The Stomping Mare, a female guard at several Nazi concentration camps, was known for her exceptional cruelty, even by Nazi standards. She served as an Aufseherin, the German title for a female guard, at both the Ravensbruck and Majdanek camps.
Her weapons of choice were her steel-studded jack boots, which she used to send women and children to their violent ends. She was also known to throw children by the hair onto trucks en route to gas chambers and whip women to death. She was mentioned in countless testimonies by Holocaust survivors, noted for a brutality that made her memorable even amongst other cruel guards.
Born in Vienna, she fled Ravensbruck in July 1944, when Stalin’s Red Army liberated the camp, and returned to her hometown. Austria ultimately turned her over to Allied authorities and she was sentenced to three years in jail for the crimes of assassination, infanticide, and manslaughter. She was released after only one year, in 1950, and granted amnesty. Her crimes at Majdanek were only briefly mentioned.
Hermine Ryan was known by her neighbors to be a dutiful and friendly housewife. She and her husband, Russell Ryan, had taken up residence in Maspeth, Queens, where he worked in construction. They had met in Europe while Russell was serving in the United States Air Force and had come to America in 1959, after marrying in Nova Scotia in 1958. She became a U.S. citizen in 1963.
But Hermine had a secret and Nazi hunter Simon Weisenthal, along with a young New York Times reporter by the name of Joseph Lelyveld, would expose it. Despite her neighborly personality, she had a history of brutality of which her husband knew nothing. This housewife was the Stomping Mare, her maiden name being Hermine Braunsteiner.
After learning of the Stomping Mare from Majdanek survivors while at a café in Tel Aviv, Weisenthal was successfully able to track Hermine to Queens. He had also discovered that she had married a man named Russell Ryan and turned the information over to The New York Times. Lelyveld ventured out to find the home, knocking on doors occupied by residents with the last name Ryan and eventually found her. It was reported by Lelyveld that upon the presentation of a letter by Weisenthal outlining her crimes, she burst into tears and paced across her living room, saying, “This is the end of everything for me.”
Her husband was quick to defend her, proclaiming that she would not so much as hurt a fly. He knew that Hermine served her country during World War II, believing that it was only compulsory military service. Russell knew nothing of the nature of her work or her resulting three-year prison term. In her own defense, Hermine stated that she had been punished enough for her actions. Her neighbors were shocked.
Though the case was ignored for a few years, eventually U.S. officials sought to revoke her citizenship in 1968 for her failure to report her crimes. In 1971, she was denaturalized.
While hearings had taken place in the U.S., in 1973, she was granted extradition to West Germany. Her trial in Dusseldorf was lengthy but ultimately resulted in her being convicted on three counts: murder of 80 people, abetting the murder of 102 children, and collaborating in the murder of 1000.
On June 30, 1981, she finally received her sentence: life in prison. She would spend her days sewing dolls and soft toys and rarely interacted with her fellow inmates.
Due the severity of her diabetes, which resulted in a leg amputation, she was released from prison in 1996. The Mare then moved to a nursing home to live out her remaining days with her husband. The German weekly Suddeutsche Zeitung Magazin reported that he was often seen pushing her around the facility in a wheelchair, asking her if she wanted a bouquet of flowers.
Stories like this, and studies such as the famous Stanford Prison Experiment conducted by Philip Zimbardo, always intrigue me. They serve as great reminders that evil not only lurks all around us, but within us. Despite our often outwardly friendly appearances, and given the right circumstances, we humans are capable of very terrible things.