Of the 55,000 guards who served in Nazi concentration camps
, about 3,700 were women. In 1942, the first female guards arrived at Auschwitz
from Ravensbrück. The year after, the Nazis began conscripting women because of a guard shortage.
The German title for this position, Aufseherin
), means female overseer
Female guards were generally low class to middle class and had no work experience; their professional background varied: one source 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
("SS- Retinue" an SS
support and service organisation for women). Additionally, some were conscripted based on data in their SS files. The League of German Girls
acted as a vehicle of indoctrination for many of the women. 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, fewer than twenty women ever served as true SS members, mostly because Schutzstaffel membership was indeed closed to women. The relatively low number of female guards who belonged to the Allgemeine-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, the Netherlands, 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 sabotage and work slowdowns. The same sources claim Dorothea Binz, head training overseer at Ravensbruck after 1942, trained her female students in the finer points of "malicious pleasure" (Schadenfreude or sadism).
Female guards were collectively known by the rank of SS-Helferin
(German: "Female SS Helper") and could hold positional titles equivalent to regular SS ranks
. Such positions were known as Rapportführerin
("Report Leader"), Erstaufseherin
("First Guard"), Lagerführerin
("Camp Leader" [high position]) or Oberaufseherin
("Senior Overseer"). The highest position 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 since, by design, the rank of SS-Helferin was below all male SS ranks and women were not recognized as regular SS members but only auxiliaries.
No German Concentration Camp ever was run by a female commandant. Ravensbrück, the only camp reserved for female inmates, was run mainly by male SS troopers, aided by a minority of female assistants.
Relations between SS
men and female guards are 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, Doerr, openly pursued a sexual relationship with the head female overseer Helga Hegel
Corruption was another aspect of the female guard culture. Ilse Koch, known as "the 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 Karl Koch was convicted and executed by the Nazis a few weeks before Buchenwald was liberated by the U.S. Army; however, Ilse was cleared of guilt. On a side note, some sources speculate that she had had the witnesses in Buchenwald murdered.
Despite a reputation for brutality, there were certainly kind ones as well. 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.
Her fate has been unknown since February 13, 1945 (the date of the allied firebombing of Dresden). At Auschwitz-Birkenau, one Aufseherin was found guilty of aiding inmates illegally, and the chief overseer ordered her punished: her fellow guards were forced to give her twenty-five lashes.
Camps, names, and ranks
Near the end of the war, women were forced from factories in the German Labor Exchange and sent to training centers. Women were also trained on a smaller scale at the camps of Neuengamme
I, II, III and IV; Plaszow
; Gross Rosen
as well as in few in Dachau
, a few in Mauthausen
and a few women were trained in Buchenwald
and their subcamps. Most of these women came from the regions around the camp. In 1944 the first female overseers were stationed at Neuengamme, Dachau, Mauthausen, a very, very few at Natzweiler Struthof, and even fewer at Dora Mittelbau (one is known).
Between seven and twenty Aufseherinnen served in Vught
, twenty-four SS women trained at Buchenwald
(three at a time), 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
, and a few in eastern France
, a few in Austria
, and a few in some camps in Czechoslovakia
- Head overseer at Allendorf was Kaethe Hoern (September 1944-March 1945) and Johanna Seiss (?-?); in Auschwitz Johanna Langefeld (March 1942-October 1942), Maria Mandel (October 1942-November 1944), Margot Dreschel (?-November 1944), Irma Grese (1944), and Elisabeth Volkenrath (November 1944-January 1945). Mandel herself commanded all the 'SS' women within Auschwitz-Birkenau. Grese and Volkenrath were convicted of war crimes and hanged on December 13, 1945; Mandel was hanged on December 2, 1947.
- At Barth Ruth Neudeck (March 1945-May 1945), in Belzig head female guard was Hedwig Ullrich (Summer 1944-April 1945).
