Johanna Bormann (or Juanna Bormann, the spelling shown on her death warrant) was born at Birkenfelde in East Prussia on 10 September, 1893. She was apparently deeply religious and had given up missionary work to join the SS. She went to work at Lichtenburg, the first women's concentration camp, as a civilian employee on 1 March, 1938 and initially worked in the kitchens. She and the rest of the staff and inmates were transferred to Ravensbrück concentration camp when it opened in May 1939. Here she was as an Aufseherin (overseer). In March 1942 she moved on to Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland and then in October of that year was transferred to Auschwitz-Birkenau. In 1944, she went to the satellite camp at Hindenburg, before returning to Ravensbrück in January 1945. In March of that year she was sent to Bergen-Belsen, where she served under its commandant Josef Kramer. Like most of the defendants who would later stand trial for war crimes at Belsen she was arrested at the camp on the day it was liberated. The staff were remanded to the prison at Celle to await trial.
At the Belsen Trial, Johanna wore the number 6 card. Like all the defendants she had the benefit of counsel, in her case, Major A. S. Munro and pleaded not guilty to the charge of committing a war crime. She was to hear allegations from former inmates that she beat prisoners, set her dogs on them and selected them for the gas chambers.
Jewish born Anni Jonas, from Breslau, accused Johanna of pointing out prisoners to Dr. Mengele who looked too weak for work. They were then sent to the gas chamber. Another Jewish woman, Dora Szafran, had been an inmate at Auschwitz since June 1943 and had witnessed Johanna at selections for gassing with Dr. Klein. She also related to the court how she had seen Johanna set her dog, which she thought was a German Shepherd, on a woman in a work detail who had a swollen leg and could not keep up on the march back from Auschwitz. The woman was badly savaged and was taken away on a stretcher. It is not known whether she survived. Dora stated to the court that Johanna seemed proud of what she had done.
Polish born Hanka Rozencwajg (the trial documents spell her name, very probably erroneously, Rozenwayg) who had been in Belsen for some 18 months before liberation also told the court that Johanna had set her dog on prisoners and recounted an occasion when Johanna had beaten her and several other women for lighting a fire in her hut without permission. She told the court that all the women inmates were afraid of Johanna.
Another Pole, Peter Makar, related how he recognized Johanna as the woman who had been in charge of the pigsties at Belsen and how he had twice witnessed her beating women in March 1945 whom she had caught stealing vegetables.
Dora Silberberg accused Johanna of beating her and a friend when she tried to stop her friend who was ill being forced to go to work. Johanna had allegedly punched her in the face hard enough to knock out two of Dora's teeth. Johanna then set the dog on Dora's friend and it knocked her down and dragged her round by the leg. Dora's friend died later form her injuries.
Alexandra Siwidowa accused Johanna of beating prisoners for wearing their better clothes and also stripping them and making them perform strenuous physical exercises. When they began to flag, he told the court that she beat them all over the body with a rubber or wooden stick. Johanna denied this outright.
Major Munro called Johanna to give evidence in her defence. She told the court that she was a single woman and related her history of work in the concentration camps. Major Munro specifically asked her about her involvement in the selection process for gassing to which she replied “No, I never have been present at these selections, I had to be present at morning roll-call and night roll-call, but at nothing else”.
She admitted that she did have a dog at Belsen, which she claimed were her own pet rather than a camp guard dog, but denied that she had ever set it on prisoners, telling the court that this would have been against the camp rules and would have led to severe punishment for her. She also mentioned that another Aufseherin named Kuck, of whom there is no surviving record, resembled her and also had a dog. Johanna dismissed the statements of two witnesses regarding her use of a wolfhound dog, telling the court that she had never owned a wolfhound.
She dismissed the statements of some witnesses as untrue on the basis that she was not in the place they stated at the time of the alleged offence. One, Helena Kopper, had told the court that Johanna was the most hated guard in the camp and that she was in charge of the clothing store. She alleged that Johanna had again set her dog on a young woman at the store who died later. Johanna denied ever having been in charge of the clothing store or being at Birkenau at the time.
