96-Year-Old German Nazi War Crimes Suspect Caught After Hours on the Run

BERLIN (Reuters/AP) -
A judicial officer looks at his watch prior to a trail against a 96-year-old former secretary for the SS commander of the Stutthof concentration camp at the court room in Itzehoe, Germany, Thursday. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber, Pool)

A 96-year-old woman whom a judge declared to be on the run after she failed to turn up for the start of her trial on charges of committing war crimes during World War II has been caught, a spokesperson for the court said on Thursday.

Irmgard Furchner is accused of having contributed as an 18-year old to the murder of 11,412 people when she was a typist at the Stutthof concentration camp between 1943 and 1945.

Charges cannot be read unless Furchner, who faces trial in an adolescent court because of her young age at the time of the alleged crimes, is present in court in person.

The court said in a statement before the trial that the defendant allegedly “aided and abetted those in charge of the camp in the systematic killing of those imprisoned there between June 1943 and April 1945 in her function as a stenographer and typist in the camp commandant’s office.”

Efraim Zuroff, the head Nazi hunter at the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s office in Jerusalem, said the defendant had claimed in a recent letter to the court that she was too frail to appear for trial.

“Apparently, that’s not exactly the case,” he said.

“If she is healthy enough to flee, she is healthy enough to be incarcerated,” Zuroff told The Associated Press. Her flight, he added, “should also affect the punishment.”

The case against Furchner relies on German legal precedent established in cases over the past decade that anyone who helped Nazi death camps and concentration camps function can be prosecuted as an accessory to the murders committed there, even without evidence of participation in a specific crime.

A defense lawyer told Der Spiegel magazine that the trial would center on whether the 96-year-old had knowledge of the atrocities that happened at the camp.

“My client worked in the midst of SS men who were experienced in violence — however, does that mean she shared their state of knowledge? That is not necessarily obvious,” lawyer Wolf Molkentin said.

According to other media reports, Furchner was questioned as a witness during past Nazi trials and said at the time that the former SS commandant of Stutthof, Paul Werner Hoppe, dictated daily letters and radio messages to her.

Furchner testified she was not aware of the killings that occurred at the camp while she worked there, dpa reported.

Initially a collection point for Jews and non-Jewish Poles removed from Danzig — now the Polish city of Gdansk — Stutthof from about 1940 was used as a so-called “work education camp” where forced laborers, primarily Polish and Soviet citizens, were sent to serve sentences and often died.

From mid-1944, tens of thousands of Jews from ghettos in the Baltics and from Auschwitz filled the camp, along with thousands of Polish civilians swept up in the brutal Nazi suppression of the Warsaw uprising.

More than 60,000 people were killed there by being given lethal injections of gasoline or phenol directly to their hearts, or being shot or starved. Others were forced outside in winter without clothing until they died of exposure, or were put to death in a gas chamber.