For decades, an elderly San Francisco woman kept her wartime stint as a Nazi concentration camp guard hidden from her family, including her late husband — a German Jew who’d fled the Holocaust himself.
But time and the American government finally caught up with Elfriede Lina Rinkel, 84, who was deported to Germany this month and publicly exposed this week by the United States Department of Justice.
Her brother and her sister-in-law, longtime Berkeley, Calif., residents who spoke Tuesday on the condition of anonymity, said they had just learned her secret that day from reporters. “It knocked us off our feet,” the sister-in-law said.
“We did help her to close up her apartment and helped her to buy her airplane ticket and go to the airport and buy her luggage — but never a word about why she was leaving,” the sister-in-law told the Oakland Tribune. “We thought she was going because her situation in her apartment had deteriorated.” Rinkel had bad arthritis, the sister-in-law explained, and her apartment building’s elevator was often out of service. “She said she just wanted to go back to Germany, and because she told us that, we believed her.”
Federal law requires removal of aliens who took part in acts of Nazi-sponsored persecution, and in June Rinkel signed a settlement agreement admitting that from June 1944 to April 1945, she was a guard at the Ravensbrück concentration camp, built near Furstenberg, Germany, almost exclusively for female prisoners. She omitted the camp from her history when seeking a visa in 1959, and so she was allowed to immigrate. Her brother and her sister in law, who had sponsored her immigration, said Tuesday that she later met her future husband, Fred Rinkel, at a German-American Club in San Francisco and went on to work as a furrier.
Documents released Tuesday by the Justice Department’s Office of Special Investigations say that the Leipzig native used a trained SS guard dog at the camp. The OSI also provided copies of her service card, taken from an SS records office, and bank records showing pay that she received for her service at the camp.
Between its construction in late 1938 and its liberation by the Russian Army at the end of April 1945, Ravensbrück held an estimated 130,000 women and children, of whom about 90,000 perished by starvation, execution, illness or medical experimentation, according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Inmates came mostly from Poland and the occupied Soviet territories; almost 15% were Jewish.
Rinkel’s husband died in January 2004; his obituary in J, Northern California’s Jewish weekly, said he was a longtime B’nai B’rith member.
The sister-in-law said that Fred Rinkel almost certainly did not know about his wife’s secret. “He had to leave Germany during all that terrible stuff that happened there and had to relocate in Shanghai; a lot of the Jewish Germans went to Shanghai,” she said, adding that Fred Rinkel was from a prominent Berlin family of doctors and lawyers and had been training to become an opera singer before being forced to flee his homeland. He owned a San Francisco tie shop.
The district of U.S. Rep. Tom Lantos, a San Mateo Democrat and Congress’s only Holocaust survivor, reaches to within a few miles of the Nob Hill neighborhood where Rinkel made her home until this month. He issued a statement Tuesday, calling the case’s facts “chilling, compelling, and in some ways hard to fathom.”
“But such is the nature of individuals linked to the Holocaust,” Lantos said. “So much of what happened is difficult but important to examine, even decades after humanity endured this nightmare.”