Between June 1943 and April 1945, a young German woman worked as a typist and secretary at the Stutthof concentration camp in present-day Poland, 22 miles east of Danzig. Outside of her office, Nazi guards abused and murdered tens of thousands, subjecting prisoners to lethal injections, gassing, starvation, forced labor and other brutal forms of punishment.
Until recently, the woman had never faced legal consequences for her role at Stutthof. But last Friday, reports Nadine Schmidt for CNN, prosecutors charged the now-95-year-old—left unnamed under German privacy laws but identified by local media as Irmgard F.—with “aiding and abetting murder in more than 10,000 cases,” as well as complicity in the Nazi killing regime. Per Justin Huggler of the Telegraph, Ms. F. currently lives in a retirement home in Pinneberg, north of Hamburg.
The Nazis established Stutthof in 1939 as the first concentration camp outside of German borders. Two typhus epidemics swept through the camp in 1942 and 1944, killing thousands and weakening others who were killed after being judged unfit to work. In June 1944, guards began gassing prisoners with Zyklon B in the camp’s small gas chamber. All told, notes the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Nazi guards are estimated to have imprisoned more than 100,000 people and killed more than 60,000 people over Stutthof’s six years in operation.
Because she was under 21 at the time of her employment, Ms. F.’s case will be heard by a juvenile court, which is more likely to hand down a mild sentence, according to Christopher F. Schuetze of the New York Times.
Ms. F, for her part, has previously testified that she knew of some “executions,” but not of the mass murders taking place at the camp. As the Telegraph reports, she also claims that her office window pointed away from the complex, precluding her from witnessing the atrocities happening outside of the building.
The crux of the case against Ms. F. rests on “the concrete responsibility she had in the daily functioning of the camp,” Peter Müller-Rakow, one of the public prosecutors, tells the Times.
Last July, a juvenile court in Hamburg convicted former Stutthof guard Bruno Dey as an an accessory to 5,230 murders—a figure based on the number of deaths at the camp between August 1944 and April 1945, when the then-teenager worked as a tower guard tasked with ensuring that prisoners did not escape or revolt. Aged 93 at the time of his conviction, Dey was given a two-year suspended sentence.
Ms. F is one of a small handful of female former concentration camp employees now facing legal action, reports CNN. In 2015, 91-year-old Helma M. was charged with 260,000 counts of accessory to murder because she had worked as a radio operator at Auschwitz. The following year, she was ruled unfit to stand trial, as NBC News’ Andy Eckardt reported at the time.
Speaking with the Times, Rachel Century, a British historian who studies female administrators in the Third Reich, says, “It’s fair to say that the majority of these women knew about the persecution of the Jews and some of them knew about them being murdered.”
But, she adds, “some secretaries had roles that gave them more access to information than others.”
Ms. F’s case is part of a broader push by German authorities to prosecute all people who participated in the Nazi regime before they die. Legal efforts in the past focused solely on bringing high-ranking Nazi officials to justice, but that changed around 2011, when John Demjanjuk was convicted as an accessory to the murder of 27,9000 Jewish people at the Sobibor killing center.
Since Demjanjuk’s trial, officials have focused on prosecuting concentration camp guards and other personnel, often charging them with being accessories to thousands of murders rather than individually responsible for a select few. German prosecutors are currently pursuing 13 similar cases centered on former concentration camp employees, reports CNN.
Irmgard F.’s case represents “a real milestone in judicial accountability,” Onur Özata, a lawyer representing survivors in the proceedings, tells the Times. “The fact that a secretary in this system, a bureaucratic cog, can be brought to justice is something new.”