Das SS-Helferinnenkorps: Hitler’s Angels of Death

Das SS-Helferinnenkorps: Hitler’s Angels of Death

Female Camp Guards Photographed at Bergen-Belsen, 19 April 1945

‘We climbed the stairs to the cells where the condemned were waiting. A German officer at the door leading to the corridor flung open the door and we filed past the row of faces and into the execution chamber. The officers stood at attention. Brigadier Paton-Walsh stood with his wristwatch raised. He gave me the signal, and a sigh of released breath was audible in the chamber, I walked into the corridor. ‘Irma Grese’, I called. The German guards quickly closed all grilles on twelve of the inspection holes and opened one door. Irma Grese stepped out. The cell was far too small for me to go inside, and I had to pinion her in the corridor. ‘Follow me,’ I said in English … At 9.34 a.m. she walked into the execution chamber, gazed for a moment at the officials standing round it, then walked on to the centre of the trap, where I had made a chalk mark. She stood on this mark very firmly, and as I placed the white cap over her head she said in her languid voice, ‘Schnell’. The drop crashed down, and the doctor followed me into the pit and pronounced her dead.’

These are the words of Albert Pierrepoint, the chief British executioner who had been brought to Germany in the aftermath of World War Two to hang 200 war criminals sentenced to death for crimes against humanity. In this case, his victim was Irma Grese, perhaps the most notorious of all female Nazi concentration camp guards, chillingly dubbed the ‘Beautiful Beast of Belsen’.

The SS-Helferin

It would be during the afternoon of 15 April 1945 that the British officially liberated Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Three days earlier, German officers had unexpectedly arrived at the headquarters of British VIII Corps seeking a local truce. By the afternoon of the 13th, an agreement was reached that the camp would be handed over to the British without resistance. Most of the SS guards would be free to leave but a few were to remain to maintain order amongst the inmates until the Allies could establish control. When British troops entered the camp, it was apparent that a number of these guards were women.

The female guards of Bergen-Belsen were far from unique. Of an estimated 37,000 SS personnel who worked in the Nazi concentration camp system during World War Two, around 10 per cent are thought to have been female. Many were members of the SS-Helferinnenkorps (SS Help Corps), which had been founded in 1942 to support the Waffen-SS, although women had been recruited to work in concentration camps long before this date. Initially, females who joined the corps did so as volunteers – conscription was later introduced to increase numbers – and went through a rigorous selection process, which was followed by training at the Reichsschule-SS in Oberehnheim, Alsace and at the Ravensbrück concentration camp. The lower age limit to join was 17, while the upper limit was set at 45.

Their training was designed to harden them psychologically, ensuring they held little sympathy towards prisoners and prepare them to deal out harsh treatment. They were, of course, subjected to Nazi ideology and made to watch propaganda films such as Jud Süß, still considered one of the most antisemitic movies of all time. Although some carried guns, most used sticks, truncheons, or the soles of their boots to beat inmates. Others, such as Irma Grese, even carried whips. A few would assist in medical experiments on inmates or take part in the selection process of prisoners for sending to the gas chambers, although it is unlikely any ever actually directly administered the deadly Zyklon-B. The direct murder of prisoners was predominantly performed by male camp guards, but many still died an agonising death as an indirect result of mistreatment at the hands of female staff.

Unlike their male counterparts, most SS-Helferin were not members of the Nazi party; it is estimated that only around 5 per cent were members while most male SS guards had signed up. Motivation to become a Helferin no doubt varied depending on the individual, but pay is thought to have been a significant factor for many rather than any ideological reasons; the average pay for an SS-Helferin was around 185 RM per month, whereas the average salary for unskilled women in Germany at the time was about 75 RM. The work was also stable and came with accommodation.

Although they had a separate rank system to the men, members of the SS-Helferinnenkorps were considered members of the Waffen-SS and wore the infamous SS runes on their uniforms. Many SS-Helferin would be sent to work in camps such as Auschwitz-Birkenau, Bergen-Belsen, Buchenwald, Majdanek, Ravensbrück, amongst many others.

