She kept the secret from her Jewish husband for forty-two years, living unobtrusively in San Francisco. But now that he's gone, an 84-year-old German woman, Elfriede Lina Winkel, has admitted that she served as a guard at the Ravensbrück concentration camp during World War II. Two years after her husband, Fred Rinkel, died, she has been deported by the United States and re-settled with her sister in the small town of Viersen, not far from Düsseldorf in western Germany.
Rinkel recently told US investigators that she'd worked as a dog handler at the Ravensbrück camp, north of Berlin, from June 1944 until the camp was abandoned by the Nazis in April 1945. She worked with an SS-trained attack dog, according to the US Justice Department, but was not a member of the Nazi party.
German authorities said she would probably not go to jail. "We will not be pursuing her case," Kurt Schrimm, chief of the German bureau that investigates former Nazis, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "For us there is one crime that is important, and that is murder. There is no evidence that she committed murder."
Still, Rinkel never mentioned her job to her husband Fred, a German Jew she married in 1962, although he'd lost his parents in the Holocaust. "You don't talk about things like that, never," she told the San Francisco Chronicle. "That is the past."
Ravensbrück was a slave labor prison, primarily for women. More than 130,000 women and 20,000 men entered it between 1939 and 1945. "Tens of thousands were murdered or died of hunger, disease or from medical experiments," according to the camp's information site; exact death-toll estimates range from 50,000 to 90,000. The camp had hundreds of female guards and was a major training site for female concentration camp staff. Rinkel told US officials that she'd worked in a factory before taking the job as a dog handler and simply wanted a better wage. The job of most dog handlers was to patrol the camp perimeter with a German shepherd and make sure the prisoners did their work.
"Concentration camp guards such as Elfriede Rinkel played a vital role in the Nazi regime's horrific mistreatment of innocent victims," said Alice Fisher, a US Justice Department lawyer, in an official statement. "This case reflects the government's unwavering commitment to remove Nazi persecutors from this country."
Rinkel neglected to mention her SS job on a US visa application in 1959, and the Justice Department caught up with her in late 2004, nine months after her husband died. She was living alone in their apartment on lower Nob Hill, a modest neighborhood in San Francisco on the edge of the low-rent Tenderloin. She was 22 when she took the job, which lasted 10 months before the Red Army invaded. Now, 62 years later, she's made history as the only woman to be caught and deported by the US Office of Special Investigations, which since 1979 has deported 101 other Nazi persecutors who covered up their pasts to enter country. Rinkel is still a German citizen, and the Justice Department agreed not to release information about her case until after she moved back to Germany. She left California on August 31 without telling relatives why.
A life of atonement?
"She was trying to atone for actions," Rinkel's lawyer in San Francisco, Alison Dixon, told The Los Angeles Times. "She married a Jewish man and she gave to Jewish charities."
She's described as a modest, sweet, private woman who was hoping to live down her past.
She buried her husband in a Jewish cemetery south of San Francisco in a double grave, with a Star of David above both their names. Her plans to be buried with him have been abandoned, and she just hopes to resume a quiet life with her sister.
There's still a slim chance of legal trouble in Germany, though. Kurt Schrimm said the Central Office has passed on her file to German public prosecutors who could open a legal case, but observers think Rinkel was too low in the Nazi hierarchy for aggressive prosecution.
"Clearly it's a complex story," said Mark Weitzman, Director of the Task Force Against Hate at the Simon Wiesenthal Center in New York. "Essentially it's our position that anyone involved in Nazi atrocities should be brought to justice. Could there be extenuating circumstances that may mitigate punishment? I think that can be considered," he said. "But it doesn't change what she did."
Efraim Zuroff, the Simon Wiesenthal Center's chief Nazi hunter and head of its Israel office, said Rinkel's case had nothing to do with his Project Final Chance, a recent international effort to round up Nazi criminals before they die off. The US Office of Special Investigations has been busy along similar lines, matching concentration-camp guard rosters with US immigration documents.
He said German authorities would be very busy if a former low-ranking guard like Rinkel were prosecuted. "Germany is full of people like her," he said.
With material from the AP and Los Angeles Times