Mandel, Maria (1912–c. 1947)
Mandel, Maria (1912–c. 1947)
Austrian SS Head Supervisor of the women's concentration camp at Auschwitz II (Birkenau) and convicted war criminal . Born in Münzkirchen, Upper Austria, on January 10, 1912; sentenced to death on December 22, 1947; did not attend high school.
Nazi Germany's genocidal war against those it defined as biologically "unworthy" (lebensunwertes Leben) was carried out by individuals, one of whom was Maria Mandel. Born in 1912 in Münzkirchen, Upper Austria, Mandel became an active member of the Austrian Nazi movement while it was banned as a subversive political party and, after the annexation of Austria by the German Reich in March 1938, became a member of the SS, the elite branch of the Nazi Party. A beautiful blonde, she quickly found suitable employment as a concentration camp guard.
Konzentrationslager [KZ] Lichtenburg, a concentration camp near Prettin in Kreis Torgau, Germany, had been established in 1933, during the first months of the Nazi dictatorship. Many of Lichtenburg's male inmates were tortured and beaten to death by the camp's SS guards. In August 1937, the male inmates were transferred to Buchenwald concentration camp, and in March 1938 Lichtenburg reopened as a women's camp. The savagery of the SS guards continued: many women were beaten to death, and two who had failed in an escape attempt were torn to pieces by dogs by order of the camp's commandant. On October 15, 1938, Maria Mandel began working as a supervisor at Lichtenburg. Seven months later, on May 15, 1939, the camp was disbanded and its inmates transferred to the newly established Ravensbrück camp. Mandel began working as a supervisor at Ravensbrück on the first day it opened.
Located near Berlin north of Fürstenburg an der Havel, Ravensbrück was exclusively a facility for women. Although it initially held only the inmates who had been transferred from KZ Lichtenburg, by the end of 1939 this number had grown significantly, with approximately 2,000 women incarcerated. As Nazi conquests added more land to the German Reich and as the domestic regime of terror intensified, the number of prisoners in Ravensbrück grew dramatically; by the end of 1942, there were 10,800 women behind the barbed wire fence.
From virtually the start of her tenure at Ravensbrück, Maria Mandel gained a reputation as one of the cruelest of the female SS guards there. Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler visited Ravensbrück in 1940, at which time he authorized the details of punishment by flogging; Mandel, working in Ravensbrück's infamous Bunker, was thereafter involved in meting out this brutal punishment. Flogging could be "as few as" 10 to 25 lashes, but more serious cases merited 50 or 75 lashes, which were administered in installments of 25 because the full amount almost certainly would have brought about death. Mandel derived pleasure from flogging countless women, inflicting pain that seemed unbearable after the first four or five lashes. Many of her prisoners had to be ruthlessly revived in order for their punishment to continue, and after the flogging the beaten parts of their bodies became blue as ink. The swollen areas where Mandel's whip had cut deeply into flesh took many months to heal, and many of those women who survived Ravensbrück were scarred and crippled for the remainder of their lives.
On October 8, 1942, Mandel was appointed female Oberaufseherin (Head Supervisor) of the Auschwitz II (Birkenau) concentration camp near Cracow, Generalgouvernement (Germanoccupied Poland). Auschwitz I was the main camp and Auschwitz III was a series of satellite camps at industrial enterprises. Mandel replaced Johanna Langefeld (1900–1974), a veteran concentration camp guard who had begun her SS career in the first years of the Third Reich in the Moringen camp, the first created exclusively for women prisoners. From 1941 to April 1942, Langefeld had served as Head Supervisor in Ravensbrück, and from April until October 1942 was SS Oberaufseherin, and unofficial Camp Commander, of the women's camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Following a bitter quarrel with male Camp Commandant Rudolf Höss, Langefeld was removed from her post and imprisoned. Mandel, who had by now strongly impressed Höss and several other of her male SS superiors with her intelligence, "merit" and "conviction to the cause," was summoned to Auschwitz from Ravensbrück to take Langefeld's place.
Energetic and enthusiastic, Maria Mandel quickly asserted full executive authority in Auschwitz, spreading new terror among the prisoners of the women's camp. Before long, Mandel became known to the prisoners as "the beast." Not only did she participate in the infliction of savage punishments and torture on prisoners, she also became feared for her presence at the "selections," where she decided which prisoners would continue to live and which would die within the hour. Of the women she "selected," those who were not taken to the gas chambers had to submit to painful, crippling and often fatal medical experiments carried out by such SS "scientific investigators" as the infamous Dr. Josef Mengele. Some of the women chosen by Mandel became guinea pigs in experiments carried out on behalf of the I.G. Farben chemical trust. In one letter, a representative of I.G. Farben acknowledged that they had "received the order of 150 women. Despite their emaciated condition, they were found satisfactory. We shall keep you posted on developments concerning the experiment." In due course, another letter reported, "The tests were made. All subjects died. We shall contact you shortly on the subject of a new load."
