Scrapbookpages Blog

July 6, 2013

Herta Bothe, the “sadist of Bergen-Belsen,” remained defiant to the end

Herta Bothe is the woman on the right

Herta Bothe is the woman on the right; the woman in the center is Irene Haschke

Today, Herta Bothe is famous for her defiant attitude and her show of anger when the women guards at Bergen-Belsen were ordered by the British to carry decomposed corpses to mass graves with their bare hands. You can read about the history of Bergen-Belsen here.

In interviews years later, Bothe described how she was terrified of contracting typhus because the guards were not allowed to wear gloves or masks. She described how the arms and legs of the decomposed bodies came off in her hands when she tried to pick them up, and how lifting the emaciated bodies caused her back pain. Although the British brought in bulldozers and shoved some of the bodies into the mass graves, they forced the former guards to do most of the work manually as their just punishment for the horrible conditions found in the camp, after Heinrich Himmler had voluntarily turned the camp over to them on April 15, 1945.

Herta Bothe was sentenced to ten years in prison after being convicted by a British Military Tribunal in 1945. She was released on December 22, 1951.

Several years ago, I was alerted, by a reader of my website, to the fact that I had mis-identified Herta Bothe, a guard at the Bergen-Belsen camp, in a photo.  I did considerable research to confirm that I had made a mistake, and then made a correction.  The photo above shows Herta Bothe on the right; the woman in the middle is Irene Haschke, another woman guard at Bergen Belsen.

Mugshot of Herta Bothe

Mugshot of Herta Bothe

In the photo above, taken by the British at an Allied prison in the nearby town of Celle, Bothe looks haggard and has dark circles under her eyes after working for weeks in the camp to bury around 17,000 corpses including the bodies of 13,000 prisoners who died after the British took over.

Herta Bothe and Irene Haschke had both stayed behind when the Bergen-Belsen camp was voluntarily turned over to the British on April 15, 1945 because there was a typhus epidemic in the camp. They wanted to help take care of the sick prisoners, but both were immediately arrested and charged with being war criminals. Both were put on trial, charged with Count One, the mistreatment of prisoners at Bergen-Belsen.  Count Two was the charge of mistreatment of the prisoners at Auschwitz, where many of these guards, including Bothe and Haschke, had previously worked.

In doing my research to confirm the identification of the two women in the photo above, I came across this website, which has an article written by a student in a class taught by Professor Harold Marcuse at the University of California at Santa Barbara:

From other accounts, Bothe was infamous for her brutality. She was known as a sadist, often beating prisoners without mercy. In trial, Sala Schiferman served as a witness against Bothe, testifying that she saw Bothe beat an 18-year-old girl for eating peelings in the kitchen. When prisoners protested, Bothe said, “I will beat her to death.” The girl was later declared to be dead by camp doctors. Another witness, Luba Triszinska, accused Bothe of frequently beating internees with wooden sticks and causing their deaths. Bothe was known for shooting at weak women as they were carrying the heavy containers of food. One man, Wilhelm Grunwald, testified that he saw Bothe do this sometime between April 1st-15th, 1945. Bothe claimed that she never used anything but her hands to beat the women under her command and that she never carried a pistol.

According to the information given by this student in an essay for a college class, Herta Bothe had been accused of beating a prisoner who ate “peelings.”

Prisoners at Bergen-Belsen peeling potatoes inside a barrack building

Prisoners at Bergen-Belsen peeling potatoes inside a barrack building

The following quote from Wikipedia tells about the war crimes that Herta allegedly committed at Bergen-Belsen.  Herta had been a guard at Auschwitz, but she was not charged with any crimes committed there; on March 1, 1945, Herta had been transferred to Bergen-Belsen.  At the Belsen trial, Herta Bothe was sentenced to 10 years in prison for her crime of “using a pistol on prisoners” at Bergen-Belsen; she had not been charged with using a pistol at Auschwitz.

