Female guards in Nazi concentration camps
Of the 55,000 guards who served in Nazi concentration camps, about 3600 were women. In 1942, the first female guards arrived at Auschwitz and Majdanek from Ravensbrück. The year after, the Nazis began conscripting women because of a guard shortage.
The German title for this position, Aufseherin, (plural Aufseherinnen) means female overseer or attendant.
Table of contents
Female guards were generally middle to low class and had no work experience, and their professional background varied: one source2 mentions former matrons, hairdressers, street car ticket takers, opera singers, or retired teachers. Volunteers were recruited by ads in German newspapers asking for women to show their love for the Reich and join the SS-Gefolge (an SS cousin organisation for women). Additionally, some were conscripted based on data in their SS files. The Hitler Youth acted as a vehicle of indoctrination for many of the women3. One head female overseer, Helga Hegel, referred to her female guards as "SS" women at a post-war hearing. She placed the SS in quotes because the women were not official members of the SS, but many of them belonged to the Waffen-SS. In fact, less then twenty women ever served as true SS members, much because the Shutzstaffel membership was indeed closed to women. The relatively low number of female guards who belonged to the SS or SS-Gefolge served in the camps. Other women, such as Therese Brandl and Irmtraut Sell, belonged to the Totenkopf ("Death's Head") units.
At first, women were trained at Lichtenburg (1938). (Some sources say that some women were trained in 1936 at Sachsenhausen, including Ilse Koch, but no record of this has ever been found.) After 1939, women were trained at Ravensbrück camp near Berlin. When the war broke out, the Nazis built other camps in Poland, France, Holland, Belgium as well as other countries they occupied. The training of the female guards was similar to that of their male counterparts: The women attended classes which ranged from four weeks to half a year, headed by the head wardresses – however, near the end of the war little, if any, training was given to fresh recruits. Sources cite former SS member Hertha Ehlert, who served at Ravensbruck, Majdanek, Lublin, Auschwitz, and Bergen Belsen, as describing her training as "physically and emotionally demanding" when questioned at the Belsen Trial. According to her, the trainees were told about the corruption of the Weimar Republic, how to punish prisoners, and how to look out for sabatoge and work slowdowns. The same sources claim Dorothea Binz, head training overseer at Ravensbruck after 1942, trained her female students on the finer points of "malicious pleasure". One survivor at a camp stated after the war that the Germans brought a group of fifty women to the camp to undergo training. The women were then separated and brought before the inmates. Each woman was then told to beat a prisoner. Of the fifty women, only three had asked for a reason, and one had refused. The latter was subsequently imprisoned.9
Female guards could be promoted to Rapportführerin (Report Leader), Erstaufseherin (First Guard), Lagerführerin (Camp Leader [high position]) or Oberaufseherin (Senior Overseer). The highest rank ever attained by a woman was "Chef Oberaufseherin" (Chief Senior Overseer) (see Luise Brunner or Anna Klein). In the Nazi command structure, no female guard could ever give orders to a male one, even if the woman outranked the man. Similarly, no female commandant arose in the concentration camp system. Ravensbrück, the only camp reserved for female inmates, was also run mainly by male SS troopers, aided by a minority of female assistants.
Relations between SS men and female guards is said to have existed in many of the camps, and Heinrich Himmler had told the SS men to regard the female guards as equals and comrades. At the relatively small Helmbrechts subcamp near Hof, Germany, the camp commandant was openly romantic with the head female overseer Helga Hegel.
Corruption was another aspect of the female guard culture. Ilse Koch, known as "the witch (sometimes bitch) of Buchenwald", was the chief female guard at the Buchenwald camp, and at the same time married to the camp commandant, Karl Koch. Both were rumoured to have embezzled millions of Reichmarks, for which the Karl Koch was later convicted – however, Ilse was cleared of guilt. On a side note, some sources speculate that she had the witnesses in Buchenwald murdered.
Despite a reputation for brutality; if there were indeed brutal female guards, there were certainly nice ones as well. Several testimonies after the war pointed to overly polite guards. Klara Kunig became a camp guard in the middle of 1944 and served at Ravensbruck and its subcamp at Dresden-Universelle. The head wardress at the camp pointed out that she was too polite and too kind towards the inmates, resulting in her subsequent dismissal from camp duty in January 1945. At Auschwitz Birkenau, one Aufseherin was found guilty of aiding inmates illegally, and the chief overseer ordered her punished.