As well as her official title of Oberaufseherin, Mandel held the unofficial post of Camp Commander in the Auschwitz-Birkenau women's camp until August 25, 1943, when SS Second Lieutenant Franz Hössler took over. While this constituted a slight loss of status for Mandel, her actual power of life or death over her prisoners remained virtually the same. In November 1943, Hössler was named Protective Custody Commander for the women's camp, and Mandel was made responsible for the deployment of female prisoners' labor within the entire facility. Throughout these redefinitions of bureaucratic authority, Mandel remained a zealous functionary of the death camp Auschwitz II.
At the same time, however, she exhibited a passionate love of music. In April 1943, Mandel decreed the creation of an orchestra for the enhancement of life in Auschwitz II. Instead of cleaning latrines or hauling rocks, a "privileged" group of women were made to perform as members of an ad hoc orchestra consisting of a few violins, a cello, accordions, guitars, and mandolins. The orchestra was conducted in an authoritarian fashion by the famous Viennese violinist Alma Rosé and included such professional musicians as Fania Fenelon . They played stirring marches while women newly arrived at the camp, dazed and exhausted from days of travel without food, water or sanitary facilities, were selected to live or die by Maria Mandel and other officials. On Sundays, the women musicians had to perform privately for an SS audience who looked forward to hearing operetta tunes, popular hits, and opera arias to help them relax after their arduous week's work. Mandel, who was proud of "her" orchestra, was one of the SS officials in mourning at Alma Rosé's bizarre funeral in April 1944.
In November 1944, with liberation of Auschwitz by the rapidly advancing Soviet Army only weeks in the future, Maria Mandel was replaced by Elisabeth Volkenrath as superintendent of the Auschwitz II women's camp. The various Auschwitz camps were liberated by Soviet forces in mid-January 1945, but most of the prisoners had already died. Of the many thousands who had been evacuated from the camp on forced marches by the Germans just prior to the liberation, many more perished. Mandel was captured in the spring of 1945. Along with 35 men and 4 other women who had also been members of the Auschwitz death factories during World War II, she was placed on trial on charges amounting to the mass murder of more than 3,500,000 women, men, and children during World War II. The trial, held under the authority of the Polish Supreme National Tribunal, began at Cracow in November 1947. The massive and meticulously assembled documentation of their crimes filled 67 volumes of 200 pages each and testified to a systematic policy of genocide and extermination of Jews, Slavs, and others deemed politically, ideologically or morally unacceptable to the SS and the rulers of the Third Reich.
In one chilling session of the Cracow trial, Janina Kowalczyk , a prominent Polish pediatrician, testified that scores of women had been sterilized by X-rays and their ovaries removed for further examination in Berlin before they were sent to their deaths in the gas chambers and crematoria of Auschwitz. In order to save the cost of Zyklon-B poison gas crystals, the Auschwitz staff sometimes decided not to gas infants during the winter but simply left them in unheated rooms, where they soon froze to death. During the winter months, Kowalczyk testified, thousands of women had been forced to stand at attention in their bare feet in snow and freezing rain until they collapsed from exhaustion and hypothermia. They were then ordered to run to their barracks; those who were unable to do so were then selected by Maria Mandel and others for Sonderbehandlung (special treatment) in the gas chambers. Accused in court by Kowalczyk of having ordered these and similar "treatments" of prisoners, Mandel, her face pale and her body shaking with fear, responded in a voice that was barely audible, "I have always cared for the prisoners' well-being."
After Kowalczyk's chilling testimony, another witness told the tribunal of orgies at Mandel's richly furnished villa near Auschwitz. These parties were particularly uninhibited after "good" executions, when Mandel had whipped the selected women before sending them to their deaths. Maria Mandel sat with bent head after the conclusion of this testimony and kept silent. On December 22, 1947, the Cracow tribunal sentenced 23 of the Auschwitz staff members to death, including Maria Mandel. By this time, less than three years after the liberation of the infamous camps, most of the world had lost interest, and the trial received scant mention in the Western media. (Incredibly, only one Western reporter, France's Michel Gordey, was present at the trial.) It would take several more decades and another generation to begin to address the events in which Maria Mandel took such an enthusiastic part, the events of the Holocaust, a word that in 1947 did not even exist in the way it is now used.
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Knapp, Gabriele. Das Frauenorchester in Auschwitz: Musikalische Zwangsarbeit und ihre Bewältigung. Hamburg: von Bockel Verlag, 1996.
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Philipp, Grit, and Monika Schnell. Kalendarium der Ereignisse im Frauen-Konzentrationslager Ravensbrück 1939–1945. Berlin: Metropol Verlag, 1999.
Segev, Tom. Soldiers of Evil: The Commandants of the Nazi Concentration Camps. Translated by Haim Watzman. NY: McGraw-Hill, 1987.
Shelley, Lore, ed. Auschwitz—The Nazi Civilization: Twenty-Three Women's Accounts. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1992.
Strzelecka, Irena. "Women," in Yisrael Gutman and Michael Berenbaum, eds. Anatomy of the Auschwitz Death Camp. Bloomington and Washington, DC: Indiana University Press/U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, 1994, pp. 393–411.
"23 Germans Sentenced to Death," in The Times [London]. December 23, 1947, p. 4.
"War Crimes—Subject: Women," in Time. Vol. 50, no. 21. November 24, 1947, p. 33.
John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia
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