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January 12, 2014

The Military Channel on TV tells the story of a British SOE woman who was burned alive at Natzweiler

Filed under: Germany, Holocaust — Tags: , , , — furtherglory @ 12:00 pm

This morning, I watched a TV show on the Military Channel (Channel 274 on my TV) which was entitled “The Nazis Hunters.”  It was all about how the British hunted down German war criminals after World War II.

I watched the show to the end and was shocked to learn that a British SOE woman had been burned alive at the Natzwwiler concentration camp. As she was being shoved into the oven, she managed to scratch the face of a man named Peter Straub, scarring him for life.  The woman was not named on the Military Channel show, but I know, from my research on this subject, that the woman who was allegedly burned alive at Natzweiler was Andrée Borrel.

I  previously blogged about Andrée Borrel here.

The following quote is from Flames in the Field, by Rita Kramer:

The most dramatic testimony [about Andrée Borrel] came from Walter Schultz, who had been an interpreter in the camp’s Political Department. It was here the orders came regarding prisoners transferred to the camp by the Gestapo for ‘special treatment,’ a euphemism the meaning of which was clearly understood by all. It was not necessary for files to be made for new arrivals accompanied, like the four women, by requests for special treatment.

Hearsay testimony, such as the testimony of Walter Schultz, which would not have been allowed in a normal trial, was acceptable at the Allied Military Tribunals. Walter Schultz claimed that Peter Straub was very drunk on the day of the secret execution of the four women and that Straub had told him all about the women being killed by phenol injection. One of the women had regained consciousness after the injection and had scratched his face, as she fought being put into the oven alive.

According to Rita Kramer, the author of Flames in the Field, when Straub was interrogated by Vera Atkins, he still had scars on his face from the scratches inflicted by Andrée Borrel.

On the show, the Natzweiler camp was called a “secret camp.” This was news to me.  I thought that it was a concentration camp, like any other.

I had tuned in to the Military Channel show a few minutes late, and the first thing that I heard was something about “the Vosges mountains.” I was immediately interested because I knew that the Natzweiler concentration camp in Alsace had been located in the vicinity of the Vosges mountains.

Entrance into Natzweiler concentration camp

Entrance into Natzweiler concentration camp

A photo, very similar to my photo above, was shown on the Military Channel show, although it was not immediately identified as the entrance into the Natzweiler camp.

Vera Atkins

Vera Atkins

Then a photo of a woman was shown.  I immediately recognized the face of Vera Atkins, who was in the British SOE during World War II.  At this point in the show, her photo was not yet identified. Way to build up suspense!

Here’s what Wikipedia says about Vera Atkins:

Vera Atkins was born Vera-May Rosenberg to Max Rosenberg, a German Jewish father and his British Jewish wife, Zeftro Hilda, known as Hilda in Galai, Romania.  […]

Her position as a woman, a Jew and a non-British national in SOE would also explain Atkins’ defensiveness during and after the war.

Atkins persuaded M.R.D. Foot, SOE’s official historian, not to reveal her Romanian origins in his history.

She remained to her death a strong defender of F Section’s wartime record, and ensured that each of the 12 women murdered in the three concentration camps of Natzweiler-Struthof, Dachau and Ravensbrueck are commemorated by memorial plaques close to where they were killed.

Strangely, the Military Channel show entitled “The Nazi Hunters” ended before it was revealed that Vera Atkins later changed her mind and claimed that one of the four women, who were allegedly executed at Natzweiler and burned in the oven there, had actually been executed and burned at Dachau.

A photo of the sinister looking oven at Natzweiler, similar to my photo below, was shown on the Military Channel show.

The one cremation oven at the Natzweiler camp

The one cremation oven at the Natzweiler camp

The following information about Natzweiler is from my own website, based on my research (Some of this information was also mentioned on the Military Channel show):

The Trial of Werner Röhde and 8 others in a British Military Court at Wuppertal, Germany began on May 29, 1946 and ended on June 1, 1946. The nine men were charged with the murder of four British SOE agents on July 6, 1944 at the Natzweiler concentration camp in Alsace.

