Survivor’s Letter to Irma Grese

In 1945, Batsheva Dagan, formerly known as Isabella Rubinstein, was resentful. As a survivor of the Holocaust, she was angry at the person who took her dignity, who broke her spirit, and who tried to take her life. This person was Irma Grese. Batsheva Dagan, a survivor of Auschwitz-Birkenau, wrote a letter to Irma Grese in 1945 during the trials. She never mailed this to Grese, rather she sent it to The Palestine Post. This primary document is particularly fascinating and unique to analyze because it shows pure human emotion of the survivors and has unusual themes.

The source, “Letter to Irma Grese”, was originally published by The Palestine Post in full, on October 29, 1945. The Palestine Post was an English-language daily established in Jerusalem in 1932 as part of a Zionist-Jewish initiative. It was established by a Ukrainian-born American immigrant to Palestine, Gershon Agron. Although it faced challenges in its early days, by the early 21st century, its daily circulation amounted to roughly 11,000 in Israel and 26,000 in the United States. The newspaper intended to reach a wide audience, which included a large number of English readers in Palestine and nearby regions. Among these were British Mandate officials, local Jews and Arabs, Jewish readers abroad, tourists, and Christian pilgrims. The newspaper was actually considered an incredibly effective means of exercising Zionist influence on British authorities. Tragically, the Post was bombed on February 1948 in Jerusalem by Arab terrorists, only a few months before David Ben-Gurion declared Israel an independent state. Two years after the bombing a young employee addressed the editor with the question of why the name of the publication was still The Palestine Post. Meir “Mike” Ronnen stated, “there’s no more Palestine”, and suggested a new name. Thus, in 1950, The Palestine Post became the The Jerusalem Post.

The publicated letter was addressed to Irma Grese. Irma Grese was an SS guard at Ravensbrück, then at Auschwitz-Birkenau, and later at Bergen-Belsen. She was born on October 7, 1923, in the small village of Wrechen in northern Germany. As a young girl, she developed a great interest in the Nazi Party and Hitler Youth. Her father was a member of the Nazi Party and her mother committed suicide when Grese was only twelve years old. This likely impacted Grese’s life trajectory and prompted her to become an assistant nurses aid at an SS hospital, under the leadership of Karl Gebhardt at Hohenlychen. However, Grese proved to be an unsuccessful nurse and was transferred to be a guard at the camp two years later. It was not long before Irma Grese had acquired the nickname of the “Beautiful Beast”. She was a strikingly beautiful young woman, who also happened to be the most sadistic of the guards and went out of her way to inflict torture on prisoners. At the sound of Grese approaching with her whip, and at the smell of her strong perfume that all of the prisoners knew her by, everyone would tremble in fear. She is rumored to have killed approximately 30 people per day for her own pleasure. Additionally, Grese was known to be a sexual deviant, taking male and female lovers within the camp, which included prisoners and other guards. Her torture and brutality was circulated during the Bergen-Belsen trials when she was arrested for her actions and survivors began to share their stories.

The document written by Batsheva Dagan was striking, due to the raw and blatant anger and pain that was expressed throughout the letter. The title, “Fire and Brimstone”, referenced the gas chambers that killed millions of innocent people. In the first paragraph of the source, Dagan writes, “You will no doubt plead that you were under orders, bound to obey the SS formation of which you were a member. But there can be no excuse for the new tortures and forms of persecution which you evolved, no justification for the way in which you gave rein to your beastly sadism”. By just looking at this excerpt, it is clear that every word in this letter was chosen conscientiously. Dagan expects that Grese will not feel remorse for her actions and will try to defend herself in the trials, so she starts by discrediting Grese’s defense that she was simply following orders. The orders that Grese was required to obey may have been horrifying, but she inflicted far more pain than she was told to. Dagan also says, “new tortures and forms of persecution which you evolved”, which brings attention to the fact that Grese was responsible for forms of torture that no one else had even implemented. Survivors testified during the trial about her beatings and arbitrary shooting of prisoners, the savaging of prisoners by her trained and half starved dogs, of her selecting prisoners for the gas chambers. Not only were the acts themselves horrific, but her sexual pleasure at these acts of cruelty were arguably more terrifying. Dagan ends this excerpt with “your beastly sadism”. This is important because she is referring to Grese as a beast, dehumanizing her the same way that prisoners were dehumanized in the camps. Sadism is defined by the derivation of sexual gratification from the infliction of physical pain or humiliation on another person. This reveals that Grese was different than many of the other guards and much more dangerous. She did not inflict pain on the prisoners simply due to anger or feelings of superiority, or the belief that Jewish people, gypsies, homosexuals, and prisoners of war did not count as human. She inflicted pain because it made her feel good, and it was a pleasure that she could not get from many other things. Thus, she was the biggest threat to the prisoners, and no one was safe.

