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January 7, 2014

A letter to Irma Grese, from Batsheva Dagan, not her real name

Batsheva Dagan (real name Isabella Rubinstein) is an 88-year-old Holocaust survivor, who is out on the lecture circuit, telling the story of her victory over the Nazis. She says that she was a prisoner at Auschwitz-Birkenau for two years.  (Scroll way down to read her life story, as published in the The Jerusalem Post.)

In a recent lecture to school children in Ireland, which you can read about in The Jerusalem Post online news here, she said that she is amazed to re-read the “fire and brimstone” letter that she wrote to Nazi war criminal Irma Grese; her letter was published in The Palestine Post in October 1945.

Irma Grese, a notorious guard at Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen

Irma Grese, a notorious guard at Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen

The letter, which she did not mail, was written to a 21-year-old German girl who had worked as a guard at Auschwitz-Birkenau and later, for one month, at Bergen-Belsen.  Irma Grese became famous when she was put on trial by the British in 1945, after the Bergen-Belsen camp was voluntarily turned over to them in April 1945.

Irma Grese, who was not very sophisticated, nor highly educated, had stayed behind at Bergen-Belsen, to help the British with the typhus epidemic, that had caused an unmitigated disaster in the former Bergen-Belsen Exchange camp, which had become a concentration camp in the last months of the war.

Sign put up by the British at Bergen-Belsen after the camp was turned over to them

Sign put up by the British at Bergen-Belsen after the camp was turned over to them

When the British arrived at the Belsen camp, Irma Grese was standing at the gate into the camp, along with the Belsen Commandant Josef Kramer, offering her help.

Commandant Josef Kramer was arrested and put in leg irons.

Commandant Josef Kramer was arrested and put in leg irons after he offered to help the British

Most of the Belsen guards had run away before the British arrived, but not the brave German girl, Irma Grese, who took her life in her hands to help the British during a typhus epidemic. To her surprise, Irma was immediately arrested by the British, and a few months later, she was put on trial as a war criminal. Josef Kramer was also arrested and put into a dark prison cell.

Irma Grese and Josef Kramer after they were arrested by the British

Irma Grese and Josef Kramer after they were arrested by the British at Bergen Belsen

In recent years, Irma Grese has become a cult figure among neo-Nazis. She is considered by them to be a heroine because of her stoicism at her trial and the fact that she showed great courage in going bravely to her death. She is regarded by the neo-Nazis as a martyr, who died for her country, since the neo-Nazis don’t believe that she was the sadistic, sexually-depraved killer that she was portrayed to be by Holocaust survivors at her trial.

In the world of Holocaust trivia, Irma Grese ranks alongside Amon Goeth and Dr. Mengele, as the famous Nazis that the Jews most love to hate.

As quoted from The Jerusalem Post, here is the letter that Batsheva Dagan wrote in 1945, but did not send, to Irma Grese:

“We, your victims, do not want you to die,” read the letter addressed to Grese, which the newspaper ran in full on October 29, 1945. “We would much rather that you live, as we had to, with billows of filthy black smoke from the chimneys of the crematoria [at Auschwitz] constantly before your eyes.

“We want to see you dragging heavy stones, barefoot and in rags. We want to see you beaten, cruelly and mercilessly as you, cruel and without mercy, beat us [with a cellophane whip].

“We want you to go so hungry that you cannot sleep at night, as we could not. We want to see your blonde hair shaved off, as you made us shave our heads [to get rid of any lice].”

I have written extensively, about the trial of Irma Grese and the other guards, who were put on trial by the British in 1945.  The Belsen Trial was the very first trial of Nazi war criminals, long before the Nuremberg IMT and the AMT trials conducted by Americans at Dachau.

The trial, which was conducted by the British, was eagerly followed by the press and the defendant, who attracted the most attention, was the notorious 21-year-old Irma Grese, who was accused of participating in selections for the gas chamber at Auschwitz-Birkenau, the Auschwitz II death camp.

Despite her young age, Irma had achieved the rank of Oberaufseherin, or Senior SS Overseer, by the fall of 1943. In this role, she was in charge of supervising around 30,000 women prisoners, mostly Polish and Hungarian Jews, at Auschwitz-Birkenau. She was transferred to Bergen-Belsen in March 1945, only a month before the camp was turned over to the British, and she was also charged with beating prisoners in that camp.

Some of the inmates at Bergen-Belsen had been transferred to Belsen from Auschwitz-Birkenau, so they were able to testify against the defendants with regard to both camps. Grese was the highest ranking woman among the defendants at The Belsen Trial, but she was also the youngest. She was, by far, the most hated by the former prisoners who submitted affidavits against her at her trial.

Quoted below is Irma Grese’s testimony at her trial, under direct examination, about her background:

I was born on 7th October, 1923. In 1938 I left the elementary school and worked for six months on agricultural jobs at a farm, after which I worked in a shop in Luchen for six months. When I was 15 I went to a hospital in Hohenluchen, where I stayed for two years. I tried to become a nurse but the Labour Exchange would not allow that and sent me to work in a dairy in Fürstenburg. In July, 1942, I tried again to become a nurse, but the Labour Exchange sent me to Ravensbrück Concentration Camp, although I protested against it. I stayed there until March, 1943, when I went to Birkenau Camp in Auschwitz. I remained in Auschwitz until January, 1945.

