A Nazi Past, a Queens Home Life, an Overlooked Death
Hermine Braunsteiner Ryan was a (Maspeth) Queens homemaker in 1964 when The New York Times revealed her notorious past as a vicious Nazi death camp guard.
Nearly a decade later, she became the first United States citizen to be extradited for war crimes. She was sent to West Germany, where she was tried, convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
That was in 1981, and little has been written about her since, although a German newspaper took note of her release, for health reasons, in 1996.
It turns out that she died three years later, on April 19, 1999, at the age of 79.
Her death appears to have gone unrecorded by American newspapers and magazines, although it is noted on the Internet encyclopedia Wikipedia and in a footnote in a 2005 memoir, Omaha Blues, by Joseph Lelyveld, a former executive editor of The Times, who recounts his experience as the young reporter who knocked on the door of the Ryan home more than 40 years ago.
Official word of Mrs. Ryan's death came in recent weeks from the Simon Wiesenthal Center's office in Israel, in response to questions by another Times reporter who was researching an article on the former Maidanek death camp in Poland, where Mrs. Ryan was once assigned.
Efraim Zuroff, director of the Israeli center, said he believed the death had been noted in some German papers. He said he did not know the cause, but in 1996, when the German government pardoned her from her life sentence, she suffered from diabetes and had had a leg amputated.
Dr. Zuroff said Mrs. Ryan's extradition and conviction were among the few successful legal actions against Nazis in the United States before the Justice Department Office of Special Investigations was established in 1979.
At the time she was discovered, Mrs. Ryan was living as the wife of an electrical construction worker in Maspeth, where she was known for her scrupulous housecleaning and friendly manner. When she was fighting deportation in 1972, The Times quoted neighbors saying her gruesome past was impossible for them to believe.
Survivors of the Maidanek concentration and death camp, near Lublin, told of her whipping women to death, seizing children by the hair and throwing them on trucks to take them to the gas chamber, kicking away a stool to hang a young girl, and stomping old women to death with her jackboots, among other cruelties. Her nickname was the Stomping Mare.
In her five-and-a-half-year trial by a West German court, which ended in mid-1981, Mrs. Ryan was convicted of just two murders. The deaths of possible witnesses and fading memories may have weakened the prosecution's case on other counts. Also, rules limited convictions to individual crimes actually witnessed.
Hermine Braunsteiner was born in Vienna on July 16, 1919. Her father was a butcher and not involved in politics. She received a strict Roman Catholic education and first wanted to be a nurse.
She instead worked in a brewery and as a household servant before going to work at the Heinkel Aircraft Works in Berlin, where she adopted the Nazi ideology. She applied to work at the Ravensbrück women's concentration camp in part to get more pay, starting in 1939.
In October 1942, she was transferred to Maidanek and promoted to assistant warden. She became known for whipping women for not sewing on their prison numbers correctly.
In 1944 she was sent back to Ravensbrück to lead a work detail. She had risen to supervising warden when the Soviet Army approached the camp. She fled to Vienna before the Soviet soldiers liberated the camp on July 23, 1944.
In 1946, she was arrested in Austria and handed over to Allied authorities, who shuffled her between internment and prisoner-of-war camps. In 1949 Austrian authorities again arrested her, and this time tried her.
She was convicted of assassination, infanticide and manslaughter at Ravensbrück in 1941 and 1942. Maidanek was barely mentioned.
Mrs. Ryan was sentenced to three years in prison, but was released early, in 1950. The Austrian government promised not to charge her with any additional crimes and granted her amnesty.
She then worked at hotels and restaurants, and met Russell Ryan, described in various sources as an American soldier or an American construction worker in Germany. In 1958, they moved to Nova Scotia, marrying in October of that year.
In April 1959, they moved to Queens, and she became an American citizen in January 1963.
Simon Wiesenthal, the Nazi hunter, who died in September, wrote in Justice Not Vengeance (1989) that he was approached in January 1964 in the Cafe Royal in Tel Aviv by three survivors of Maidanek. They told him about the cruel guard called Kobyla, the Polish word for mare.
One of his aides went to Vienna and discovered from her friends that she was in Halifax. Mr. Wiesenthal learned from a friend in Toronto that she had moved to Queens and got the address. The Nazi hunter then told the Vienna correspondent of The Times this information.
Mr. Lelyveld, as a young reporter, was assigned to check out the tip, but wrote that he was not given a specific address. He knocked on many doors of Queens residents with the last name Ryan.
On July 14, 1964, Mr. Lelyveld wrote that Mrs. Ryan readily acknowledged that she was Hermine Braunsteiner of Maidanek. She protested that she had already been punished in Austria, and said she was sick in the infirmary for much of the time she was assigned to Maidanek. Her husband told the reporter that he did not know she was a prison guard until Mr. Lelyveld informed him.
This is the end of everything for me, Mrs. Ryan said.
In 1971, she was stripped of her citizenship because she had concealed her criminal conviction from American immigration authorities. Germany and Poland then applied for her extradition.
She feared going to Poland, but said she was agreeable to going to West Germany. In August 1973, Mrs. Ryan was expelled from the United States. Her trial in Düsseldorf began in November 1975. With the many witnesses and procedural delays, it did not end until mid-1981.
Mr. Lelyveld wrote that in prison, Mrs. Ryan refused to speak to other inmates and liked to sew dolls and soft toys. When she was released, she went to a nursing home in Bochum-Linden where her husband lived.
A German weekly, Süddeutsche Zeitung Magazin, wrote of the couple in 1996, saying he had been seen pushing her through the market in a wheelchair, and asking her if she would like a bouquet of flowers. She did not respond. He looked at his watch and pushed on. Nothing is known of him now.