Batsheva Dagan used this publication to share her message with the public. She spoke not only for herself, but for all victims of the Holocaust. She wanted justice for everyone that was hurt by National Socialism, as she was one of the many. Dagan was born in 1925 in Lodz, Poland and was sent to the Warsaw ghetto when the war broke out. Despite being sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau and then sent on a death march from Ravensbrück and Malchow, she survived and was liberated by the Allies on May 2, 1945. Her story was unique in that, by some miracle, she met her cousin at the camp who was a nurse. Her cousin nursed her back to health when she contracted typhus and then smuggled her out to the Canada “commando”. It was there that she witnessed the liquidation of the Lodz Ghetto. Today, she is a published author and poet. The poems that she read in Auschwitz inspired her to write her own upon her liberation. One of her most famous works is a children’s book titled “If the Stars Could Only Speak”. The letter that she wrote to The Jerusalem Post was addressed to Irma Grese, but it was not meant to be seen by only her eyes. This is clear by the fact that the source was published in a widely-read newspaper. Not only was this publication meant to reach Grese, it was also intended to be seen by a larger audience in order to share more information about the horrors of the Holocaust to the public. Thus, there were multiple primary motivations in the publication of the source. Explicitly, the letter was written for Irma Grese to understand the catastrophic impact that she had on her victims. It was also a way for Dagan to, finally, freely express all of the thoughts that she had been holding in throughout her misery, without fears of repercussion. Implicitly, the letter was intended for the public. It was written to bring to light the reality of what had been happening behind the electric fences and to counter the lies that were being told by Grese during her trial. It was also written to elicit a conviction of Grese by rallying the public and displaying the true menace of the woman on trial. It is unknown whether this publication had been translated to German, and thus had any actual impact on the trial, but Irma Grese was convicted and sentenced to death for her actions.

This source is atypical because it is a revenge document written by a survivor. After learning the horrors of Auschwitz-Birkenau, a revenge letter should not be unusual. However, the majority of texts written by survivors are not focused on revenge, rather on their experience, their fear, and their emotional pain. There is an excerpt in the letter that classifies it as a revenge document:

We want to see you, the “handsome girl,” degenerate into a “muselweib”, a bag of skin and bones, through hunger and exhaustion, like those of us who were jeered at and called by this name. You too should be turned over to the “Himmelskommando” who will show you, as they showed us, the “road to heaven” through the gas chambers. Let them push you alive into the furnace of the crematorium, as they did with so many of us.

 

All these things have been done to countless thousands of us, your victims. Only if they are done to you in your turn will justice have been done. You made us suffer the torments of hell. Now it is our turn to hate you and to cry out for revenge.

 

The theme of revenge is what differentiates this letter from other accounts of survivors that have been published. Batsheva Dagan does not hold back or hesitate to state exactly what she believes would be a fitting punishment for the woman who was responsible for her pain. She believes in “an eye for an eye”, wanting Grese to be dehumanized and treated exactly as she was. Her imagery also enhances the emotion of this letter. She does not simply want Grese to lose her beauty, she wants to see her “degenerate into a bag of skin and bones”. This causes her cry for revenge to be much more powerful and appeals to the public through the description of torture in the camp. In the post-Holocaust period, the issues of revenge and forgiveness were common in published texts. One of the complications with forgiveness was the question of who was responsible. Was the entire German population to be forgiven? Was everyone at fault? The justification for forgiveness is entirely dependent on perspective and personal experience. Some survivors successfully completed the tremendous task of suppressing the yearn for revenge and focusing on peace. Primo Levi is a prime example of this, as in his writing he did not wish harm on those who harmed him. “Hatred fosters irrationality,” says Levi. “And irrationality produces injustice”. Thus, he writes in an emotionally detached tone and refuses to put anger into his words. Although this is a noble feat, survivors of the Holocaust are not required to forgive and forget. Revenge, on the other hand, is much more easily justifiable. Rich Cohen published a revenge narrative titled The Avengers, which provides an interesting comparison to Dagan’s letter. In the text, the main character declares, “The Germans, he said, must be killed in the same inhumane, factory-like manner in which they had killed the Jews.” This displays a similar vengeance as the one displayed in Dagan’s letter. However, what is interesting is Batsheva Dagan’s change of heart. When she was interviewed by The Jerusalem Post 67 years later, Dagan claimed that she would not write the same letter today. She said, “Back then the urge for vengeance sought some release… nowadays I look for the human connection and I do not blame the younger generation for the sins of their parents or grandparents”. This is because, since her liberation from the camp, Dagan has lived a full and joyful life, and she no longer sees need for vengeance.

Unfortunately, there is no way to know how many people read this letter during the Bergen-Belsen trials and what the public reaction was to it. Did other survivors agree with the publication of a letter advocating for revenge? Did the Nazi party use it as proof that the Jews were terrible people who wished harm on the Germans? These are questions that do not have available answers to them, but are fascinating to explore. Today, this document can be found online, in The Jerusalem Post. The article also includes the link to the image of the original publication in The Palestine Post. It is an important document because it sheds light on what was really occurring in the concentration camps and it provides an accurate, personal account from an individual who survived it. The letter is not an unbiased document, but that is precisely why it is an important source to consider. It sheds light on the atrocities that were committed in an emotional tone that provides real meaning and depth to the information. It also provides a detailed perspective of the victims of the Holocaust, which can be compared to documents that were written from the German perspective. One such document is an extract from written evidence of Rudolf Hoss, commander of the Auschwitz extermination camp. Hoss writes, “The Fuhrer has ordered that the Jewish question be solved once and for all and that we, the SS, are to implement that order…the Jews are sworn enemies of the German people and must be eradicated”. This demonstrates the hatred of the Jewish people by the Germans, and reveals the perspective of the other side. However, this document provides an interesting comparison because it is emotionless. The instructions in the text are unimaginable, but they are cold and unexplained, unlike the cries for revenge in Dagan’s letter. Hoss’s document simply states the goal of the Nazi Party, the reason for its existence. Dagan’s letter shows the unimaginable impact of National Socialism on the lives of the Jewish people, rather than simply writing that they were deeply hurt. Her document reveals the true brutality of National Socialism, or the Nazi Party, during the Holocaust.  

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