‘Sweet Lady’ Hid Nazi Past
She lived alone in a tiny, top-floor apartment in one of the tougher sections of San Francisco. At 83, she was short and a bit stout. Diabetes took the sight in one of her eyes; arthritis left her leaning heavily on a cane. For long trips, she took a taxi.
Her husband had died. He was the love of her long life, a short, dapper man who had worked as a bartender and waiter at some of the city’s larger hotels and was active in Jewish activities. They buried him in a Jewish cemetery outside the city.
He had been gone just a short while when two officials from the Justice Department in Washington knocked on her door. They confronted her with a terrible secret that all these years she had managed to keep from him.
In Germany during World War II, a much younger Elfriede Lina Rinkel, then single, a girl with blue eyes and striking red hair, had worked as an SS guard at one of the Nazi regime’s infamous concentration camps. Called Ravensbruck, it was a slave labor prison for women, and during the year she worked there with a trained attack dog more than 10,000 women died.
Some succumbed to starvation and disease. Others were gassed. More died after cruel medical experiments. Some perished from sheer exhaustion.
On Tuesday, the Justice Department announced that the woman with the pleasant smile and the German accent had been deported to Germany. She admitted that she had lied on her U.S. visa application.
Her lawyer, Alison Dixon, said she never told Fred, her husband. Not during their romance after the war, on their wedding night in Germany, or their voyage to a new life in America. Always, she kept quiet.
“He did not know,” the lawyer said, “because all these years she was totally embarrassed.”
Washington officials, however, said she coldly offered no expression of remorse about her past and did not fight the deportation.
The government caught up with a woman in the dusk of her life who expected perhaps soon to quietly join her husband in the Eternal Home Cemetery in Colma, south of the city. The double gravestone was already there, with the Star of David above their names.
Instead, she will be remembered as the only woman to be caught and deported in more than 100 completed cases of Nazi persecutors who lied their way into the United States. Matching Ravensbruck guard rosters with U.S. immigration documents -- about 70,000 names have been studied since the Office of Special Investigations opened in 1979 -- they hit on Elfriede Huth, her maiden name.
She had been born in 1922 in Leipzig, Germany. She came to the work camp in 1944 and left a year later as the war ended, the site abandoned by fleeing Nazis. She married Fred William Rinkel, a German Jewish refugee from the war. In 1959, not yet 40, she applied for a U.S. visa but failed to include on the form her time at Ravensbruck.
Eventually, the Justice Department traced her to the five-story apartment building in lower Nob Hill near the Tenderloin. The building today is rundown, covered with graffiti and largely home to recent immigrants from Mexico.
Agency Director Eli M. Rosenbaum said that despite her bid to remain anonymous, her past will no longer be hidden. Though he agreed that she appeared pleasant and kind, old and tired, he said, “her presence in the United States nevertheless was an affront to surviving Holocaust victims who have made new homes in this country.”
Rosenbaum was one of the two Washington officials who knocked on her door after her husband died. She admitted being assigned to the camp, explaining that she had a less desirable job as a factory worker and volunteered to be a dog handler at the camp for better wages.
But she insisted she never used her dog as a weapon against the prisoners, never forced them into marches every morning to work or to die. She said she never joined the Nazi Party, just did its bidding.
And she said she never applied for U.S. citizenship because she feared U.S. immigration authorities would learn of her time at Ravensbruck.
And oddly, Rosenbaum said, there were no tears from the woman sitting in front of him inside the little apartment. “No statement of remorse was volunteered to me,” he said.
Dixon, her San Francisco lawyer, explained that it was all just too long ago. She said her client had tried to remake her life and never thought she would be tripped up so late in her years.
“She was trying to atone for actions in the past,” said Dixon. “She married a Jewish man, and she gave to Jewish charities.
“And she always believed there was a certain coercion involved in what she did at the camp. She insisted that she had zero contact with the actual prisoners, that she just walked the camp perimeter.”
Knowing her fate, six months ago she began preparing to leave the United States even as she kept asking Dixon if she could stay. “Do I really have to leave?” she would say. “Can I come back for a visit?”
She also quietly set about putting her affairs in order. One task was to return once more to the mortuary, and to inform the staff that she would soon be “leaving the area.” She wanted to sell her burial plot next to her husband.
“So we took it back,” said Gene Kaufman, director of the Sinai Memorial Chapel. “She was just such a pleasant-looking lady and very small. Such a nice, sweet lady who seemed to have a very loving relationship with her husband.”
Sometimes, Kaufman said, he would bump into the childless couple at Jewish events. Everyone seemed to know, though, that she was not Jewish, and had no other religious faith. The distinction seemed to never rise as a problem between the couple.
Yet, “sometimes it did seem like their life together was from someplace else,” recalled Kathryn Allen-Katz, who also chatted with her at the funeral chapel. “Like they didn’t fit in here, didn’t belong. They lived in their own little island in a not-too-good part of town and they kept to themselves.”
At the apartment building on Bush Street, Gunvant Shah, who met the Rinkels in 1976, described a couple that sang German songs late at night, danced together and sometimes fought loudly, prompting complaints from neighbors.
They lived “a modest life,” Shah said, with no car, but often strolled together in the evenings, dressed elegantly. “Mr. Rinkel would hold her by the arm. They would walk together, proud and joyful.”
Perhaps, he added, the closeness the couple shared was her private attempt at redemption. “Maybe she felt remorse,” Shah said.
She was given until Sept. 30 to leave the United States.
She left Sept. 1. Some distant relative took her in, and she dutifully reported to the U.S. Consulate office in Frankfurt that she was back home.
Eighty-three is a hard time to make one’s life over, and Dixon said that she could still face charges in Germany for her wartime duty at the concentration camp.
But whatever happens, she will probably die in the land of her birth.
Alive, she is legally barred from reentering the United States.
In death alone could she be returned.
Times staff writer Lee Romney in San Francisco contributed to this report.