- In Bergen Belsen the two head overseers were Irma Grese (January/February 1945-April 1945) and Elisabeth Volkenrath (February 1945-April 1945) while Herta Ehlert served as deputy wardress.
- Lagerführerin Kuegler served as head of Bolkenhain subcamp in 1942 and 1943.
- Johanna Wisotzki was Oberaufseherin in Bromberg-Ost (Bydgoszcz East) from June 1944 until March 1945, while Ilse Koch was appointed head female guard at Buchenwald. Koch was convicted of war crimes; she committed suicide in Aichach women's prison on September 1, 1967.
- In the Danzig Langfuhr subcamp Gerda Steinhoff commanded all the female overseers and prisoners (October 1944-December 1944), in Dora Mittelbau, this was handled by Erna Petermann.
- At the Ravensbrück subcamp at Dresden Universelle, Charlotte Hanakam was chief wardress (1944-April 1945), and in Flossenbürg, this rank was given to three women at four different times; Margarethe de Hueber (April 1939-1944), Gertrud Becker (October 1944-?), Dora Lange, and Gertrud Weniger (1944-?).
- In the Graslitz auxiliary camp, Marianne Essmann was promoted senior overseer, at Gross Rosen, Jane Bernigau, in Gruenberg, Anna Fiebeg (June 1944-January 1945) served as chief overseer, while Anna Jahn and Hela Milefski served as Second Lagerleiterinnen (Replacement Camp Overseers).
- At Gruschwitz-Neusalz subcamp of Gross Rosen Helene Obuch (1943-June 1944), then Elisabeth Gersch (June 1944-January 1945) was in charge, at Hamburg-Wandsbek, Annemie von der Huelst.
- The Hanau subcamp in Germany was overseen by Kommandoführerin Lydia Neudert.
- Helmbrechts was a subcamp of Flossenbürg built near Hof, Germany. Originally, Martha Dell' Antonia (Summer 1944-?) served there as head female guard over twenty-two female guards. In late 1944 she was replaced by the commandant's (Doerr's) mistress, Helga Hegel.
- In Holleischen Dora Lange was senior overseer.
- Kratzau II in Czechoslovakia was overseen by Gertrud Becker, Lenzing by Lagerführerin Schmidt and Oberaufseherin Margarete Freinberger (November 1944-May 1945).
- Majdanek was headed by Elsa Erik (October 1942-June 1944), her immediate assistant Else Weber, and assisted by deputy wardresses Hermine Braunsteiner, Redeli, Ellert and Elisabeth Knoblich. Knoblich was nicknamed "Halt der Klappe!" ("Shut up!")
- In Obernheide, Gertrud Heise was chief over seven (known) SS women (September 1944-April 1945), 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 Anne Zimmer (May 1939-May 1941), Maria Mandel (March 1942-October 1942), Johanna Langefeld (May 1941-March 1942/October 1942-1943), Greta Boesel (1944-April 1945), Erna Rose (1944-April 1945), while Dorothea Binz served as their assistant from August 1943 until the camps liberation in April 1945. Binz and Boesel were convicted of war crimes and hanged on May 2, 1947.
- Rochlitz was headed by Marianne Essmann, Sachsenhausen by Ilse Koch and later by Hilde Schlusser and Anna Klein.
- In St. Lambrecht it was Jane Bernigau (1944/January 1945), while at Stutthof there were Johanna Wisotzki and Gerda Steinhoff, promoted to chief female overseers, while at Theresienstadt this was given to Hildegard Neumann.
- Ruth Closius headed Uckermark (January 1945-March 1945), Margarete Gallinat (Maria) oversaw Vught (?-June 1944), Susanne Hille was head female guard at Unterluess (or Vuterluss) (September 1944-April 1945), and Hilde Hahn oversaw the Flossenbürg subcamp at Zwodau from June 1944 until May 1945. Closius was convicted of war crimes and hanged on July 29, 1948.
