Hermine Braunsteiner Ryan (July 16, 1919 – April 19, 1999) was a female camp guard at Ravensbrück and Majdanek concentration camps, and the first Nazi war criminal to be extradited from the United States, to face trial in Germany. She was sentenced to life imprisonment by the District Court of Düsseldorf on April 30, 1981.
Braunsteiner was born in Vienna, the youngest child in a strictly observant Roman Catholic working class family. Her father Friedrich Braunsteiner was a chauffeur for a brewery and/or a butcher. Hermine lacked the means to fulfill her aspiration to become a nurse, and worked as a maid. From 1937 to 1938 she worked in England for an American engineer’s household.
In 1938 Braunsteiner became a German citizen after the Anschluss. She returned to Vienna from England and the same year relocated to Germany proper for a job at the Heinkel aircraft works in Berlin.
Camp guard at Ravensbrück
At the urging of her landlord, a German policeman, Braunsteiner applied for a better paying job supervising prisoners, quadrupling her income in time. She began her training on August 15, 1939, as an Aufseherin under Maria Mandel at Ravensbrück concentration camp. She remained there after the start of World War II, and the influx of new prisoners from occupied countries. After three years, a disagreement with Mandel led Braunsteiner to request a transfer in October 1942.
On October 16, 1942, Braunsteiner took up her duties in the forced-labor apparel factory at the Majdanek concentration camp, established near Lublin, Poland a year earlier. It was both a labour camp (Arbeitslager) and an extermination camp (Vernichtungslager) with gas chambers and crematoria. She was promoted to assistant wardress in January 1943, under Oberaufseherin Elsa Ehrich along with five other camp guards.
Her abuses took many forms in the camp. She involved herself in “selections” of women and children to be sent to the gas chambers and whipped several women to death. Working alongside other female guards such as Elsa Ehrich, Hildegard Lächert, Marta Ulrich, Alice Orlowski, Charlotte Karla Mayer-Woellert, Erna Wallisch and Elisabeth Knoblich, Braunsteiner was infamous for her wild rages and tantrums. According to one witness at her later trial in Düsseldorf, she “seized children by their hair and threw them on trucks heading to the gas chambers”. Other survivors testified how she killed women by stomping on them with her steel-studded jackboots, earning her the nickname “The Stomping Mare”. (In Polish “Kobyła”, in German “Stute von Majdanek”.) She received the War Merit Cross, 2nd class, in 1943, for her work.
In January 1944, Hermine was ordered back to Ravensbrück as Majdanek began evacuations due to the approaching front line. She was promoted to supervising wardress at the Genthin subcamp of Ravensbrück, located outside Berlin. Witnesses say that she abused many of the prisoners with a horsewhip she carried, killing at least two women with it.
Post war Austria
On May 7, 1945, Hermine Braunsteiner fled the camp ahead of the Soviet Red Army. She then returned to Vienna, but soon left, complaining that there was not enough food there.
The Austrian police arrested her and turned her over to the British military occupation authorities; she remained incarcerated from May 6, 1946, until April 18, 1947. A court in Graz, Austria convicted her of torture, maltreatment of prisoners and crimes against humanity and against human dignity at Ravensbrück (not Majdanek), then sentenced her to serve three years, beginning April 7, 1948; she was released early in April 1950. An Austrian civil court subsequently granted her amnesty from further prosecution there. She worked at low level jobs in hotels and restaurants until emigrating.
Emigration and marriage
Russell Ryan, an American, met her on his vacation in Austria. They married in October 1958, after they had emigrated to Nova Scotia, Canada. She entered the United States in April 1959, becoming a United States citizen on January 19, 1963. They lived in Maspeth, Queens, where she was known as a fastidious housewife with a friendly manner, married to a construction worker.
Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal had followed her trail from a tip in Tel Aviv to Vienna to Halifax, Nova Scotia, and then, via Toronto, to Queens. In 1964 Wiesenthal alerted the New York Times that Braunsteiner might have married a man named Ryan and might live in the Maspeth area of the Borough of Queens in New York. They assigned Joseph Lelyveld, then a young reporter, to find “Mrs. Ryan.” They first lived at 54-44 82nd St. in western Elmhurst and moved to 52-11 72nd St. in Maspeth. He found her at the second doorbell he rang, and later wrote that she greeted him at her front doorstep and said, “My God, I knew this would happen. You’ve come.”
Braunsteiner Ryan stated that she had been at Maidanek only a year, eight months of which in the camp infirmary. “My wife, sir, wouldn’t hurt a fly” said Ryan. “There’s no more decent person on this earth. She told me this was a duty she had to perform. It was a conscriptive service.” On August 22, 1968, United States authorities sought to revoke her citizenship, because she had failed to disclose her convictions for war crimes; she was denaturalized in 1971 after entering into a consent judgment to avoid deportation.
A prosecutor in Duesseldorf began investigating her wartime behavior, and in 1973 the German government requested her extradition, accusing her of joint responsibility in the death of 200,000 people.
The United States court denied procedural claims that her denaturalization had been invalid (U.S citizens could not be extradited to Germany), and that the charges alleged political offenses committed by a non-German outside West Germany. Later it rejected claims of lack of probable cause and double jeopardy. During the next year she sat with her husband in United States district court in Queens, hearing survivors’ testimony against the former SS guard. They described whippings and fatal beatings. Rachel Berger, alone among the witnesses, testified she would celebrate retribution against the former vice-commandant of the women’s camp at Majdanek.
The judge certified her extradition to the Secretary of State on May 1, 1973, and on August 7, 1973, Hermine Braunsteiner Ryan became the first Nazi war criminal extradited from the United States to Germany.
Trial in Germany
She was remanded in Düsseldorf in 1973, until her husband posted bail. The German court rejected Mrs. Ryan’s arguments that it lacked jurisdiction, because she was not a German national but Austrian, and that the offenses alleged had occurred outside Germany. It ruled she had been a German citizen at the time, and more importantly had been a German government official acting in the name of the German Reich.
She stood trial in West Germany with 15 other former SS men and women from Majdanek. One of the witnesses against Hermine testified that she “seized children by their hair and threw them on trucks heading to the gas chambers.” Others spoke of vicious beatings. One witness told of Hermine and the steel-studded jackboots with which she dealt blows to inmates.
The third Majdanek trial (Majdanek-Prozess in German) was held in Düsseldorf. It began on November 26, 1975, and lasted 474 sessions, Germany’s longest and most expensive trial. All the defendants, including Ryan and Hermann Hackmann, had been SS guards at Majdanek. The court found insufficient evidence on six counts of the indictment and convicted her on three: murder of 80 people; abetting the murder of 102 children; and collaborating in the murder of 1000. On June 30, 1981, the court imposed a life sentence, a more severe punishment than those meted out to her co-defendants.
Complications of diabetes, including a leg amputation, led to her release from Mülheimer women’s prison in 1996. Hermine Braunsteiner Ryan died on April 19, 1999, aged 79, in Bochum, Germany.
After the publicity surrounding Ryan’s extradition, the United States government established (1979) a U.S. DOJ Office of Special Investigations to seek out war criminals to denaturalize or deport. It took jurisdiction previously held by the Immigration and Naturalization Service.