So, who exactly were these fearful women and what happened to them at the end of the war? Below are a handful of the more notorious who did their Führer’s bidding within the Nazi camp system. However, it should be noted that most SS-Helferin were, unlike the following names, never prosecuted after the war; the majority simply attempted to blend back into ordinary civilian life.

Herta Bothe (the ‘Sadist of Stutthof’)

Herta Bothe

Born in January 1921 in Teterow, Mecklenburg-Schwerin, Herta Bothe had worked for her father in his wood shop before the war. She later took up employment in a factory before becoming a nurse and a member of the Bund Deutscher Mädel (League of German Girls), a female wing of the infamous Hitlerjugend (Hitler Youth). In September 1942, she became an SS-Aufseherin (Overseer) at the all-female Ravensbrück concentration camp.

Bothe would later be appointed as an overseer at the Stutthof camp near Danzig, where she is painfully remembered for her overly enthusiastic beatings of unfortunate prisoners. For her sheer brutality she earned herself the nickname ‘Sadist of Stutthof’. When the war entered its final year, Bothe would be tasked with accompanying a group of female prisoners on a ‘death march’ from central Poland to Bergen-Belsen, stopping off briefly at Auschwitz before arriving at their destination in late February.

When the British liberated the camp, Bothe was still at Bergen-Belsen. She was, along with the other remaining SS guards, put to work picking up the many corpses of dead prisoners that still littered the camp for taking to one of the mass graves dug to bury them. The British, utterly furious at what they had found, refused to allow the SS personnel to wear gloves, and Bothe later complained how she found it backbreaking work and that the stinking, rotten bodies would often disintegrate as she attempted to move them.

Subsequently imprisoned at Celle, Bothe was put on trial by the British for war crimes. She was accused of brutality while at Stutthof, although she ardently denied ever beating any of the prisoners. Witnesses, however, testified otherwise, stating she had not only savagely beaten prisoners but had shot several in cold blood. Bothe was sentenced to 10 years in prison but was subsequently released early in December 1951.

In 2009, Bothe was interviewed for a TV programme in which she continued to defend her actions during the war: ‘Did I make 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.’

Therese Brandl

Therese Brandl

A native of Staudach-Egerndach in Bavaria, Therese Brandl had been employed at Ravensbrück in 1940. In early 1942, she was posted to the original camp at Auschwitz where she worked in the laundry, later becoming an SS-Erstaufseherin (First Guard) at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Brandl took an active part in the selection process of women and children destined for the gas chambers or for forced labour.

As the Soviet army advanced deep into Poland, Brandl was sent to work at the Mühldorf Forest subcamp of Dachau in late 1944. However, in April 1945 she decided to leave the camp in the hope of evading capture by the Americans who were similarly advancing from the west. Nevertheless, Brandl was later apprehended in the Bavarian mountains by US soldiers in August.

Her trial took place in November 1947 at Kraków, where Brandl was convicted for her participation in the horrific selection processes at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Her sentence was announced as death by hanging, the execution being carried out on 28 January 1948. Brandl was four days short of her 46th birthday.

One of the witnesses who testified against Brandl was Andreas Larinciakos, an Italian boy who, aged only nine at the time, recalled his mistreatment at her hands in Auschwitz: ‘In November 1944, all children were transferred to Camp A, the gypsy camp. When they counted us, one was found missing, so Mandl, manageress of the women’s camp and her assistant, Brandl, drove us out into the street at one in the morning and made us stand there in the frost until noon the next day.’