Camps, names, and ranks
Near the end of the war, women were also trained on a smaller scale at the camps of Neuengamme; Auschwitz I, II and III; Plaszow; Flossenbürg; Gross Rosen; Vught and Stutthof as well as in few in Dachau, a few in Mauthausen and a few women were trained in Buchenwald and their subcamps. In 1944 the first female overseers were stationed at Neuengamme, Dachau, Mauthausen, Dora Mittelbau and at Natzweiler Struthof. Between seven and twenty Aufseherinnen served in Vught, twenty-four SS women served at Buchenwald, thirty-four in Bergen Belsen, nineteen at Dachau, twenty in Mauthausen, three in Dora Mittelbau, seven at Natzweiler-Struthof, twenty at Majdanek, 200 at Auschwitz and its subcamps, 140 at Sachsenhausen, 158 at Neuengamme, forty-seven at Stutthof compared to 958 who served in Ravensbrück (2,000 were trained there), 561 in Flossenbürg, and 541 at Gross Rosen. Many female supervisors were trained and/or worked at subcamps in Germany, Poland, and a few in eatstern France, a few in Austria, and a few in some camps in Czechoslovakia.
- Head overseer at Allendorf was Kaethe Hoern; in Auschwitz Johanna Langefeld, Maria Mandel, Margot Dreschel, Irma Grese, and Elisabeth Volkenrath.
- In Belzig head female guard was Hedwig Ullrich.
- In Bergen Belsen the two head overseers were Irma Grese and Elisabeth Volkenrath while Herta Ehlert served as deputy wardress.
- Lagerführerin Kuegler served as head of Bolkenhain subcamp.
- Johanna Wisotzki was Oberaufseherin in Bromberg Ost (Bromine East), while Ilse Koch was appointed head female guard at Buchenwald.
- In the Danzig Langfuhr subcamp Gerda Steinhoff commanded all the female overseers and prisoners, in Dora Mittelbau, this was handled by Erna Petermann.
- At the Ravensbrück subcamp at Dresden Universelle, Charlotte Hanakam was chief wardress, and in Flossenbürg, this rank was given to three women at three different times; Gertrud Becker, Dora Lange, and Gertrud Weniger.
- In the Graslitz auxiliary camp, Marianne Essmann was promoted head guard, at Gross Rosen, Jane Bernigau, in Gruenberg, Anna Viebeg served as chief Oberaufseherin, while Anna Jahn and Hela Milefski served as Second Lagerleiterinnen (Replacement Camp Overseers).
- At Gruschwitz-Neusalz subcamp of Gross Rosen Elisabeth Gersch was in charge, at Hamburg-Wandsbek, Annemie von der Huelst.
- The Hanau subcamp in Germany was overseen by chief overseer Lydia Neudert.
- Helmbrechts was a subcamp of Flossenbürg built near Hof, Germany. Originally, Martha Dell' Antonia served there as head female guard over twenty-two female guards. In late 1944 she was replaced by the commandant's (Doerr's) lover, Herta Hegel.
- In Hirtenberg, Jane Bernigau served sometime as head overseer, in Holleischen Dora Lange.
- The tiny subcamp at Kochstadt Emma was head woman guard; Kratzau II in Poland was overseen by Gertrud Becker, Lenzing by Lagerführerin Schmidt and Oberaufseherin Margarete Freinberger.
- Majdanek was headed by Elsa Erik, her immediate assistant Else Weber, and assisted by deputy wardresses Hermine Braunsteiner, Redeli, Ellert and Elisabeth Knoblich.
- Mauthausen was headed by two women over the course of two years, Jane Bernigau and Margarete Freinberger.
- Neuengamme camp in northern Germany was headed by chief wardresses Annemie von der Huelst and Inge Marggot Weber, while a woman named "Anna" commanded the Nurnberg-Siemens subsidary camp.
- At Oberalstadt, Irmgard Hofmann was Lagerführerin.
- In Obernheide, Gertrud Heise was chief over seven SS women, at Oederan, Dora Lange, and in Plaszow, Alice Orlowski among another unknown woman.
- Ravensbrück was the training ground for female guards. Chief wardresses there were Jane Bernigau, Margarete Gallinat, Maria Mandel, Johanna Langefeld, Greta Boesel, Else Grabner, Kaethe Hoern, Erna Rose, while Dorothea Binz served as their assistant.
- Rochlitz was headed by Marianne Essmann, Sachsenhausen by Ilse Koch and later by Hilde Schlusser and Anna Klein.
