The Beast of Auschwitz
"Music was ordered for all occasions"
In the last months of 1947, a trial took place at Krakow, Poland, of former Nazis who had been charged with crimes committed during the Holocaust. One of the larger trials of former SS camp staff, some forty prisoners, men and women, were sat in the dock. Among these was the former head female warden, Maria Mandel, who was known to the inmates as “The Beast.”
So brutal and inhumane was Mandel, that she was believed responsible for the torture and murder of thousands of prisoners at the Ravensbrück and Auschwitz-Birkenau camps. Arrested after that war, Mandel was tried for her crimes and sentenced to death. She was one of two women among twenty-one former camp staff to be hanged for war crimes.
SS Camp Guard
Born on January 10, 1912 in Münzkirchen, Upper Austria, which was then part of Austria-Hungary, Mandel was the daughter of a master shoemaker. She attended elementary school and after a short stay in Switzerland, she returned to Austria and began work as a private employee in the postal service. After the Anschluss by Nazi Germany in September 1938, Mandl moved to Munich.
It was there, the heart of the Germany Nazi Party, that she joined the SS as an auxiliary. As women were forbidden from receiving official SS membership, she worked instead for the SS-Gefolge “SS-Retinue”, a Schutzstaffel (SS) support and service organisation for women volunteers. She was posted as part of the camp staff at one of the earliest Nazi camps.
Lichtenburg was located in the Province of Saxony, and Maria Mandel worked as an SS-Aufseherin under Günther Tamaschke, the director of the women’s camp. There she worked with fifty other SS women, and tasked with overseeing the female inmates. Abuses were commonplace, and Mandel long with others beat the women for any perceived infraction of the rules under orders from chief female wardress Johanna Langefeld.
During his time as director of the women’s camp, Tamaschke was also involved in establishing a women’s camp at a site near Fürstenberg, a town located 75 kilometres north of Berlin, where she initially worked there as a commando leader. This camp became known as Ravensbrück. In May 1939, the camp at Ravensbrück was opened, and Tamaschke, Mandel and other women guards were for training.
Johanna Langefeld was once again head of the female guards. While at Ravensbrück Langefeld clashed with the camp commandant Max Koegel, over their different views on keeping discipline among the women prisoners. Koegel preferred the use of beatings to maintain order, however Langefeld wanted to instil strict protocols as a means of keeping the women inline.
Eventually Langefeld was sent to oversee the building of a new women’s camp at Auschwitz in March 1942, and she was replaced by Mandel as head of the Ravensbrück SS-Aufseherinen. She soon impressed her superiors, and after having joined the Nazi Party in April 1941, she was appointed as SS-Oberaufseherin in April 1942.
SS-Chief Wardress at Auschwitz
In this role, Maria Mandel oversaw the daily roll call of prisoners, organized the assignments for the other SS-Aufseherin under her command, and ordered beatings and floggings to any inmate who disobeyed the rules, while also administered these punishments herself. She was involved in selecting inmates for cruel medical experimentation.
On October 7, 1942, Mandel was transferred to Auschwitz II-Birkenau, where she once again succeeded Johanna Langefeld as SS-Lagerführerin of the women camp under SS-Kommandant Rudolf Höss. Langefeld was reassigned to Ravensbrück once more, where she was later dismissed for excessive sympathy towards the prisoners.
Meanwhile Mandel, in her capacity as leader of the women’s camp at Birkenau, ensured that the women under her command showed excessive cruelty towards the prisoners under their charge. While she could never outrank any of the SS men in the camp, Mandel controlled the others SS women, and reported directly to the camp commandant.
She was given absolute authority over the female camps within the Auschwitz camp complex, uncluding sub-camps such as those at Hindenburg, Lichtewerden and Raisko. From August 1943 to January 1944, she remained in charge of the women’s camp with the rank of senior supervisor as a labor service leader, working together with the protective custody camp leader Franz Hössler.
She promoted the infamous Irma Grese to head of the Hungarian women’s camp at Birkenau. It was reported that Mandel often stood at the gate into Birkenau waiting for an inmate to turn and look at her. Anyone who had the misfortune of doing so were taken out of the lines and presumably shot.
Throughout the women’s camp she became known as “the beast”, a nickname given her by the inmates, because of her cruelty towards prisoners. She often participated in selections at the ramp when incoming transports arrived, signed lists, and sent an estimated half a million women and children to their deaths in the gas chambers at Auschwitz I and II.
At her later trial, an account of Mandel’s murderous deeds was given by Jewish Prisoner Sala Feder, who testified on December 1, 1947 to the District Court in Kraków. “In August 1943 I was deported together with my family (27 people, including nine children aged from one month to eleven years) from the ghetto in Środula near Sosnowiec to Auschwitz, in a transport numbering some 5,000 people.”
“At the ramp in Birknau, the transport was awaited by the defendant Mandl accompanied by SS woman Margot Dreschel, and as soon as the transport had arrived, Mandl carried out a selection, sending approximately 90 percent of the transport to the cars which transported these people to the nearby crematorium.”