Werner Röhde was a medical doctor who had allegedly murdered the four SOE agents by giving them a lethal injection. (It was the custom of the Allies to strip the title of Doctor from the accused in war crimes proceedings.)

The 8 others in the dock were Fritz Hartjenstein, the Commandant at Natzweiler, Max Wochner and Wolfgang Zeuss from the Political Department at Natzweiler, Peter Straub who was the man in charge of executions, Franz Berg who was a prisoner in the camp, Emil Brüttel, Emil Meier and Kurt aus dem Bruch. Dr. Heinrich Plaza, who had also allegedly participated in the lethal injection of the women, was not on trial because he had not been captured.

In all of the Allied Military Tribunals, the concept of a “common plan” or co-responsibility for war crimes was used. This meant that anyone, who was present when a war crime was committed, was equally guilty because the accused should have acted to prevent the crime from taking place.

The evidence for the prosecution had been gathered by Major Bill Barkworth of the SAS War Crimes Investigation team and Vera Atkins, a Squadron Officer of the British SOE, who had interrogated the Natzweiler staff and some of the Natzweiler prisoners, who were also captured SOE agents.

The four SOE agents, who were allegedly murdered at Natzweiler, had been captured by the German Gestapo and had not returned after the war ended. The key prosecution witnesses, Albert Guérisse, Brian Stonehouse and Dr. Georges Boogaerts, who were all members of the SOE, had a motive for wanting these 4 women SOE agents to go down in history as heroines, not as missing persons.

The first witness for the prosecution was Vera Atkins, who testified on May 29, 1944 that Andrée Borrel, Vera Leigh, Diana Rowden and Noor Inayat Khan had been murdered at Natzweiler.

It was not known until much later that Noor Inayat Khan was allegedly executed at Dachau and that Sonia Olschanezky was the fourth victim at Natzweiler. However, before her testimony, Vera Atkins had made sure that the Court would not allow the names of the victims to be published. Atkins herself was referred to in the press as a “WAAF officer” and her name was withheld.

According to Sarah Helm, who wrote a biography of Vera Atkins, entitled A Life in Secrets, Atkins did not want the SOE to be “exposed to any close scrutiny as a result of the case.” The SOE was a secret organization, also known as Churchill’s Secret Army, and it was engaged in espionage and sabotage behind enemy lines. The four women agents had been in the F section which operated as illegal insurgents in France after that country had signed an Armistice with Germany in 1940.

The attorney for the defense, Dr. Grobel, argued in court that “international law allowed for the execution of irregular combatants” and that the court should “consider this case from the point of view that it was a normal and simple execution of spies.” Vera Atkins was quoted by the press as saying that “the women were not spies.”

One thing the Allied Military Tribunals would not tolerate was any mention by the defense that the Allies had committed similar acts. During World War II, the British executed 15 German spies. The last person to be executed at the famous Tower of London was Josef Jacobs who was captured after he broke his leg during a parachute jump. He was shot on August 15, 1941. In America, 8 captured German saboteurs were sentenced to death and 6 of them were executed in the electric chair. The other two sentences were reduced because the men had turned against their countrymen and cooperated with the Americans. Although the 8 Germans were caught before they had the opportunity to commit any acts of sabotage, 6 of them were executed because they had violated the Laws of War by going behind enemy lines to commit hostile acts without being in uniform.

According to Rita Kramer, who wrote a book entitled Flames in the Field, the proceedings of the British Military Court were widely publicized by the press, but the names of the women who had been allegedly executed at Natzweiler were not published until two years later, and even then it was not revealed that they had been the subject of a British Military Court where nine men had been prosecuted for their alleged execution.

In 1958, a series of articles in a British newspaper, which was a condensed version of a book entitled Death be not Proud by Elizabeth Nichols, accused the authorities of keeping the names of the dead women secret as a “War Office cover-up of official blunders,” according to Rita Kramer.

