A 96-year-old former Nazi concentration camp secretary who fled hours before the opening of her trial in Germany has been found, a court said Thursday in a dramatic start to the proceedings.
The court in the northern town of Itzehoe had issued an arrest warrant for Irmgard Furchner, one of the first women to be prosecuted for Nazi-era crimes in decades, after she failed to show up at the trial.
Furchner had left her retirement home near Hamburg and taken a taxi to a subway station, said Frederike Milhoffer, a spokesman for the court, but she was not present when the proceedings were due to begin.
The suspect, who is charged with complicity in the murders of more than 10,000 people at the Stutthof concentration camp in occupied Poland, had written a letter to the court to say that she would not be attending, Milhoffer said.
Just hours later, the fugitive was found and the court will now decide whether to remand her in custody, said the spokesman.
Amid the chaos, judge Dominik Gross said the hearing has been suspended until Oct 19.
Christoph Heubner, vice-president of the International Auschwitz Committee, said the escape attempt showed “contempt for the survivors and also for the rule of law”.
It also highlighted potential shortcomings in the justice system, he said. “Even if the woman is very old, could not precautions have been taken (to prevent her from fleeing)? Where did she go? Who helped her?” he told AFP.
For Efraim Zuroff, an American-Israeli “Nazi hunter” who has played a key role in bringing former Nazi war criminals to trial, the conclusion that can be drawn was clear.
“Healthy enough to flee, healthy enough to go to jail!,” he tweeted on Thursday.
Fit to stand trial
The planned opening of Furchner’s trial came one day before the 75th anniversary of the sentencing of 12 senior members of the Nazi establishment to death by hanging at the first Nuremberg trial.
It also comes a week before separate proceedings in Neuruppin, near Berlin, against a 100-year-old former camp guard.
Prosecutors accuse Furchner of having assisted in the systematic murder of detainees at Stutthof, where she worked in the office of the camp commander, Paul Werner Hoppe, between June 1943 and April 1945.
The trial is taking place in a youth court as she was aged between 18 and 19 at the time.
Around 65,000 people died at the camp, not far from the city of Gdansk, among them “Jewish prisoners, Polish partisans and Soviet Russian prisoners of war”, according to the indictment.
Little time left
Seventy-six years after the end of World War II, time is running out to bring people to justice for their role in the Nazi system.
Prosecutors are currently 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.
Furchner is the only woman to stand trial in recent years for crimes dating to the Nazi era, as the role of women in the Third Reich has long been overlooked.
But since John Demjanjuk, a guard at a concentration camp, was convicted for serving as part of the Nazi killing machine in 2011, prosecutors have broadened the scope of their investigations beyond those directly responsible for atrocities.
According to Christoph Rueckel, a lawyer representing Holocaust survivors, Furchner “handled all the correspondence” for camp commander Hoppe.
“She typed out the deportation and execution commands” at his dictation and initialled each message herself, Rueckel told public broadcaster NDR.
However, Furchner’s lawyer told the German weekly Spiegel ahead of the trial that it was possible the secretary had been “screened off” from what was going on at Stutthof.
At least three other women have been investigated for their roles in Nazi camps, including another secretary at Stutthof, who died last year before charges could be brought.
The prosecutor’s office in Neuruppin is currently looking into the case of a woman employed at the Ravensbrueck camp, according to officials at the Central Office in Ludwigsburg.
Among the women to be held to account for their actions during the Nazi era was Maria Mandl, a guard at the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp, who was hanged in 1948 after being sentenced to death in Krakow, Poland.
Between 1946 and 1948, in Hamburg, 21 women went on trial before a British military tribunal for their role at the Ravensbrueck concentration camp for women.