Hermine Braunsteiner (the ‘Stomping Mare’)

Hermine Braunsteiner

The daughter of a Viennese butcher, Hermine Braunsteiner had dreamed of becoming a nurse, but her family lacked the required finances for her studies. Instead, she found employment as a domestic servant, later travelling to England where she worked for an American family from 1937 to 1938. In the wake of the Anschluss between Germany and Austria, Braunsteiner exchanged her Austrian citizenship for a German one, taking up a job at the Heinkel aircraft factory in Berlin.

Weeks before the beginning of World War Two, Braunsteiner began training as an SS-Aufseherin at Ravensbrück. She remained at the camp until October 1942, when she was posted to the Majdanek concentration and extermination camp near Lublin in German-occupied Poland. While at Majdanek, Braunsteiner took part in the selection process of women and children from the recently arrived transports, making arbitrary decisions regarding who would live and who would die.

Braunsteiner was noted for her sudden wild and often violent rages of temper, during which she would grab children and forcefully throw them onto waiting trucks about to leave for the gas chambers. Other eyewitnesses recalled her stomping on prisoners with her metal studded boots, earning her the nickname ‘Stomping Mare’. After a year at Majdanek, Braunsteiner was posted back to Ravensbrück in November 1944, where she was made a supervisor at the Genthin subcamp.

Her terrible abuse of prisoners continued, including the killing of at least two women. One witness, a French doctor, recalled: ‘I watched her [Braunsteiner] administer twenty-five lashes with a riding crop to a young Russian girl suspected of having tried sabotage. Her back was full of lashes, but I was not allowed to treat her immediately.’

With the Soviets closing in on Ravensbrück, Braunsteiner left the camp and made her way back to Vienna. However, she was subsequently arrested by local police and handed over to the British, who held her in prison until her trial in April 1948. Braunsteiner was found guilty of crimes against humanity and sentenced to three years imprisonment. She was released early, in April 1950, and found employment working in hotels and restaurants.

Years later, in late 1958, Braunsteiner married an American gentleman she had met while he was on vacation in Austria. The couple initially emigrated to Canada but finally moved to the USA in April 1959, Braunsteiner being granted American citizenship in January 1963. Despite starting a new life in the US, her time as a concentration camp guard came back to haunt her when Simon Wiesenthal, the celebrated ‘Nazi Hunter’, tracked her to Maspeth in the Borough of Queens, New York. He alerted The New York Times, and, eventually, the American authorities revoked her citizenship in August 1968, citing the fact she had failed to disclose her previous conviction for war crimes.

Meanwhile, Braunsteiner’s war crimes became the focus of a fresh investigation in Düsseldorf, which in turn led to the West German Government requesting she be extradited to face trial. Following a period of obligatory legal procedures, it was ruled that she would be deported to West Germany to stand trial, and, in August 1973, she became the first Nazi war criminal to be extradited from the US. Along with fifteen other SS from Majdanek, she again stood trial in what became West Germany’s longest running court case, being convicted of the murder of 80 people, abetting in the murder of 102 children, and collaborating in the killing of 1,000 others.

Sentenced to life imprisonment, Braunsteiner was nevertheless released in 1996 due to her severe diabetes that had led to a leg amputation. She died on 19 April 1999 in Bochum, Germany at the age of 79.

Irma Grese (the ‘Beautiful Beast of Belsen’)

Irma Grese

One of the most notorious of all female camp guards, Irma Grese had left school in 1938 at the age of 15 after performing poorly in her studies. She became a member of the Bund Deutscher Mädel and took up a job as an assistant nurse at an SS sanatorium. Failing numerous attempts to become a fully qualified nurse, Grese volunteered to work at Ravensbrück, becoming an SS-Aufseherin in mid-1942. Later, in March 1943, she was transferred to Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Grese quickly gained a reputation as a vicious sadist, and it is alleged that she possessed a huge sexual appetite, having sex not only with fellow SS guards but also regularly sexually assaulting prisoners. One witness, Dr. Gisella Perl, later wrote: ‘[Grese] relished whipping well-developed young women on the breasts … Grese would eventually become sexually aroused just watching the women suffering.’

