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97-year-old former Nazi death camp secretary found guilty of complicity

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

A court in Germany has convicted a 97-year-old woman of being an accessory to the murder of more than 10,000 people while working as a secretary at a concentration camp during World War II. As NPR's Rob Schmitz reports from Berlin, this is one of the last trials of those who served in Germany's Nazi regime.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: When Irmgard Furchner was ordered to show up at a court in northern Germany last year, she replied with a letter saying that, as a 96-year-old, she was in poor health and unfit to stand trial. The court rejected her claim, and on the first day of her trial, she showed how fit she was by fleeing her retirement home on foot and evading police.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: (Speaking German).

SCHMITZ: Live television reports from the courthouse in September of 2021 reported that the 96-year-old was on the run, and police were in pursuit. Police finally found her, and Christoph Huebner of the International Auschwitz Committee was aghast.

CHRISTOPH HEUBNER: (Through interpreter) Refusing to show up to court not only shows her incredibly cynical contempt for the survivors and plaintiffs, but also for the rule of law.

SCHMITZ: When Furchner's trial finally began, judges heard account after account of the more than 10,000 people, mostly Jews, who were tortured, neglected and murdered at the Stutthof concentration camp in Nazi-occupied Poland in the final years of World War II. Furchner worked as an 18-year-old secretary at the camp. And through her work, she was accused of helping those responsible for the systematic killing of thousands of prisoners. Eighty-four-year-old Josef Salomonovic survived the camp and was the only witness to appear personally in the courtroom. He spoke to German broadcaster NDR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOSEF SALOMONOVIC: (Through interpreter) My wife wanted me to deliver evidence. So did my attorney. I didn't, though. I didn't want to be in the same room as the accused. But I did it. And I spoke for two hours. It hurt, but it was important.

SCHMITZ: Salomonovic spoke about the extermination at the camp, the fact that those in charge let prisoners starve or freeze to death, all for the purpose of killing as many prisoners as possible. The trial lasted more than a year, and Furchner remained silent until the final days, saying in the end that she was sorry about what happened at Stutthof, and she regretted she was there at the time. The court sentenced Furchner to a two-year suspended sentence for being an accessory to murder in approximately 10,500 cases. Due to the advanced age of the convicted, this is seen as one of the last cases of its kind from one of Germany's ugliest moments in history. Rob Schmitz, NPR News, Berlin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.