The alleged “cover-up” was for the purpose of keeping secret the accusation that the British SOE had deliberately sent radio operators to France to be caught so that the British could transmit false information to their radios after the agents were captured by the Germans.

If the execution of the 8 women SOE agents had been authorized, the order would have been given to Herman Rösner of the Karlsruhe Gestapo to carry out. Rösner would have then instructed Max Wassmer and Christian Ott to take the women to Natzweiler.

Under the “common plan” concept used by the Allies in all their war crimes trials, Rösner would have been guilty of murder, but he was never prosecuted. In the 1960ies, he was hired by the British to provide intelligence for NATO, according to Sarah Helm’s book.

The procedure, in a war crimes trial, was to interrogate the accused before the proceedings began and to obtain depositions which the accused would then repeat before the Court. However, in the British and American proceedings, the accused were allowed to have an attorney to represent them. Their attorneys were allowed to use any means to defend them, including the accusation that their clients had been unduly persuaded to give incriminating information in their depositions which they now wanted to recant on the witness stand.

Testimony or confessions about prior bad acts could be admitted, even though it had nothing to do with the crime that was being prosecuted. For example, one of the accused, Peter Straub, who had worked for a number of years in Auschwitz before being transferred to Natzweiler, had supposedly told Walter Schultz, a prisoner at Natzweiler, that he had “put four million people up the chimney.”

According to Rita Kramer, all of the accused would “later deny their complicity,” after giving depositions beforehand in which they stated that they had been involved in the execution of the four SOE agents at Natzweiler. The fact that all of the accused wanted to change their previous testimony, given in their depositions, indicates that they had somehow been induced to incriminate themselves before the proceedings began.

Peter Straub, the executioner at Natzweiler, denied everything, claiming that he was not present when the executions took place. Straub was the hangman; executions at Natzweiler were normally carried out by hanging and all the prisoners were required to watch.

The following quote is from Flames in the Field, by Rita Kramer:

During the period of their detention together at Recklinghausen awaiting trial, several of the defendants had second thoughts about the statements that they had made to Barkworth and sworn to earlier. At the trial they expressed the wish to revise some of the evidence they had given in their affidavits implicating each other. Some lost their memories, others refreshed theirs. This led to some retractions having to do with just exactly who was present in the crematorium that night. But it didn’t matter. There was ample evidence to convince the court of the guilt of those in the dock.

Ms. Kramer used the expression “ample evidence,” when what she obviously meant was “ample testimony.”

There were four women SOE agents missing and presumed dead. There was no hard evidence whatsoever that these four women had been executed at Natzweiler: no death records, no execution order, no autopsy report, no bodies, not even the correct name of one of the alleged victims. Vera Atkins had to prevail upon Dr. Röhde to sign death certificates for the four women because there were no official records of their deaths.

One of the accused at the proceedings of the British Military Court was Franz Berg, who was a Kapo or one of the prisoners who assisted the guards at Natzweiler. It was his job to stoke the crematorium furnace.

During the proceedings, Berg told the incredible story that he had been ordered by Peter Straub, who was in charge of executions, to heat up the oven in the crematorium and then to disappear. At 9:30 p.m. Berg was still stoking the oven when Dr. Werner Röhde and the camp Commandant, SS-Obersturmbanführer Friedrich “Fritz” Hartjenstein, came into the crematorium. Both Dr. Röhde and Hartjenstein had previously worked at the Auschwitz II camp, also known as Birkenau, before being transferred to Natzweiler. Dr. Röhde had just arrived at Natzweiler; he was replacing Dr. Heinrich Plaza, who was already wearing civilian clothes in preparation for his departure.

Accompanying them were Obersturmführer Johannes Otto, the adjutant to the Commandant, and Wolfgang Zeuss, who worked in the Political Department. A medical orderly named Emil Brüttel and Robert Nietsch were also in the group.

Berg was ordered by Dr. Röhde to go to his quarters in a dormitory room in the crematorium. He pretended to be asleep when Commandant Hartjenstein and his adjutant, Johannes Otto, came to check on him a few minutes later. They locked the door from the outside to keep Berg from witnessing the secret execution of the four women. However, Georg Fuhrmann, a prisoner in the top bunk of the dorm room, was able to see through the transom over the door into the corridor.

