Mugshot of Grese in August 1945, while she was awaiting trial
|Nickname(s)||The Beautiful Beast
Die Hyäne von Auschwitz
("The Hyena of Auschwitz")
|Born||7 October 1923
Wrechen, Free State of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, Germany
|Died||13 December 1945
|Years of service||1942–1945|
Irma Ida Ilse Grese (7 October 1923 – 13 December 1945) was employed at the Nazi concentration camps of Ravensbrück and Auschwitz, and was a warden of the women's section of Bergen-Belsen.[broken citation]
Grese was convicted for crimes against humanity at the Belsen Trial and sentenced to death. Executed at 22 years, 67 days of age, Grese was the youngest woman to die judicially under English law in the 20th century. She was nicknamed "the Beast of Belsen", "The Beautiful Beast", "The Blonde Angel of Auschwitz" and "Die Hyäne von Auschwitz" ("The Hyena of Auschwitz").[according to whom?]
Grese left school in 1938 at the age of fourteen, owing to a combination of a poor scholastic aptitude, bullying by classmates, and a fanatical preoccupation with the League of German Girls (Bund Deutscher Mädel), a Nazi female youth organization, of which her father disapproved. Among other casual jobs, she worked as an assistant nurse in the sanatorium of the SS for two years and unsuccessfully tried to find an apprenticeship as a nurse, after which she worked as a dairy helper.
Quoted below is Irma Grese's testimony, under direct examination, about her background:
I was born on 7 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 Lychen for six months. When I was 15 I went to a hospital in Hohenlychen, 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 Fürstenberg. 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.
Having completed her training in March 1943, Grese was transferred as a female guard to Auschwitz, and by the end of that year was Senior Supervisor, the second highest ranking woman at the camp, in charge of around 30,000 Jewish female prisoners.
In January 1945, Grese briefly returned to Ravensbrück before ending her wartime career at Bergen-Belsen as a Work Service Manager from March to April. She was captured by the British on 17 April 1945, together with other SS personnel who did not flee.
Grese was among the 45 people accused of war crimes at the Belsen Trial. She was tried over the first period of the trials (September 17 to November 17, 1945) and was represented by Major L. Cranfield.
The trials were conducted under British military law in Lüneburg, and the charges derived from the Geneva Convention of 1929 regarding the treatment of prisoners. The accusations against her centred on her ill-treatment and murder of those imprisoned at the camps. These included: setting guard dogs on inmates to savage them, arbitrary shootings and sadistic beatings with a whip. Survivors provided detailed testimony of murders, tortures, and other cruelties, especially towards women, in which Grese engaged during her years at Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. They testified to acts of sadism, beatings and arbitrary shootings of prisoners, savaging of prisoners by her trained and allegedly half-starved dogs, and to her selecting prisoners for the gas chambers. Grese was reported to have habitually worn heavy boots and carried a whip and a pistol. Witnesses testified that she took pleasure in using both physical and psychological methods to torture the camp's inmates and enjoyed shooting prisoners in cold blood. They also claimed that she beat some women to death and whipped others using a plaited whip.
Grese inspired virulent hatred in prisoner Olga Lengyel, who in her memoir, Five Chimneys, wrote that selections in the women’s camp were made by SS Aufseherin Elisabeth Hasse and Irma Grese. The latter was visibly pleased by the terror her presence inspired in the women at roll call. She had a penchant for selecting not only the sick and the weak but any woman who had retained vestiges of her former beauty. Moreover, Lengyel observes, Grese had several lovers among the SS in the camp, including Josef Mengele. After Grese strong-armed the inmate surgeon at the infirmary into performing her illegal abortion, she disclosed that she planned a career in the movies after the war. Lengyel felt that Grese’s meticulous grooming, custom fitted clothes, and overuse of perfume were part of a deliberate act of sadism among the ragged women prisoners.
After a fifty-three day trial, Grese was sentenced to hang.
Grese and ten others (eight men and two other women; Juana Bormann and Elisabeth Volkenrath) were convicted for crimes against humanity in both Auschwitz and Belsen and then sentenced to death. As the verdicts were read, Grese was the only prisoner to remain defiant; her subsequent appeal was rejected.
The Daily Mirror reported: Despite being dressed in drab prison garb, the vain Grese - dubbed "the Beautiful Beast" by inmates - used rags to put ringlets in her hair. And, "The night before her execution Grese laughed and sang Nazi songs with fellow SS torturer Elizabeth Volkenrath."
On Thursday, 13 December 1945, in Hamelin Jail, Grese was led to the gallows. The women were hanged singly first and then the men in pairs. Regimental Sergeant-Major O'Neil assisted the noted British executioner, Albert Pierrepoint:
... we climbed the stairs to the cells where the condemned were waiting. A German officer at the door leading to the corridor flung open the door and we filed past the row of faces and into the execution chamber. The officers stood at attention. Brigadier Paton-Walsh stood with his wristwatch raised. He gave me the signal, and a sigh of released breath was audible in the chamber, I walked into the corridor. 'Irma Grese', I called.
The German guards quickly closed all grilles on twelve of the inspection holes and opened one door. Irma Grese stepped out. The cell was far too small for me to go inside, and I had to pinion her in the corridor. 'Follow me,' I said in English, and O'Neil repeated the order in German. At 9.34 a.m. she walked into the execution chamber, gazed for a moment at the officials standing round it, then walked on to the centre of the trap, where I had made a chalk mark. She stood on this mark very firmly, and as I placed the white cap over her head she said in her languid voice, 'Schnell'. [English translation: 'Quickly.'] The drop crashed down, and the doctor followed me into the pit and pronounced her dead. After twenty minutes the body was taken down and placed in a coffin ready for burial.
Angel: A Nightmare in Two Acts is a drama by playwright Jo Davidsmeyer based on the life and execution of Irma Grese and holocaust survivor Olga Lengyel. First staged in 1987, it has been produced at many regional colleges; in September 2006 it had its professional debut at the New City Stage Company in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The play was published in 1995 by Wildside Press in the anthology Reader's Theatre: What it is and how to stage it, edited by Marvin Kaye.
Irma Grese has been portrayed as a minor character in Out of the Ashes as well as Pierrepoint, which details her execution following the Belsen war crimes trial. Both films feature additional female guards in much smaller roles. Grese is also briefly portrayed in a non-speaking re-enactment in Auschwitz: The Nazis and the 'Final Solution'.