She denied that she went out outside the camps on work Kommandos but agreed that she oversaw prisoners working at the piggery in Belsen.
She accepted that she slapped prisoners who were cheeky or disobedient but denied beating them with sticks etc. She mentioned that the first time she had ever seen a rubber truncheon it was in the hands of a British military policemen guarding her in the prison at Celle.
She could offer no explanation to Major Munro for the witness allegations against her. He also asked her if she had tried to leave the SS. Johanna told him that she had applied in writing to her Oberaufseherin in 1943 but that her application had been turned down.
She was cross-examined by Colonel Backhouse who asked her if she was very much worse than all the other Aufseherinnen in her treatment of the internees? She replied that she did not know and only wanted to keep order. He questioned her further on her attendance at selections and she told him that “I did not have time to attend them, and I did not like the idea of attending them”. She denied having even seen a selection or ever having seen the crematorium. Colonel Backhouse also pressed Johanna further on the dog issue. She insisted that the dog was a pet and her own property and that it had never been trained to attack prisoners. He pointed out to her the testimony of another of the accused, Herta Ehlert, who said in her statement: “From my own knowledge of Johanna Bormann and from working with her I believe that the stories about her brutality to prisoners are true, although I have not myself witnessed it. I have often seen the dog which she had and heard she used to let it loose on prisoners. Although I have not seen it I can well believe it to be true.” Johanna insisted that this was a lie. Colonel Backhouse asked her about the pigs at Belsen, which she was in charge of when the camp was liberated. She told him that there were 52 pigs at the time and that were fed on a swill of potatoes and turnips. He pointed out to her that whilst the pigs were being fed reasonably well the prisoners were starving. She replied that she fed the pigs the food she was given for them.
The Judge Advocate questioned Johanna about Aufseherin Kuck, (who was also alleged to have a dog) and one gets the impression that he did not really believe that this woman existed.
Johanna was found not guilty on count one (crimes committed at Belsen) but guilty of count two of the indictment against her.
This was that the accused
At Auschwitz, Poland, between 1 October, 1942 and 30 April, 1945, when members of the staff at Auschwitz Concentration Camp responsible for the well-being of the persons interned there, in violation of the law and usages of war, were together concerned as parties to the ill-treatment of certain of such persons, causing the deaths of Rachella Silberstein (a Polish national), Allied nationals, and other Allied nationals whose names are unknown, and physical suffering to other persons interned there, Allied nationals, and particularly to Eva Gryka and Hanka Rosenwayg (both Polish nationals) and other Allied nationals whose names are unknown.
Prior to her sentencing a mitigation speech was made on her behalf by Major Munro. He painted a picture of a sad and lonely middle aged woman and invited the court “to take into account what the conditions in concentration camps could do to weak human nature”.
This mitigation speech was not successful and when on the afternoon of 16 November, 1945 the verdicts were delivered, the President of the court passed the death sentence on Johanna. She reportedly left the court as if in a dream but later chose not to appeal her sentence. She was returned to Lüneburg prison and when the cases and sentences had been reviewed she was transferred to Hameln jail on Sunday 9 December to await execution with the other condemned. The hangings were set for Thursday, 13 December, 1945 and were to be carried out at half hour intervals starting at 9.34 a.m. with Elisabeth Volkenrath, followed by Irma Grese at 10.03 a.m. and Johanna at 10.38 a.m.
Albert Pierrepoint described Johanna during her last hours when he saw her on the afternoon prior to her execution. Each prisoner had to be weighed to allow him to calculate the correct drop. He wrote in his autobiography how she limped down the corridor looking old and haggard. He said she was forty two years old (actually fifty three), only a little over five feet high and 101 lbs. in weight. She was trembling as she was put on the scales. In German she said “I have my feelings”. The drop was calculated at 8 feet 8 inches.