Irma Grese was only 21 years old when she became a defendant at the infamous Belsen Trial. Few would have imagined that the young and beautiful Grese was capable of committing the crimes of which she was accused.
The testimony from the Belsen Trial indicates that Miss Grese was an SS Aufseherin, or Overseer, who was assigned duties along with seven other women to guard over 20-30 thousand inmates, most of them Hungarian Jewesses detained at Auschwitz. Indeed, it was more for her tenure of service at Auschwitz, rather than Belsen, for which she was charged and convicted. The circumstances of her case clearly indicate that Grese was simply a victim of malicious gossip and accusations made by ex-prisoners hell bent on exacting their ounce of blood from their former guards. Unjust accusations of this sort are not uncommon within prisons. However, in our justice system, such complaints are often not acted upon, as it is only to be expected that the detained will harbour resentments against their guards. This is not to say that mistreatment in prisons does not occur. Undoubtedly it does.
In the case of Irma Grese, one should simply reflect on the fact that it is not easy to manage 20-30,000 inmates. Auschwitz was a detention center, where criminals were freely interspersed among those simply being held in protective custody. As a young woman of rather slight stature it is only common sense to assume that as a guard among so many prisoners, Miss Grese took measures to safeguard her own safety. Thus, it has been reported that she carried a stick with her and was often escorted by a dog. In correctional facilities all over the world, such measures are commonplace among staff members justifiably concerned with their own safety. The usual mistake made in evaluating cases like Irma Grese is that the average person is more or less unaware that guards at Auschwitz had every legal right to take measures to ensure their own safety and to maintain order.
Grese joined the SS in 1942, against the wishes of her father, and was stationed for a time at Ravensbrueck, a camp for women. In 1943 she was transferred to Auschwitz and stationed in Birkenau. How she actually came to be a member of the SS is unclear. According to her testimony, she was sent to work in the camps by the German Labour Exchange. Obviously the recruiting and acceptance criteria for female members of the SS was different from that of males, although I have been unable to uncover any guidelines. At any rate, Grese remained at Auschwitz until January, 1945, after which she was sent on to Belsen at her own request. If she had been sent to any other camp, we most likely would never have even heard of her.
Grese's duties at Auschwitz varied.
Most of her work was rather benign, such as sorting through parcels and
overseeing construction projects. However, from May until December, 1944,
Grese was appointed senior Aufseherin for Compound C which turned out to
be the eventual cause of her undoing. There she had to oversee 20-30,000
Hungarian Jewesses, all held in protective custody. The huge influx of
detainees created problems which were addressed with difficulty by the
relatively young and inexperienced Grese. Most of the problems centered
around the distribution of food. The overcrowding also led to sanitation
problems, which Grese was scarcely capable of handling. The detainees themselves
helped to create many of the problem situations, as at Belsen, where they
urinated and defecated whenever and wherever the urge struck them. They
also filled the latrines and compound with trash and filth, so much so
that the latrines eventually ceased to function.
This would explain the pervasive stench around Auschwitz and another reason why it was referred to as Anus Mundi.
Grese was accused of beating prisoners
herself or ordering then to be beaten. Grese herself admitted that she
sometimes struck prisoners with a cellophane whip and gave orders that
anyone caught stealing from the kitchens was to be beaten. While this seems
harsh, one should bear in
mind that the prisoners who stole food from the kitchens were actually stealing the food right out of the mouths of fellow prisoners at a time when food itself was scarce. Thus their crime of theft was particularly grievous, and undoubtedly warranted strict punishment.
As head Aufseherin, Grese was also responsible for conducting roll call. Often prisoners were compelled to stand for hours until the roll call was verified as correct. However, this is common procedure at any institution and should not particularly concern us here. Grese was accused of administering vicious beatings. However, the accusations were never proven. At Belsen, she was too horrified at the condition of the sick inmates to even approach them.
Grese's comments about the alleged gas chambers at Auschwitz are most interesting. She never saw a gas chamber, but remarked that she heard about them from prisoners. Other SS staff also seemed to know nothing about them save what the prisoners rumored. Thus, when she wrote SB for Sonder Behandlung in her strength book, she assumed that these people were sent to the rumoured gas chambers.
There is no doubt that Miss Grese struck
prisoners, but there is also no doubt that the prisoners deliberately exaggerated
their alleged mistreatment. They often embellished each and every little
tale and accusation of beating. Grese's testimony rings of truth and candidness,
quite alike the testimony of many of her accusers. Much ado was made
over the accusation that Grese was always accompanied by a fierce dog,
which she set upon the prisoners for amusement. Grese denied ever
having a dog. In fact, the matter could have been cleared up by asking the other Aufseherin who worked with her, but neither the prosecution nor the defense ever pursued this line of questioning as they should have.
Though the prosecutor tried his best, it was my feeling that he failed to connect Irma Grese with any crimes which would have warranted the imposition of the death penalty. He was unable to connect her to any alleged gassings, as well as any individual cases of murder. The curious thing about the accusations is that the victims were all anonymous. Not one alleged victim of murder was ever mentioned by name by any of the accusors. Of course, that is only because their accusations were false. Though the prosecutor attempted to portray Miss Grese in a negative light after her transfer to Belsen, he failed, IMO. Most of Miss Grese's time at Belsen was taken up with preparing funerals for SS staff members who were also dropping like flies in the camp due to the typhus epidemic.
Summing up, it is clear that Irma Grese
did not deserve the death penalty, as the prosecution failed to live up
to the burden of proof which would be required in any impartial court today.
Grese was guilty of striking prisoners on occasion, but this was usually for some offense or infraction of one sort or another,. As usual, the professional witnesses and survivors failed to get their stories straight and their testimony differed considerably from their written affidavits.
It was hardly necessary for an allied court to try Miss Grese on charges of mistreating prisoners in a detention camp, which was legally instituted by the legitimate government of Germany. Such offenses as beating prisoners could easily have been handled by the German authorities themselves. However, it WAS necessary that examples be made in 1945-46. Thus, Miss Grese was convicted and sentenced to death. Neither her youth nor the truth saved her life from being terminated by some stuffy old English Judge faithfully fulfilling the orders and expectations of his own government. Under the guise of legality, Irma Grese was lynched.
In EXECUTIONER, his his book of memoirs,
the English hangman Albert Pierrepoint described Irma Grese's last hours
on earth with an admiration for her beauty, her courage, and her dignity
barely conceal. He referred to her as a "bonnie lassie" and said she spent the night before her execution singing "Nazi songs" with her fellow condemned inmates. She was hanged the next morning along with two other German women, nurses Elisabeth Volkenrath and Juana Bormann.
Irma Grese was led to the gallows first, and Pierrepoint wrote that as he slipped the noose around her neck and pulled the hood down over her face she gave him an "enigmatic smile" which haunted him for the rest of his life. "She was the bravest prisoner, man or woman, whom I ever hanged," he concluded.
(From EXECUTIONER, by Albert Pierrepoint).
Woman though she was, Irma Grese upheld
the honour and tradition of the SS to the last, as much as any decorated
veteran of Stalingrad or Kursk ever did.