Irmgard Furchner, a 96-year-old woman living in an assisted living home outside of Hamburg, Germany, was supposed to have been put on trial for war crimes committed while she was a stenographer and secretary working at a concentration camp run by the Third Reich.
But she fled on the morning her trial was to start. Embarrassed court officials, in the building where the trial was to have begun, said that Furchner had taken a taxi to a subway station near her home. They did not know where she had gone from there.
Later in the day the defendant was found. A spokesperson for the court, Frederike Milhoffer, told CNN by telephone later in the day that German police had caught Irmgard Furchner and that “local authorities are now assessing whether she is able to serve a prison sentence.”
Irmgard Furchner Was a Teen at the Time
Since Furchner was an adolescent at the time of those offenses, she was to be tried under German law in the Juvenile Chamber of the Itzehoe Regional Court on charges that she assisted in the murder of 11,000 prisoners at Stutthof concentration camp.
The Stutthof camp was in German-occupied Poland, 21 miles east of the city of Danzig. The government alleges that Irmgard Furchner began working there in 1943, when she was 18 years old, and continued there until April 1945.
Stutthof was evacuated in January 1945 as Soviet forces approached. It was relocated in Germany proper, and into what would become the “American zone” in the post-war occupation.
Furchner continued to work for the camp and its commandant to and though the evacuation, staying with it until the camp was at last liberated as the war in Europe drew to a close in April.
Furchner testified in a 1954 case that the camp commandant, Paul Werner Hoppe, dictated letters and radio messages to her each day, and that all correspondence passed over her desk.
But Irmgard Furchner has denied knowing anything about the killings at Stutthof.
Top Nazi War Criminals Were Executed
Many of the camp’s commanders and guards have already been executed for their war crimes there, and the camp’s site is now a museum.
Irmgard Furchner was indicted for her war crimes in February of this year, after a lengthy, five-year investigation by German authorities into the role she played at the camp.
A medical expert has determined that she is capable of standing trial.
She is not the oldest individual yet to be tried for the war crimes of the Nazi era. Indeed, next week a trial against a 100 year old man alleged to have worked as a guard at another concentration camp is scheduled to begin.
Over the past decade authorities in Germany have made a concerted effort to adjudicate the responsibility of lower-ranking officials who played a part as a cog in the machinery of the Holocaust. There is of course a grisly “beat the clock” element to this.
Irmgard Furchner has asked to be tried in absentia. But that is not allowed under Germany’s laws. She received a stern warning that failure to appear could have severe consequences.
The Case of her Former Commandant
Furchner’s old boss, Paul Werner Hoppe, was a celebrated defendant himself decades ago. After the war, he escaped from a British-run prisoner of war camp, and made his way to Switzerland, where he worked for a time as a gardener.
But his Swiss life did not suit him and he returned to Germany (West Germany), where he was arrested by police in 1953.
Hoppe was tried and sentenced to nine years as an accessory to murder.
He was released and died of natural causes in 1974.