hoppe, a major in the SS, the main paramilitary organisation under Adolf Hitler, contributed to the mass murders that took place there.
In their charge sheet, prosecutors state that Furchner between June 1943 and April 1945 “assisted those responsible at the camp in the systematic killing of Jewish prisoners, Polish partisans and Soviet Russian prisoners of war, in her role as a stenographer and secretary to the camp commander.”
The defence will seek to argue that as someone who was restricted to a desk, tasked with reading, sorting and writing letters and telegrams on Hoppe’s behalf, as well as sending radio transmissions, but who is not known to have physically harmed those in the camp, Furchner cannot be held responsible for the murder of thousands of prisoners.
The prosecution is expected to use as evidence some of the papers, including reports of deportation orders for Auschwitz concentration camp, that she compiled and signed with “Di”, the first two letters of her maiden name.
As camp commandant, Hoppe’s tasks included carrying out execution orders, compiling deportation lists for Auschwitz and giving orders for mass murder by poison gas at the gas chamber at Stutthof.
Stutthof, 23 miles (37km) east of Gdansk, was established by the Nazis in 1939 as a prison camp for civilians. It was later transformed into a concentration camp. More than 100,000 Jews and political prisoners from 28 countries were held there, 65,000 of whom were murdered.
Furchner has been called as a witness in trials linked to Stutthof, including that of her former boss Hoppe and other SS leaders at the camp, on three occasions from 1954 to 1982. On each occasion she said she knew nothing about the murders that took place there and had no contact with prisoners.
In 1954 she married Heinz Furchtsam, a senior SS sergeant she had met in the camp who was 19 years her senior. He changed his name from Furchtsam, which means “timid”, to Furchner, after the war. They lived in Schleswig, northern Germany, and she spent her working life in an administrative role. He died in 1972.
The prosecution has based the facts of its case largely on the work of historians, including that of Stefan Hördler, an expert for the structures of the Wehrmacht, the armed forces of Nazi Germany, and the SS, who has specifically focused on the role of functionaries of every rank and level in concentration camps.
Wolf Molkentin, defending Furchner, told Der Spiegel in advance of her fleeing that he wanted to ensure the trial offered a “dignified treatment of victims and their families”, especially those for whom the trial would be an opportunity, he said, to “describe their stories of persecution and to bear witness”.
He has said it is not clear whether Furchner knew or understood what was happening to the prisoners and there is a lack of “concrete” evidence that she aided and abetted murder.
Furchner was previously declared fit to stand trial after initial medical reports had said a heart condition prevented her from doing so. She has not yet formally responded to the charge, according to Molkentin.
Hers is one of 10 similar cases being dealt with by German prosecutors of people allegedly involved in the administration or the guarding of prisons who now face trials for aiding and abetting murder. The institution responsible for investigating Nazi crimes in Ludwigsburg, is looking into seven further cases.
A week after the start of Furchner’s trial, which is expected to be held over several months, a 100-year-old former camp guard from Stutthof is due to go on trial in Neuruppin in Brandenburg.
Legal and history experts dealing with the Nazi era have described the court cases as largely symbolic, making up for decades in which the justice system failed to pursue many far more important figures involved in the Nazi regime. Owing to the advanced age of those on trial, none of them is likely to end up in prison.
Reuters contributed to this report.