Most of us have the same image in mind when we think about The Third Reich: men in heavy black boots wearing scowls on their very serious faces. The truth is that many women worked in the concentration camps as well, some very willingly.
Irma Ida Grese is one such guard and torturer, who was especially cruel albeit pretty. She was so sadistic that she was one of only 16 women guards to be put to death for her war crimes after the WWII. At 22, she was also the youngest woman to die under British law in the 20th Century.
Grese was an SS guard at Ravensbruck and Auschwitz and she was a warden in the women’s section of Bergen-Belsen. She began by volunteering her services at a concentration camp and less than two years later she was promoted to the second-highest rank open to female wardens. Her main job was to select women for the gas chambers.
A Jewish female prisoner named Olga Lengyel had such profound hatred for Grese that she often references her in her dark memoir about her time in the concentration camp. In Five Chimneys: A Woman Survivor’s True Story of Auschwitz, Lengyel recounts how Grese often picked out the weakest and most vulnerable to kill. If that wasn’t enough, she was most cruel and violent towards any female prisoners who’d still retained their beauty despite their cruel circumstances.
Beatings and random shootings are what survivors remember of Grese. She also had vicious dogs that she kept half starved so as to set them upon the women she picked as her victims. Like the men, she wore heavy black boots, but usually tight-fitting skirts. She aways had a pistol and whip, which she used unsparingly on the women.
Strange details about Grese’s presence are remembered in Lengyel’s amazing book as well, for instance her tendency to wear sexy clothes, lots of lipstick and far too much perfume while doing her rounds in the camps where the women wore rags and had their heads shaved. Lengyel also remembers Grese as having been quite promiscuous. She was even known as a mistress to the most notorious torturer, Joseph Mengele.
Before being hanged for her war crimes, Grese was given a chance to defend herself. The press hounded her and began calling her “Beautiful Beast,” which stuck as a nickname. This is the most famous of her quotes under examination by the court:
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.
Despite the thrill most remembered her taking in her sadistic acts, in court she made it seem as if she’d been placed as a warden against her will. She claimed she’d wanted to be a nurse. She didn’t fool anyone though. Her appeal was rejected and she was hanged on December 13, 1945.