The British Hangman Who Executed Belsen's Most Sadistic Nazis

Albert Pierrepoint, whose task included executing the 'Beast of Belsen' and the 'blonde who beat inmates to death,' wrote after the Holocaust that the death penalty solves nothing

Albert Pierrepoint
Albert Pierrepoint. He was given an unusual mission.Credit: Ninian Reid
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

In December 1945, Albert Pierrepoint was given an unusual mission: to execute 13 Nazi war criminals in one day. Along with the commander of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, he also executed the “young 21-year-old blonde who used to carry a riding crop to beat inmates to death,” as well as the doctor who decided who would go to the gas chambers and who be put to work. Parts of his memoir is now available in Hebrew.

Elisabeth Volkenrath during her trial in 1945. She was described by survivors as 'the most hated woman in the camp.'

After hanging the women he took a tea break before adjusting the gallows for the next in line, the men

The mission Pierrepoint was sent on in December 1945 was without precedent. “I was expected to execute 13 people in one day,” he writes in his memoir, and adds that it was a revolutionary number in the history of British criminology, which usually required meticulous preparation. His superiors gave him 32 hours to complete his preparations, but when he arrived at his destination, the jailhouse in the German city of Hamelin, he saw that they were already in progress. The Engineering Corps had finished constructing a cell in which the executions would take place, and 13 graves had been dug in the frozen earth.

Hamelin earned its fame thanks to a medieval folk tale about the pied piper and the rats he cleared from the city. After World War II it became the place where Nazi war criminals, mainly from Bergen-Belsen, were incarcerated. Among them were 13 condemned prisoners who had just been convicted by a British war tribunal. The most senior of them was Josef Kramer, Bergen-Belsen’s former commander.

A 1944 photo of SS officers socializing outside of Auschwitz, Poland. From left: Dr. Josef Mengele, Rudolf Hoess, Josef Kramer, and unidentified.Credit: AP/U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum

Seventy-six years have passed since Kramer, called the “Beast of Belsen,” was hanged. Parts of the memoir of his hangman, Pierrepoint, now appear for the first time in a book written by journalist and Holocaust researcher Itamar Levin. Levin collected dozens of testimonies of camp survivors assembled by British military jurists right after the Holocaust as part of their preparations for putting Nazi war criminals on trial. Along with these, Levin located, translated and edited the testimonies of British soldiers who liberated the camp, of the Nazi criminals themselves, and of the hangman who executed them.

A mugshot of Bergen-Belsen guard Irma Grese awaiting trial, in August 1945. She was hanged by Albert Pierrepoint.

“I went to check the gallows,” writes Pierrepoint in describing the preparations. Walking along the prison corridor, he looked at the 13 prisoners he was going to execute the following day. He describes in the book how the 13 faces of Belsen were pushed against the bars, "looking at me," and adds that although he knew their crimes had been horrific he couldn’t help feeling sorry for them. When he told this to several British soldiers, they said in response: ‘If you’d been there under this bunch, you wouldn’t feel sorry for them.’

After lunch, he supervised the weighing and measuring of the condemned to make the calculations he required for the executions. He stared at the original ‘Beast of Belsen’ for a long time during his first meeting with Kramer. “He surely was an animal-like human,” he would later describe him.

Kramer was 39 at the time. When asked to get on the scale, he hesitated at first. No one uttered a word. Everyone waited. Pierrepoint was reminded of the testimony of a camp survivor who told him that one day before the arrival of the British liberators, Kramer and two of his friends “started shooting from their Schmeisser rifles, just for fun, out of the kitchen window, at a group of prisoners, killing 22 of them.”

The next condemned person to be weighed was Dr. Fritz Klein. Pierrepoint took special interest in him. “In my long career, this was the first time I had met a doctor who had been convicted of murder,” he wrote in his memoir. Klein, who like Kramer had also served in the death camp at Auschwitz, examined naked female inmates in order to decide who would go to the gas chamber and who would be assigned to a work detail. “Thin and dry in his manner, walking quickly and effectively and obeying procedures,” summarized Pierrepoint in his assessment.

Johanna Borman, who used to set her German shepherd dogs on prisoners.

Another prisoner who interested Pierrepoint was Irma Grese, a sadistic camp guard who was Kramer’s lover. She was called by some “the bitch from Auschwitz.” The 21-year-old Grese “emerged from her cell laughing. She looked pleasant,” he described. He smiled back, without explaining why. “This 21-year-old blonde, who used to carry a riding crop with which she beat inmates to death, was responsible, according to the testimony of one of her fellow guards at the camp, for at least 30 deaths a day,” he wrote.

After her was Elisabeth Volkenrath, who made selections for the gas chambers and was described by survivors as “the most hated woman in the camp.” Then came Johanna Borman, who used to set her German shepherd dogs on prisoners. “She trembled when we weighed her, saying in German that she was emotional,” he described.

The next day, he went to work. After hanging the three women he took a tea break before adjusting the gallows for the next in line, the men. The work was done, and in the evening he went to a party. Three days later, Haaretz ran a front-page headline describing the hanging of the Belsen criminals. Fifty thousand inmates, mostly Jewish, including Anne Frank and her sister Margot, were murdered or died in Bergen-Belsen during the Holocaust.

Kramer, center, in leg irons, under arrest during the liberation of Bergen-Belsen, 1945.Credit: Malindine E G (Capt) No 5 Army Film and Photographic Unit, British Army

Pierrepoint was Britain’s official hangman between 1941 and 1956. He executed 200 Nazi war criminals, half of the total number of people he hanged during his career. He wrote in his memoir that the death penalty did not deter a single person and only served as a means of revenge. “I don’t believe that the hundreds of executions I was responsible for prevented even a single murder,” he explained. “The death penalty solves nothing.”

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