I blogged yesterday about the former concentration camp guard who married a Jewish man, spent a lot of time working for Jewish charities, and never mentioned a word about her past. There was an interesting debate in the comments section about her motives and whether she was acting out of contrition or as a way of covering her past. It looks as if the latter may be true, because she’s certainly not contrite:
Her voice quivering at times and crackling with anger at others, a San Francisco woman deported to her native Germany for serving as a concentration camp guard during World War II said Wednesday that she “did nothing wrong” and had only watched prisoners so they wouldn’t “run away.”
Elfriede Rinkel, 84, displayed no remorse about what she did at the Ravensbruck concentration camp in northern Germany, where an estimated 90,000 people were killed during the war. And she offered no explanation for why, in all the 42 years she lived with her late husband — a German-born Jew whose parents died in the Holocaust — she never told him about her past.
“That was my business,” she said simply.
Rinkel dismissed the federal government’s reasons for having her deported last month to Germany, where she is now living with a sister in the west coast city of Viersen.
“That is so far back,” she said in an hourlong telephone interview. “Everything is forgotten.”
She may have forgotten. I doubt her victims ever did.
Rinkel also says (a) that she had no alternatives and (b) that nothing bad happened on her watch. Both these statements appear to be false:
She was 21 when she started in June 1944. She has admitted to the Justice Department that she served for about 10 months, until the camp was abandoned as the Red Army advanced.
“I am not a Nazi. My relatives are not Nazis. I did nothing wrong,” Rinkel said Wednesday.
Of her work as a guard, she said, “That was not my fault. I don’t have any choice or nothing. They don’t tell you nothing about what’s going on there.”
Asked if she could have refused to work, she said, “There was no other way out. That was impossible in these times.”
Her assertions were challenged by Eli Rosenbaum, director of the Justice Department’s Office of Special Investigations, which since its formation in 1979 has won cases against 102 people who took part in Nazi persecution and has deported 62 of them.
Rosenbaum was one of two prosecutors who knocked on Rinkel’s apartment door in October 2004. She spoke voluntarily, he said Wednesday.
Rosenbaum said Rinkel conspicuously displayed a picture of her husband’s black granite gravestone at the Eternal Home Cemetery in Colma, which features a Star of David and the words, “Beloved husband of Elfriede.” The cemetery is run by a Chevra Kadisha, a traditional Jewish burial society.
Rinkel volunteered for the job at Ravensbruck because it was easier than factory work, she said.
“While she was there, she never once asked to be assigned somewhere else. She went on home leave to Leipzig and came back,” Rosenbaum said. “This is not a coercion situation.”
Rinkel was among the 958 German women who served as guards at Ravensbruck during the war. Their job was to watch over the prisoners with German shepherds to make sure they got to their work assignments. The camp was encircled by electrical wire, and those who tried to escape were severely beaten in front of the others, sometimes to the point of death.
Ravensbruck was infamous for the medical atrocities perpetrated against women there. Some prisoners were infected on purpose with gangrene so camp doctors could study how to treat soldiers who developed the disease. Pregnant women were forced to undergo abortions.
Those who gave birth were made to watch as their babies were smothered or drowned in a bucket, according to survivor Germaine Tillion, who wrote “Ravensbruck — An Eyewitness Account of a Women’s Concentration Camp.”
Another survivor, Olena Wityk, wrote in 1992 that guards at Ravensbruck marched inmates for miles to dig trenches or work in munitions factories. Meals consisted of a lukewarm brew of chestnuts and acorns or a thin soup of potato peels.
“You have to watch so they don’t run away,” Rinkel said in the interview Wednesday. “That’s all. What’s going on inside, I know nothing about.”
The Soviets liberated the camp in April 1945 and found 3,500 prisoners still alive. The Nazis had sent the rest of the camp’s estimated 32,000 inmates on a death march.
The past has long arms, doesn’t it? Some avoid its grasp, but some can run and hide for more than sixty years, and those arms are still waiting to reach out and grab them.
The above, of course, does not mean that Rinkel didn’t love her Jewish husband, or settle happily and willingly into a Jewish life. It does mean, though, that she was neither innocent at the time, nor is she contrite now.