Berg testified that Fuhrmann whispered to him, giving him a running commentary on what was happening in the corridor. There was the noise of bodies being dragged across the floor and the sounds of heavy breathing and low groaning combined. The fourth woman resisted and Dr. Röhde told her that she was being given an injection for typhus, according to Berg’s account.

Part of Berg’s deposition was quoted by Rita Kramer in Flames in the Field:

From the noise of the crematorium oven doors which I heard, I can state definitely that in each case the groaning women were placed immediately in the crematorium oven. When [the officials] had gone, we went to the crematorium oven, opened the door and saw that there were four blackened bodies within. Next morning in the course of my duties I had to clear the ashes out of the crematorium oven. I found a pink woman’s stocking garter on the floor near the oven.

As the photo of the oven at Natzweiler above shows, the bodies were put inside by means of a stretcher. Berg testified that afterwards, he had seen four blackened bodies inside, apparently not completely burned. The bodies had been undressed before they were cremated, and Berg had found a tell-tale piece of feminine clothing right beside the oven.

Berg referred to the women as “Jewish” in his testimony, according to Rita Kramer, but only one of the four women, Sonia Olschanezky, was Jewish. There were 29 Jewish women who had been brought to Natzweiler from Auschwitz in the Summer of 1943 to be gassed, but their bodies had not been cremated.

There were medical experiments being done at Natzweiler, including experiments done on Gypsy women. One of the experiments was an attempt to find a vaccine for typhus, which the Germans had not yet successfully developed. The four women SOE agents were allegedly told that they were being given an injection for typhus, but were instead given phenol injections.

Dr. Heinrich Plaza was leaving the Natzweiler camp on the day of the alleged execution of the women, and there was a party for him that night. This could explain why Peter Straub was drunk, as Schultz testified at the trial. Could the four “well-dressed” women who arrived in the camp at 3 p.m. that day have been the wives of the SS men, or perhaps prostitutes, who were brought to the camp for the party? According to several witnesses who saw the women when they arrived, each of them was carrying a box or a small suitcase. Who brings a suitcase to an execution?

It was not until 1956 that the public learned the fate of the men who were brought before the British Military Court at Wuppertal on May 29, 1946. The British had kept the sentences and the execution of the accused secret.

Peter Straub, the SS officer in charge of executions at Natzweiler, was convicted and was subsequently sentenced to 13 years in prison on June 1, 1946. This was a remarkably short sentence, considering that Straub had told a prisoner named Walter Schultz that he was responsible for killing 4 million people at Auschwitz and that he had shoved a woman into a crematory oven alive and had the scars to prove it.

Straub was tried again by another British Military Court at Wuppertal for complicity in the hanging of an RAF pilot who was a prisoner at Natzweiler in the Summer of 1944. He was convicted of this crime and on June 5, 1946 he was sentenced to death. He was hanged on October 11, 1946.

Magnus Wochner was sentenced to 10 years in prison for carrying out the alleged order from RSHA to execute the four SOE women. He was then turned over to the French for prosecution but was released.

According to Sarah Helm’s book “A Life in Secrets,” Franz Berg was sentenced to 5 years in prison. Other sources say that Berg was sentenced to death and hanged on October 11, 1946. He may have been tried again on other charges for which he received the death penalty.

Max Wassmer and Christian Ott, the two Gestapo men from Karlsruhe, who allegedly accompanied the four women SOE agents to Natzweiler and also accompanied four other women SOE agents to Dachau, were never charged with a crime for their part in the alleged murders of the eight women. They were rewarded for giving information to their interrogators by being released from custody. Both were in their late fifties and were highly experienced in Gestapo work; they knew how to tell investigators what they wanted to hear.

The Military Channel show ended before telling us that one of the British SOE women, Noor Inayat Khan, who was allegedly killed at Natzweiler, was later allegedly executed at Dachau.

Thus ends the credibility of the Military Channel.