- In researching his maternal German kin, American historian James L. Cabot found that two of his distant relations were overseers - Maria Kleinschmidt, who was operative at Neuengamme, and Charlotte Kleinschmidt (née Peters), whose exact camp service is unknown.
In addition to those already mentioned as having been executed for war crimes, the following female guards were tried postwar, convicted of war crimes and executed: Sydonia Bayer of Litzmannstadt (Lodz), date unknown (in Poland); Juana Bormann of Bergen-Belsen, hanged December 13, 1945; Ruth Hildner of Helmbrechts, hanged May 2, 1947; Christel Jankowsky of Ravensbrück, date unknown (in East Germany); and Gertrud Schreiter and Emma Zimmer of Ravensbrück, both hanged on September 20, 1948. An unknown number were summarily executed by the Soviets at the end of the war.
From the post-war period 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
ordered Germany to attain "Mobilization for Total War." Thousands of women were forcibly recruited from factories and sent to many of the larger concentration camps to be trained. One survivor described how a group of fifty of them were led in and one by one they were told to hit an inmate. She went on to state that out of the fifty women, only three women asked the reason why and only one refused to do it, which caused her to be thrown into the camp herself. She went on to say that they soon got "into the swing of things, which they have been warming up their entire lives for."
As the Allies liberated the camps, SS women were generally still in active service. Many were captured in or near the camps of Ravensbrück, Bergen Belsen, Gross Rosen, Flossenbürg, Salzwedel, Neustadt-Glewe, Neuengamme, and Stutthof. After the war many SS women were held at the internment camp at Recklinghausen, Germany or in the former concentration camp at Dachau. 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 League of German Girls, while other women had served in concentration camps.
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 and from the small Hamburg-Sasel camp. At that trial all forty-eight SS men and women involved were tried.
Female guards tried today
Not tried but deported by the US Justice Department was 84-year-old San Francisco resident Elfriede Lina Rinkel,
who hid her secret for more than 60 years from her family, friends and Jewish German husband Fred. Rinkel fled to the US after the Second World War seeking a better life.
The last trial of a female overseer was held in 1996. Former Aufseherin Luise Danz, who served as overseer in January 1943 at Plaszow, then at Majdanek, Auschwitz-Birkenau and at the Ravensbrück subcamp at Malchow as Oberaufseherin, 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. As of 2005, her sentence had not been pronounced.
In 1996, a story broke in Germany about Margot Pietzner (married name Kunz), a former Aufseherin from Ravensbruck, the Belzig subcamp and a subcamp at Wittenberg. She was originally sentenced to death by a Soviet court but had it commuted to a life sentence and was released in 1956. In the early 1990s at the age of seventy-four Margot was awarded the title "Stalinist victim" and given 64,350 Deutsche Marks (32,902 Euros). Many historians argued that she had lied and did not deserve the money. She had in fact served time in a German prison, which was overseen by the Soviets, but she was imprisoned because she had served brutally in the ranks of three concentration camps. Pietzner currently lives in a small town in northern Germany.
The majority of the surviving female guards are over the age of 75. The only female guard to tell her story to the public has been Herta Bothe, who served as a guard at Ravensbrück in 1942, then at Stutthof, Bromberg-Ost subcamp, and finally in Bergen-Belsen. She received ten years' imprisonment, and was released in the mid-1950s. In an interview in 2004, Bothe 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.
- Aroneanu, Eugene, ed. Inside the Concentration Camps Trans. Thomas Whissen. New York: Praeger, 1996.
- Brown, Daniel Patrick, The Camp Women. The Female Auxiliaries Who Assisted the SS in Running the Nazi Concentration Camp System. Atglen, Pa.: Schiffer Publishing Ltd., 2002. ISBN 0-7643-1444-0
- Hart, Kitty. Return to Auschwitz: The Remarkable Story of a Girl Who Survived the Holocaust. New York: Atheneum, 1983.