BERLIN—A 96-year-old woman charged with Holocaust-related crimes for her role as a secretary in a Nazi concentration camp was detained by police on Thursday after she absconded before her trial.
The trial of Irmgard Furchner was set to begin on Thursday morning but the judge issued an arrest warrant for the suspect after she failed to appear in court. Ms. Furchner had instead boarded a taxi at her retirement home near Hamburg and headed to a train station, according to the court.
Dozens of co-plaintiffs and international journalists gathered at the court to follow the process before the accused failed to show up.
A police patrol arrested Ms. Furchner on a street in Hamburg later that day and questioned her to determine whether she should be imprisoned until the trial resumes in October, according to a spokeswoman of the regional court in the northern town of Itzehoe.
Ms. Furchner, who served as a secretary to the commander of the Stutthof concentration camp during World War II, was charged with being accessory to the murder of over 11,000 inmates, some of whom were tortured and killed by gas. The corpses of some inmates were processed into soap which was then used at a local medical academy in the city of Danzig, today’s Gdansk.
Ahead of the trial, Ms. Furchner wrote a letter to the judge, saying she didn’t want to attend the proceedings because of her advanced age and various ailments. She requested to be represented by her attorney instead to spare her from what she described as embarrassment and mockery, the court spokeswoman said.
Ms. Furchner was found to be fit to stand trial, the spokeswoman said.
“She said she did not want to attend the trial, and the judge answered that she had to and would otherwise face legal consequences…it was unclear at the time that she would attempt to flee,” the spokeswoman said.
Ms. Furchner appeared as a witness in trials related to the concentration camp in the 1950s and the 1960s. She said at the time that she handled documents and took dictation from camp commander Paul-Werner Hoppe but was never aware of the mass murder that was taking place outside her office in the camp.
Over 65,000 people were murdered by the Nazis in the Stutthof camp and its environs, which are in today’s Poland.
Efraim Zuroff, director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Jerusalem, tracked 20 survivors of the camp and relatives of some victims who then joined the legal proceedings as co-plaintiffs.
“If she’s healthy enough to run, she’s healthy enough to be incarcerated,” Mr. Zuroff said. “I hope she will face jail time or at least some form of punishment, even if you could argue that going through the trial is a punishment in itself at her age.”
Abba Naor, a Stutthof survivor, told the Deutsche Welle network: “If she did something wrong or committed a crime, why did they wait until now [to charge her]…They have already let all the big fish escape.”
Ms. Furchner is unlikely to face a severe sentence if found guilty because she was 18 and 19 when the crimes she was charged with took place and is therefore going to be tried by a juvenile court.
The court set the next hearing for Oct. 19, and there are over 20 other trial dates that Ms. Furchner will have to attend to until June 22, when the verdict is expected to be pronounced.
Next week, a 100-year-old man will be tried in another German court on similar charges, for working as a concentration-camp guard at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp near Berlin.
Ms. Furchner and the centenarian, who hasn’t been named, are among several elderly suspects who worked at concentration camps in their late teens and weren’t directly involved in the killings to have faced trial since a Munich court set a precedent in 2011. The court convicted former guard John Demjanjuk as accessory to the murder of nearly 30,000 people in the Sobibor death camp.
The ruling opened the door to pursuing the lowest-ranking members—who were often the youngest—of the Nazi repression.
Suspected Nazis who worked for Adolf Hitler’s regime at a lower level of command can only be charged with murder or accessory to murder in Germany because the statute of limitation has already expired for offenses such as inflicting bodily harm or unlawful imprisonment.
None of the people who were convicted since the Demjanjuk case served any jail time because they either received suspended sentences or died while appealing their verdicts, Mr. Zuroff said.
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