Quoted from Wikipedia:

Once in the [Bergen-Belsen] camp Bothe supervised a female wood brigade of 60 women prisoners.[citation needed] The camp was liberated on April 15, 1945.[citation needed]

She is said to have been the tallest woman arrested. Bothe also stood out from other Aufseherinnen because, while most of the SS women wore black jackboots, she was in ordinary civilian shoes. The Allied soldiers forced her to place corpses of dead prisoners into mass graves adjacent to the main camp. She later recalled in an interview some 60 years later that, while carrying the corpses they were not allowed to wear gloves, and she was terrified of contracting typhus. She said the dead bodies were so rotten that the arms and legs tore away from the rest of the body when they were moved. She also recalled the emaciated bodies were still heavy enough to cause her considerable back pain. Bothe was arrested and taken to a jail at Celle.[citation needed]

At the Belsen Trial she was characterized as a “ruthless overseer” and sentenced to ten years in prison for using a pistol on prisoners. She was released early from prison on December 22, 1951 as an act of leniency by the British government.[citation needed]

Note that Wikipedia has no “citation” for the statement that Bergen-Belsen was “liberated on April 15, 1945.”  There is no citation available because Bergen-Belsen was not “liberated.”  It was voluntarily turned over to the British by Heinrich Himmler; you can read about the so-called “liberation of Bergen-Belsen” here.

British soldiers shoved dead bodies into mass graves with a bulldozer at Bergen-Belsen

British soldiers shoved dead bodies into mass graves with a bulldozer at Bergen-Belsen

The defendants in the Belsen Trial

The defendants in the Belsen Trial conducted by the British

According to Robert E. Conot, author of Justice at Nuremberg, the idea of bringing the Nazi war criminals to justice was first voiced by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on October 7, 1942, when he declared: “It is our intention that just and sure punishment shall be meted out to the ringleaders responsible for the organized murder of thousands of innocent persons in the commission of atrocities which have violated every tenet of the Christian faith.”

On October 26, 1943, the United Nations War Crimes Commission, composed of 15 Allied nations, met in London to discuss the trials of the German war criminals which were inevitable. That same year, Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin issued a joint statement, called the Moscow Declaration, in which they agreed to bring the German war criminals to justice.

The charges brought by the British against the defendants at “The Belsen Trial” differed from the charges brought by the American Military Tribunal at Dachau, against the camp personnel of Dachau, Buchenwald and other camps. In the BelsenTrial, the defendants were charged with murdering specific individuals who were listed by name in the charge sheet. At the Nuremberg International Military Tribunal and at the American Military Tribunal at Dachau, the war criminals were charged with participating in a “common plan” and there were also specific charges; none of the defendants in the IMT and the AMT were charged with the murder of a specific individual. The British accused the defendants in The Belsen Trial of being “together concerned as parties to” specific crimes, but they also brought specific charges for the murder of inmates who were named, as well as others who were unnamed.

The charges at The Belsen Trial were as follows:

Count One:

At Bergen-Belsen, Germany, between 1 October 1942 and 30 April 1945, when members of the staff of Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp responsible for the well-being of the persons interned there, in violation of the law and usages of war, were together concerned as parties to the ill-treatment of certain of such persons, causing the deaths of Keith Meyer (a British national), Anna Kis, Sara Kohn (both Hungarian nationals), Heinrich Glinovjechy and Maria Konatkevicz (both Polish nationals) and Marcel Freson de Montigny (a French national), Maurice Van Eijnsbergen (a Dutch national), Maurice Van Mevlenaar (a Belgian national), Jan Markowski and Georgej Ferenz (both Polish nationals), Salvatore Verdura (an Italian national) and Therese Klee (a British national of Honduras), Allied nationals, and other Allied nationals whose names are unknown, and physical suffering of other persons interned there, Allied nationals, and particularly to Harold Osmund le Druillenec (a British national), Benec Zuchermann, a female internee named Korperova, a female internee named Hoffmann, Luba Rormann, Isa Frydmann (all Polish nationals) and Alexandra Siwdowa, a Russian national and other Allied nationals whose names are unknown.

The British military tribunal at Belsen took only 53 days to hear both the prosecution and the defense cases and then to make a decision on all 44 cases.

Each defendant at The Belsen Trial wore a number in the court room for easy identification in such a whirlwind trial.

Josef Kramer was Defendant No. 1 and Dr. Fritz Klein was No. 2. On the 54th day of the proceedings, which was November 17, 1945, the sentences were handed down. The sentences were then reviewed by Field-Marshall Montgomery, the commanding officer of the British Occupation, and clemency was denied to all those who had been found guilty. There was no appeal process.

Herta Bothe and Irene Haschke were later granted clemency:  both were released after serving only 6 years of their 10 year sentence.

I previously blogged about The Belsen Trial here.