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The more I had the chance to observe the prominent SS – people like Eduard Wirths, Josef  Kramer  and  Irma  Grese  –  the  more  I understood that despite their murderous practices, they were still human beings. I don’t say this to excuse their actions in any way, or to suggest that I liked any of these people for even a second. On the contrary, realising  that  they  were  human  helped  me  under-stand that they had human needs and vulnerabilities. This created opportunities.  People like myself and Vera  Fischer  –  people  who  had arrived at Auschwitz on the first transports – learned to talk back to the SS if we were careful and chose our times. There was always fear. Any of them could, at any time, have us killed or kill us themselves. But if we maintained respect, avoided ever telling them what to do  and  acted  with the  right  amount  of  chutzpah, there were ways we could manipulate them. 

There is no better example of this than the way I was able to work with Irma Grese. 

After the  war,  Grese  became  known  as  perhaps  the  most  infamous female SS guard. She was young, attractive and earned a reputation for promiscuity and extreme cruelty at the Ravens-brück, Auschwitz–Birkenau and  Bergen-Belsen  concentration  camps. During the so-called Belsen trial in 1945, when charges were heard  against  Grese,  Josef  Kramer  and  forty-three  others  accused  of  war  crimes  at  Auschwitz and  Bergen-Belsen,  Grese  became the centre of much of the media’s attention. They gave her  the  nickname  ‘The  Beautiful  Beast’.  She was only  twenty-two years old when she was sentenced to death by hanging. Grese’s reputation continued to grow in the following years, and in many accounts she comes across as a one-dimensional monster. Yet the Grese  I  knew  was  also  a  person.  Yes,  an  evil  person  capable  of terrible  sadism,  but  also  a  damaged  young  person  who,  under-neath everything, was vulnerable and impressionable. 
Irma  Grese  arrived  at  Camp  C  on  the  day  after  we  moved  into the sector. When I saw her walk into the camp, I approached her and reported for duty.

‘Lagerführerin Grese.  I  am  your  Lagerälteste. We  will  try  to  work together.

’Grese was the only SS guard who was permanently based in Camp C. She had an office in the small guardhouse at the gate of  the  camp,  where  there  was  also  a  guard  on  duty  at  all  times  who kept watch over who was coming and going. 

At least once a day she would seek me out to talk to. We often had  conversations  like  those  we’d  had  back  at  the  Brotkammer at the Auschwitz main camp, and it felt like she saw me as a big sister.  She  would  chat  to  me  in  the  indiscreet  way  of  a  young  person trying to impress someone older. She sometimes told me about  her  family:  she  was  one  of  five  children  from  a  regional  area  of  Germany,  her father  was  a  farmer  and  she  had  lost  her  mother  when  she  was  a  young  teenager.  She  told  me  about  her school years in her early teens, during which she had joined the  BDM  –  the  Bund  Deutscher  Mädel,  or  League  of  German  Girls, a female Nazi youth organisation. She was quite proud of this because the organisation was only open to ‘genuine’ Aryans, and  she  became  very  enthusiastic  about  the ‘mission’  of  the  Nazis and the ‘dangers’ of race ‘pollution’. As she told me things like this it was almost as if she had forgotten that she was talking to  a  prisoner,  let  alone  a  Jewish  prisoner.  She  told  me  that  her  joining the BDM had caused a split in her family, as her father was very religious and conservative and did not believe in Nazism. He had become even more angry when she eventually joined the SS and, after she returned home to visit one time dressed in her full SS uniform, he had not spoken to her again.

She also told me about her career. She had wanted to become a  nurse  and  had  worked  in  the  Hohenlychen  Sanatorium  with  Professor Doctor Karl Gebhardt. I had not heard of the profes-sor, but Grese revered him as a ‘saint’ of the Nazi party. After the war it was revealed that Gebhardt was one of the earliest doctors to  perform  experiments  on  those  the  Nazis  saw  as  subhuman,  such as the Jews and the Roma. However, Grese didn’t succeed in becoming a nurse, and eventually left the hospital. She worked in  a  dairy  for  a  short  time  before volunteering  to  join  the  SS,  still  only  eighteen  years  of  age.  She  told  me  that  she  hadn’t  known about the concentration camp and that she couldn’t have imagined they would be as bad as they were, but that the Nazis had made working in a camp sound appealing.


Regardless, once she joined the SS she took to the job with great loyalty. She put a lot of effort into wearing her uniform properly and keeping her appearance smart, unlike most of the other guards. And she did what she had to do to stand out and advance herself. By the time she  was assigned  to  Camp  C,  at  just  twenty  years  old,  she  had  been promoted to the rank of SS-Oberscharführerin, the second highest rank available to a female SS officer – something very rare for someone so young.

Occasionally she would also share things she had heard about the Nazis’ plans to win the war. She would tell me gossip about the other SS women, none of whom she was friendly with.

I  thought  sometimes  that  perhaps  this  was  why  she  treated  me as a big sister and not as a prisoner. I was the only person she could talk to.

While  she  would  appear  almost  familiar  with  me,  she  soon  earned  a  reputation  for  brutality  –  and  I  saw  this  side  of  her  too. During roll call one day I was standing in front of Block 2. Suddenly two runners came up to me with four very distressed women whose breasts had been split open. It was a terrible sight, the poor women crying out in pain, their breasts bleeding badly. I asked them what happened and who did this to them, but they were too frightened to reply.

One of the runners said, ‘This one told me that LagerführerinGrese struck them with her whip.’

I told the Läuferinnen to take the women to the Revier.

‘Tell  Dr  Perl  I  sent  you  and  that  she  should  try  her  best  to  help these poor women.’

I then found Grese and, making sure no one else could hear me, said, ‘What did you do to those poor women? They are in great  pain.  Their  wounds  will  likely  become  infected  and  they  will die. Shame on you.’

She lifted her whip.

‘I dare you to strike me too,’ I said. ‘I know you like to see blood. Ich bin beleidigt.’ ‘I’m offended.’

I turned and walked away.

Later, to  my  astonishment,  Grese  came  to  me  and  said,  ‘Vergib mir.’ ‘Forgive me.’

From then  on  she  rarely  showed  her  sadistic  side  if  I  was  around,  but  sadly  that  side  did  come  out  many  times.  She wanted power and all  the  luxuries  that  she  could  have  with  it, and that meant outshining all the other female SS in both looks and brutality. There were many other reports of her using her whip or her pistol,  or  having  groups  of  prisoners  ‘make  sport’ during roll call. It was always mysterious to me that she would show me so much respect yet could be so heartless and cruel to so many others, one minute talking to me as a friend and the next minute being a sadistic devil.

The Nazis Knew My Name

A remarkable story of survival and courage in Auschwitz

The extraordinarily moving memoir by Australian Slovakian Holocaust survivor Magda Hellinger, who saved an untold number of lives at Auschwitz through everyday acts of courage, kindness and ingenuity.