Photograph 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 a female SS guard at the Nazi concentration camps of Ravensbrück and Auschwitz, and served as warden of the women's section of Bergen-Belsen.
Grese was convicted for crimes against humanity committed at Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, and sentenced to death at the Belsen trial. Executed at 22 years of age, Grese was the youngest woman to die judicially under British law in the 20th century. She was nicknamed by the camps' inmates "the Hyena of Auschwitz" (German: die Hyäne von Auschwitz).
Irma Grese was born to Berta Grese and Alfred Grese, a dairy worker. Irma was the third of five children (three girls and two boys). In 1936, her mother committed suicide by drinking hydrochloric acid after discovering that Alfred had had an affair with a local pub owner's daughter. Alfred Grese is speculated to have joined the Nazi Party in 1937, and remarried in 1939.
Irma Grese left school in 1938 at age 14, probably due 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.
Irma Grese worked as a dairy helper and was single when she volunteered for service in a concentration camp. From mid-1942 she was an Aufseherin (female guard) at Ravensbrück and in March 1943 transferred to Auschwitz-Birkenau. In the second half of 1944 she was promoted to Rapportführerin, the second-highest rank open to female KZ-wardens. In this function she participated in prisoner selections for the gas chambers.:219
In early 1945, Grese accompanied a prisoner transport from Auschwitz to Ravensbrück. In March 1945, she went to Bergen-Belsen along with a large number of prisoners from Ravensbrück.:219 Grese was captured by the British on 17 April 1945, together with other SS personnel who did not flee.
Grese inspired virulent hatred in prisoner Olga Lengyel, who wrote in her memoir Five Chimneys 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. Grese had a penchant for selecting not only the sick and the weak but any woman who had retained vestiges of her former beauty. Lengyel said that Grese had several lovers among the SS in the camp, including Josef Mengele. After Grese forced the inmate surgeon at the infirmary into performing her illegal abortion, she disclosed that she planned a career in film acting 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 directed toward the ragged women prisoners.
Grese was among the 45 people accused of war crimes at the Belsen Trial. She was tried over the first period of the trials (17 September – 17 November 1945) and was represented by Maj. 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 centered on her ill-treatment and murder of those imprisoned at the camps. 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 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 physical and psychological methods to torture camp inmates and enjoyed shooting prisoners in cold blood. They also claimed that she beat some women to death and flogged others using a plaited whip.
Under direct examination, Irma Grese testified 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 Labor 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.
During the trial the press labelled Grese as "the Beautiful Beast" alongside Kramer ("the Beast of Belsen"). Although the charges against some of the other female wardens (a total of 16 were charged) were as serious as those against Grese, she was one of only three female guards to be sentenced to death.:219 After a 53-day trial, Grese was sentenced to death by hanging.
Grese and two other women, Johanna Bormann (mistakenly spelled Juana by the British) and Elisabeth Volkenrath, were convicted along with eight men for crimes committed at Auschwitz and Belsen and sentenced to death. As the verdicts were read, Grese was the only prisoner to remain defiant. Her subsequent appeal was rejected.
On Thursday, 13 December 1945, in Hamelin Jail, Grese was led to the gallows. The women were executed singly by long-drop hanging and then the men in pairs. Regimental Sgt. Maj. O'Neill assisted the 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 Jo Davidsmeyer based on the life and execution of Irma Grese and Holocaust survivor Olga Lengyel.
Irma Grese has been portrayed as a minor character in two films: Pierrepoint, which portrays her execution following the Belsen war crimes trial; and Out of the Ashes. 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'.
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