“[…] During these selections, defendant Mandl tortured the prisoners in a cruel way, beating the women, the men and the children with a whip and kicking them blindly. She would tear the children from the arms of their mothers, and when the mothers tried to come near the children and defend them, Mandl would beat the mothers horribly and kick them. I saw – right next to me – a young, 20-year-old mother, who tried to go near her two-year-old child thrown onto the car, and Mandl kicked and beat her so cruelly that she didn’t get up any more.”
“[…] I held my four-year-old child by the hand. The defendant Mandl approached me, tore my child away from me and threw the child onto a still empty car so that the child got wounded in the face and began to cry and call me, but I was put aside to the group that wasn’t loaded onto the cars. When I tried to reach the child, crying on the car, Mandl began to beat me so cruelly that I fell. Mandl continued to kick me although I was lying on the ground, and she knocked out almost all of my teeth with her shoe.”
In keeping with the Nazis attempts to deceive those newly arriving into thinking Auschwitz was a transit camp, Mandel ordered the creation of a Women’s Orchestra of Auschwitz. This group of prisoner musicians would accompany roll calls, executions, selections and transports, and were forced to play music for the guards amusement.
An Auschwitz prisoner, Lucia Adelsberger, later described the orchestra after the war. “The women who came back from work exhausted had to march in time to the music. Music was ordered for all occasions, for the addresses of the Camp Commanders, for the transports and whenever anybody was hanged.” Mandell herself had a fondness for an aria from Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, which the prisoner Fania Fénelon sometimes had to sing and play to her in the middle of the night.
For the crimes she committed at Auschwitz, Maria Mandel was awarded the War Merit Cross 2nd Class. In November 1944 she was transferred to the Mühldorf subcamp, a subcamp complex of the Dachau concentration camp. She was succeeded as head overseer in Auschwitz was Elisabeth Volkenrath, who would later go on to commit crimes at the notorious Belsen concentration camp with Irma Grese.
The First Auschwitz Trial
Towards the end of the war in January 1945, Mandel fled from the Mühldorf camp shortly before it was liberated and went to the Alps, hoping to escape arrest by the Allies. She fled to Münzkirchen, the place of her birth, however her father refused to let her stay in her parents’ house, and so she sought refuge with her sister in nearby Luck located in the municipality of Schardenberg.
Arrested by American soldiers on August 10, 1945, Mandel was questioned over her role as an SS overseer in the camps. She was described by her interrogators as intelligent and cruel at the same time. She was extradited to the People’s Republic of Poland in September 1946, and there placed on trial with other former members of the Auschwitz camp staff.
The trial began on November 24, 1947, with forty defendants arraigned before the court, including one of the camp commandants, Arthur Liebehenschel, the chief of the camp Gestapo, Maximilian Grabner, and two of the former SS doctors, Hans Muench and Johannes Kremer. Mandel was charged, along with four other female SS-Aufseherinen, of committing crimes against humanity against the camp inmates.
The court heard harrowing testimony from former prisoners, who had suffered beatings, starvation, torture and other abuses, including medical experimentation. Jewish Prisoner Sala Feder testified before the court, describing Mandel’s behaviour in the camp, and gave specific details of the crimes committed by SS guard Margot Dreschel, in the company of Mandel at the infamous Block 25 at Auschwitz.
“In my block [Block 15], 700 women were chosen out of 1,000; in the whole camp (that is, in lager A, where we stayed in the so-called quarantine), Mandl selected several thousand women, and all of them – naked – were crammed into one block no. 25, where they stayed for seven days and nights without food or water. On the night of 27 September, they were transported to the crematorium.”
“For the period of these seven days, we heard horrible screams and groans issuing from that block, and when the women were taken to the crematorium, the block elder, a Slovakian woman named Cyla (who had already been tried in Czechoslovakia), told us that after those seven days there were more corpses than living people in that block, and that almost all of them had bitten fingers and breasts and plucked out eyes.”
“During these seven days, if any prisoner wanted to carry water or some food to that block, she was arrested there and perished along with the rest. The above-described selection was carried by the defendant Mandl in person, with the help from kapos: Stenia, Leo and Maria, all of them cruel and used to torturing the prisoners in a horrible manner.”
After the damning evidence of her crimes, Maria Mandel, the Beast of Auschwitz, was sentenced to death, along with twenty-three other defendants. Two of those death sentences were later commuted to life imprisonment. Mandel, along with former commandant Liebehenschel, Grabner, and female SS guard Therese Brandl were sentenced to be hanged.
Execution at Montelupich
In the justification for the verdict, her cruelty was emphasized once again: “The defendant even mistreated the women prisoners who had already been selected for death by her.” Imprisoned at Montelupich prison, Mandel and Brandl were placed into a cell next to Stanisława Rachwałowa, a Polish woman who had been mistreated as a prisoner by Maria Mandl at Auschwitz.
Rachwałowa was a political prisoner and spoke enough German to be able to interpret the former SS women’s conversations for the guards. She later described the last meeting with the two German mass murderers who were sentenced to death. They both asked for forgiveness a few days before the execution.
On January 24, 1948, those sentenced to death at the Auschwitz trial were hanged at Montelupich, a prison used by the Gestapo during the war. Of the twenty-one executed, Maria Mandel was the first to walk the gallows. Her last words were reportedly, “Long live Poland,” before she was hanged. Her body was made available to medical students.