Some significant cases

Hermine Braunsteiner

Bild von Hermine Braunsteiner beim Prozess aus einem Zeitungsartikel die tat, 29. Mai 1981

born July 16, 1919, in Vienna; died April 19, 1999, in Bochum, Germany

The Austrian-born Hermine Braunsteiner was a guard in the Ravensbrück and Majdanek concentration camps. Because of her particular brutality – kicking with steel-tipped boots and making use of a whip and a pistol – she became known by the prisoners in the Majdanek women’s camp as “Kobyla”, Polish for “mare”.

Simon Wiesenthal first heard of Braunsteiner in 1964, on a visit to Israel, when three women, all survivors of Majdanek, asked him if he knew what had happened to “the mare”. He didn’t, and they told him about the suffering caused in the Majdanek concentration camp by this woman’s cruelty. Wiesenthal decided to follow up on the Braunsteiner case, and soon learned that she had already been tried in Austrua in 1948, for her brutal treatment of prisoners in Ravensbrück and had served a three year prison term. None of the charges brought against her at that time made any mention of her activities in Majdanek, however. There were no hints as to what had happened to her after her release.

After some painstaking detective work, Wiesenthal finally discovered that Braunsteiner had married an American by the name of Ryan. Together they had first moved to Canada and later to Queens in New York, where she had received U.S. citizenship in 1963.

Wiesenthal’s next step was to try to get her extradited and tried on the basis of sound evidence. After he provided the Vienna correspondent of the New York Times with information about Braunsteiner-Ryan, the newspaper carried a front-page article on June 14, 1964, entitled “Former Nazi camp guard now a housewife in Queens”. The resulting public interest in the case also caused the American authorities to become active and extradition proceedings were instituted. Wiesenthal sought out witnesses who were prepared to travel to the United States to testify against Braunsteiner. It took nine years, however, before this Nazi concentration camp guard was arrested in 1973 and extradited to Germany. In 1975 Braunsteiner-Ryan and eight other former female camp guards were made to answer for themselves in the Majdanek trial in Düsseldorf. She was charged with “collaborative murder in 1,181 cases and being an accessory to murder in 705 cases”. The trial wore on for almost six years, until Braunsteiner received two consecutive life sentences in 1981. Due to lack of evidence, only three of the nine charges of the indictment resulted in a verdict.

Because of her poor health, Braunsteiner was released from the prison in Mühlheim by an act of reprieval signed by Prime Minister Johannes Rau, in 1996.

Wiesenthal repeatedly expressed his dismay and anger over the many delays before and during the Majdanek trial and about the resulting mild sentences (one of the defendants was acquitted and seven received prison terms of less than twelve years). It nevertheless gave him considerable satisfaction to know that by generating so much public interest in this case he had contributed to a more active pursuit of Nazi perpetrators in the United States after 1979, when the Office of Special Investigation (OSI) was created within the U.S. Justice Department.

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