In addition to her sadistic sexual violence, Grese also resorted to severely beating prisoners in the face, kicking them with her metal studded boots, lashing out with a whip, and releasing unfed dogs upon them. She also made prisoners lift heavy rocks above their heads, where they were forced to hold them for long periods while their weakened bodies wretched with pain. At Auschwitz-Birkenau, Grese took part in the selections of newly arrived prisoners and is said to have had a love affair with the notorious Josef Mengele.

Grese eventually left Auschwitz in early 1945 to accompany a group of prisoners being forced marched to Ravensbrück. In March she was sent to Bergen-Belsen with another group of prisoners, where she became one of the SS guards that had remained to keep order in the camp following its liberation by the British.

She was put on trial along with other Bergen-Belsen guards in September 1945. During the trial, the camp commandant, Josef Kramer, was dubbed by the press as the ‘Beast of Belsen’, while Grese was similarly labelled the ‘Beautiful Beast of Belsen’ due to her good looks. The prisoners at Auschwitz, however, had already nicknamed her the ‘Hyena of Auschwitz’. Grese was found guilty and executed on 13 December, becoming the youngest war criminal, at 22, to be hanged. She remained defiant and unrepentant throughout.

Ilse Koch (the ‘Witch of Buchenwald’)

Ilse Koch

Born Margarete Ilse Köhler in Dresden in 1906, Ilse Koch had worked as a bookkeeper during the interwar period. She joined the Nazi party in 1932, through which she met her future husband, Karl-Otto Koch, an SS officer who would go on to become commandant of the Esterwegen, Sachsenhausen, Buchenwald and Majdanek concentration camps.

Koch would first serve as a guard at Sachsenhausen in 1936, transferring to Buchenwald the following year when her husband became commandant of the camp. While at Buchenwald, it was alleged that she had the tattooed skins of murdered prisoners removed by Dr. Erich Wagner and used to make lamp shades. After Koch’s husband was sent to Lublin to assist in the establishment of Majdanek, both were arrested in August 1943 on charges of embezzlement and killing prisoners to cover up their crimes. Koch was imprisoned while Otto was later executed by firing squad in April 1945.

Released from prison in 1944, Koch spent the remainder of the war living with family at Ludwigsburg. However, she would be found by American troops and arrested in June 1945. Koch was subsequently put on trial at Dachau in 1947, charged with abetting and participating in the murder of prisoners at Buchenwald; she was found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment, although her sentence was reduced to four years in June 1948 when the evidence regarding her use of tattooed skins of murdered prisoners was brought into question.

There was public outrage in West Germany when news of the reduction in sentence became known. Under public pressure, the authorities had Koch re-arrested and again put on trial. She was found guilty of incitement to murder and incitement to attempted murder in January 1951, for which she received another sentence of life imprisonment. Koch subsequently made several appeals but to no avail. On 1 September 1967, Koch, who had become known as the ‘Witch of Buchenwald’, hanged herself in her cell.

Maria Mandl (‘The Beast’)

Maria Mandel

The daughter of a shoemaker, Maria Mandl was a native of Münzkirchen in Austria. In 1938, she relocated to Munich and became an SS-Aufseherin at the Lichtenburg concentration camp, transferring to Ravensbrück the following year.

In October 1942, Mandl would move to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where she was placed in charge of the female subcamps and earned the nickname ‘The Beast’. She would take part in prisoner selections and commit various abuses against inmates. Mandl also created an all-female orchestra while at Auschwitz, which would play during roll calls, selections and even executions. In November 1944, she was transferred to the Mühldorf subcamp of Dachau, from where she would eventually flee back to Münzkirchen as Allied forces advanced from the west.

Nevertheless, she was found and arrested by the US Army in August 1945, who handed Mandl over to the Polish authorities the following year. She would be placed on trial at Kraków, where she was found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging. The sentence was carried out on 24 January 1948.