A 96-year-old former Nazi concentration camp secretary who absconded before her trial was set to start stayed almost completely silent as she finally appeared in court in Germany on Tuesday.
The first woman to be prosecuted for Nazi-era crimes in decades, Irmgard Furchner is charged with complicity in the killing or attempted killing of more than 11,000 people at the Stutthof camp in occupied Poland.
A bailiff brought the pensioner into the regional court in the northern town of Itzehoe seated in a wheelchair, her head covered by a scarf and her face by a coronavirus mask. She clutched a handbag in her lap.
Furchner confirmed her identity to the presiding judge, Dominik Gross, but did not otherwise address the court.
Prosecutors told the court that the suffering of victims sent to the camp’s gas chambers, including cries and jostling at the bolted doors, would have been “clearly audible” to all at the camp.
Furchner’s attorney Wolf Molkentin said she did not deny the “terrible murders” but disputed bearing criminal responsibility.
He said the proceedings against her were “unreasonable” at her advanced age, because of which hearings have been limited to two hours a day.
Furchner would “not make a statement at this time, nor answer any questions”, Molkentin said.
– Attempted flight –
Outdoors the court, a small group of demonstrators bearing signs reading “fascism never again” held a vigil for the Stutthof victims.
The hearing was the second attempt to start proceedings against Furchner after she fled the retirement home where she lives on September 30, as her trial was set to begin, and headed to a metro station.
She managed to evade police for several hours before being apprehended in the nearby city of Hamburg and held in custody for five days.
Furchner was reportedly fitted with an electronic tag to monitor her whereabouts.
The defendant was a teenager when the alleged crimes were committed and is being tried in a juvenile court.
Between June 1943 and April 1945, she worked in the office of camp commander Paul Werner Hoppe. Prosecutors say she took dictation of the SS officer’s orders and handled his correspondence.
Roughly 65,000 people died at the Stutthof camp near today’s Gdansk, including “Jewish prisoners, Polish partisans and Soviet Russian prisoners of war”, according to the indictment read out by public prosecutor Maxi Wantzen.
Wantzen said the defendant’s clerical work “assured the smooth running of the camp” and gave her “knowledge of all occurrences and events at Stutthof”.
Moreover, “life-threatening conditions” such as food and water shortages and the spread of deadly diseases including typhus were intentionally maintained and immediately apparent, he said.
– ‘Healthy enough to flee’ –
In a letter sent ahead of her first scheduled hearing, Furchner told the presiding judge that she did not want to appear in person in the dock.
Her failure to present herself in September showed “contempt for the survivors and also for the rule of law”, the vice president of the International Auschwitz Committee Christoph Heubner told AFP at the time.
“Healthy enough to flee, healthy enough to go to jail!” tweeted Efraim Zuroff, an American-Israeli “Nazi hunter” who has played a key role in bringing former Nazi war criminals to trial.
Around the same time Furchner fled, a 100-year-old former Nazi concentration camp guard appeared before judges at a court in Neuruppin, northwest of Berlin.
Josef Schuetz, who stands accused of assisting in the murder of 3,518 prisoners at the Sachsenhausen camp between 1942 and 1945, told the court he was “innocent” and knew “nothing” about what happened at the camp.
Furchner and Schuetz are among the oldest defendants to stand trial for their alleged role in the Nazi system.
Seventy-six years after the end of World War II, time is running out to bring people to justice.
Prosecutors are investigating another eight cases, according to the Central Office for the Investigation of National Socialist Crimes.
In recent years, several cases have been abandoned as the accused died or were physically unable to stand trial.
The last guilty verdict was issued to former SS guard Bruno Dey, who was handed a two-year suspended sentence in July at the age of 93.