The Auschwitz-Birkenau survivors testified that Grese habitually wore jack boots, and carried a plaited cellophane whip and a pistol. Survivors testified, in affidavits, that she was always accompanied by a vicious dog. The survivors claimed that Irma was sadistic and that she derived sexual pleasure from beating the women prisoners with her cellophane riding crop.

Survivors claimed that she had beaten women prisoners to death at Auschwitz-Birkenau, and that Irma had shot other prisoners in cold blood. These accusations of murder were made in affidavits, and none of accusations were corroborated.

The most serious charge against Irma Grese was that she had been present when inmates at Birkenau were selected for the gas chamber and that she had participated by forcing the women to line up for inspection by Dr. Mengele.

Irma denied having a dog, beating prisoners to death or shooting anyone, although she did admit to hitting prisoners with her cellophane whip even though it was forbidden for the Overseers to beat the prisoners. She stated that she continued to use her whip even after being ordered not to by Commandant Kramer.

Irma also admitted to being aware that prisoners were gassed at Birkenau; she stated that this was common knowledge in the camp and that she had been told by the prisoners about the gassing. She admitted that she was present when selections were made and that she had helped to line up the prisoners, but she denied making the selections herself.

Quoted below is her testimony, regarding the gas chamber selections, under direct examination, by her defense lawyer, Major Cranfield (page. 249 in the trial transcript):

Cranfield: Where did the order come from for what we call “selection parades”?
Grese: That came by telephone from a RapportFührerin or from Oberaufseherin Dreschel.
Cranfield: When the order came were you told what the parade was for?
Grese: No.
Cranfield: What were the prisoners supposed to do when the whistle went?
Grese: Fall in fives, and it was my duty to see that they did so. Dr. Mengele then came and made the selection. As I was responsible for the camp my duties were to know how many people were leaving and I had to count them, and I kept the figures in a strength book. After the selection took place they were sent into “B” Camp, and Dreschel telephoned and told me that they had gone to another camp in Germany for working purposes or for special treatment, which I thought was the gas chamber. I then put in my strength book either so many for transfer to Germany to another camp, or so many for S.B. (Sonder Behandlung). It was well known to the whole camp that S. B. meant the gas chamber.
Cranfield: Were you told anything about the gas chamber by your senior officers?
Grese: No, the prisoners told me about it.
Cranfield: You have been accused of choosing prisoners on these parades and sending them to the gas chamber. Have you done that?
Grese: No; I knew that prisoners were gassed.
Cranfield: Was it not quite simple to know whether or not the selection was for the gas chamber, because only Jews had to attend such selections?

Grese: I myself had only Jews in Camp “C.”
Cranfield: Then they would all have to attend the selection for the gas chamber, would they not?
Grese: Yes.
Cranfield: As you were told to wait for the doctors you would know perfectly well what it was for?
Grese: No.
Cranfield: When these people were parading they were very often paraded naked and inspected like cattle to see whether they were fit to work or fit to die, were they not?
Grese: Not like cattle.
Cranfield: You were there keeping order, were you not, and if one ran away you brought her back and gave her a beating?
Grese: Yes.

To get back to Batsheva Dagen, here is her Holocaust story, as printed in The Jerusalem Post:

Dagan was born in 1925 in Lodz, the eighth of nine children. When the Nazis invaded Poland in September 1939, her large family scattered. One brother went to Palestine, another joined the Polish Brigade, others sought refuge in the Soviet Union. Dagan moved with her parents and younger siblings to the relative safety of the central Polish city of Radom.

“My father heard they were setting up a ghetto in Lodz and he didn’t like the sound of it,” she said, “so we moved to Radom and were spared being put in one for a little over a year.”

But in 1940, a ghetto was set up in Radom and life suddenly became mean.

“You would not believe the deprivation, the lows that humans can sink to,” she said.
Dagan joined the ghetto’s resistance movement and on one occasion traveled under the guise of a gentile to Warsaw – where she personally delivered a dispatch to Mordechai Anielewicz, the heroic leader of the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising – and then back again. When, in 1942, the Radom ghetto was about to be liquidated, she escaped using fake documents. She took on the identity of a non-Jewish maid and went to work for a family in Germany.

“I worked for a fervently Nazi family where I took care of two teenagers,” she recalled. “Many years after the war I met them in Hamburg. The daughter was very cold to me, but the son was warm. They could not believe I survived.”

Her ruse did not last long. Her real identity was discovered by the Gestapo and she was sent to Auschwitz in April 1943. There, she survived the worst horrors imaginable. She was given tasks like collecting prickly nettles, which were used to make tea, barehanded, and removing precious items from the bodies of those killed in the gas chambers. She survived by relying on the camaraderie of a group of eight women and a strict regimen of self-discipline.

Note that Dagen (not her real name) claims that she removed items from the bodies in the gas chambers.  She also claims that she was a Resistance fighter (illegal combatant) in the Warsaw ghetto.