- Stutthof generals promoted Johanna Wisotzki and Gerda Steinhoff to chief female overseers, while at Theresienstadt this was given to Hildegard Neumann.
- Ruth Closius headed Uckermark, Margarete Gallinat (Maria) oversaw Vught, Susanne Hille was head female guard at Unterluess (or Vueterluss), and Hilde Hahn oversaw the Flossenbürg subcamp at Zwodau.
From the post-war until today
The SS women, as they have been called, were generally strong, stout and healthy. In 1944 as German losses mounted on both fronts, Reich Minister Albert Speer recommended that women take the positions of men in the camps, so as to "free up Aryan males to fight for the Reich". Many other high ranking Nazis did not want women to hold such positions, and disputes mounted. As the Allies liberated the camps, SS women were generally still in active service. Many were captured in or near the camps of Ravensbruck, Bergen Belsen, Gross Rosen, Flossenburg, Salzwedel, Neustadt-Glewe, Neuengamme, and Stutthof. After the war many SS women were held at the internment camp at Recklinghausen, Germany. There between 500 and 1,000 women were held while the US Army investigated their crimes and camp service. The majority of them were released because male SS were the top priority. Many of the women held there were high ranking leaders of the Hitler Youth, or the BDM (German Girls and Women's Organization), while other women served in concentration camps; Salzwedel, Essen, Ravensbruck, etc. Many SS men and SS women were executed by the Soviets when they liberated the camps, while others were sent to the gulags. Only a few SS women were tried for their crimes compared to male SS. Most female wardresses were tried at the Auschwitz Trial, in four of the seven Ravensbrück Trials, at the first Stutthof Trial, and in the second and Third Majdanek Trials. Others were tried in single cases, such as Walli Meta Kilkowski, who served at Ravensbrück and Neustadt-Glewe, and Suze Arts, who served as Vught and Ravensbruck camps. The latter was convicted to serve a fifteen year imprisonment for maltreating prisoners.
Female guards tried today
The last female overseer to be tried was in 1996, with the case of former Aufseherin Luise Danz. Luise served as overseer in January 1943 at Plaszow, then at Majdanek, Auschwitz-Birkenau and at the Ravensbrück subcamp at Malchow as Oberaufseherin. She was tried at the first Auschwitz Trial and sentenced to life imprisonment in 1947. In 1956 she was released for good behavior. In 1996 she was once again tried for the murder of a young woman in Malchow at the end of the war. The case is still underway in 2005. That same year, 1996, a story broke in Germany about a former Aufseherin from the Belzig subcamp named Margot P. She had received a life sentence after the war by the Soviets and was released in the early 1990's at the age of seventy-four. The government gave her over 100,000 dollars because she was a "Stalinist victim." Many historians argued that she had lied and didn't deserve the money. She did infact serve time in a German prison, which was overseen by the Soviets, but, she was in there because she had served brutally in the ranks of two concentration camps. The debate has since become a thing of the past and the former guard currently lives in a small town in northern Germany. The days of Nazi hunts are over, and over 60 years have passed since the Nazi Regime collapsed. The majority of the former women guards are over the age of 75, if they are still alive. Only two former Aufseherinnen told their story to the public, Anna Fest and Herta Bothe. Herta, still alive (as of 2005) at the age of 84, served as a guard at Ravensbrück in 1942, then at Stutthof, Bromberg Ost (Bromine East) subcamp, and finally in Bergen-Belsen. She received ten years imprisonment, and was released in the mid-1950's. In an interview from 2004, Herta was asked if she regretted being a guard in a concentration camp. Her response was, "What do you mean? ...I made a mistake, no... The mistake was that it was a concentration camp, but I had to go to it – otherwise I would have been put into it myself, that was my mistake."11
- Note 1: The Sanity of Madness Inside Hitler's Concentration Camps
- Note 2: The Sanity of Madness Inside Hitler's Concentration Camps
- Note 3: Inside The Concentration Camps
- Note 4: unknown website (upcoming)
- Note 5: Return to Auschwitz by Kitty Hart
- Note 9: Inside The Concentration Camps
- Note 11: Hitler's Holocaust Mini-series
- Aroneanu, Eugene, ed. Inside the Concentration Camps Trans. Thomas Whissen. Praeger, 1996.
- Brown, Daniel Patrick. The Camp Women The SS Auxiliaries who Assisted the SS in Running the Nazi Concentration Camp System. Schiffer, 2002.
- Hart, Kitty. Return to Auschwitz: The Remarkable Story of a Girl Who Survived the Holocaust. Atheneum, 1983.