The coverage of the seventieth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz was incredibly moving. You can read the words, you can see the pictures, but I don’t think it’s possible to even begin to imagine the atrocities that took place in this and other concentration camps.
It’s not only difficult to accept how such unbelievable cruelty could be inflicted by one human being to another, but to think that these events took place well within the last hundred years is, frankly, beyond my understanding. The fact that some not only witnessed and survived such horrors is remarkable; I believe it was important that the truth was told, but once again, how do you try and live a “normal” life, when you have seen such brutality and suffering?
On this day in 1922, Gerda Steinhoff was born in what is now Wrzeszcz (I’ll leave the pronunciation up to you) in northern Poland. A cook by profession, she was married with one child, but in 1944, she chose to become a guard at Stutthof camp, eventually becoming involved in selecting the prisoners that were going to be sent to the gas chambers.
Female camp guards were collectively known as SS Helferin [female SS helpers], and in October 1944, Steinhoff was “promoted” to the position of Oberaufsehrin [senior overseer] and assigned to a sub-camp at Stutthof. Early the following year, she was reassigned to a female sub-camp, where she was awarded a medal in recognition of her loyalty and service to the Third Reich.
That “loyalty” didn’t extend to the possibility of being arrested, and Steinhoff fled as the German defeat became inevitable. Fortunately she did not escape justice, as she was duly arrested (and imprisoned) in May 1945.
Along with a number of other guards, Steinhoff stood trial in the first of six tribunals held in Gdansk (Poland) in April/May 1946. The tribunals were specifically for staff and officials from Stutthof concentration camp (apart from the commandants, who were all tried outside Poland), and during the trial it became clear why Steinhoff had been “promoted” and rewarded, as she was convicted for her “sadistic abuse” of prisoners as well as assisting in selecting those to be killed in the gas chambers.
How can you go from being a cook and a mother to someone so callous and evil?
Steinhoff was condemned to death by hanging; and that sentence was carried out – publicly – on July 4, 1946. Of the thirteen defendants, eleven were hanged on that same day, with the other two being imprisoned. Pictures of the hanging exist, but for obvious reasons are not being reproduced here.
Whilst I suppose that some sort of legal justice was served with the deaths of Steinhoff and some of her associates; there really wasn’t any way that the perpetrators of such shocking crimes could ever truly pay for the human cost of their actions. Worse still, less than eighty of the reported 2,000 Stutthof camp staff were tried, convicted, and taken to the gallows…
This blog acknowledges the birth date of Gerda Steinhoff, but nothing more.
Instead, I would humbly like to commemorate the life of every innocent man, woman and child who perished in any of the various concentration camps, and salute those who survived and somehow found the courage to share the truth.