Friends, neighbors, family stunned &mdash Jews widow a camp guard

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Looking back, it makes some sense — not a lot of sense, but some.

When Elfriede Rinkel’s neighbor of more than 30 years asked the 84-year-old when she was going to move back into the apartment she recently vacated during renovations, she curtly replied “never.” The native German told another neighbor she was done with San Francisco and heading to Switzerland.

What she didn’t tell neighbors — or her family or, almost definitely, her Jewish husband of nearly half a century — was that she was a former concentration camp guard at Ravensbrück and was being deported.

“I am very surprised. I have never suspected and I am quite certain Mr. Rinkel did not know it either,” said Gunvant Shah, who lived across the hall from Fred and Elfriede Rinkel from 1976 until her deportation earlier this month.

“I feel deeply hurt. She is like a grandmother.”

Fred Rinkel, a German-born Jew, died in January 2004 of a heart attack. His funeral was held at Sinai Memorial Chapel and he is buried at Colma’s Eternal Home Cemetery, a Jewish institution. Prior to her deportation, Elfriede Rinkel had planned to be interred next to her husband.

News of her deportation spread rapidly this week, after the Department of Justice issued a press release to the media.

“Now it all falls into place,” said Gisela Plesin, a longtime friend of Fred Rinkel’s oldest brother, Harry, and his wife, Ella.

“She wasn’t normal to the family at all. They kept to themselves — unbelievably. We had so many parties. And they never once came to any of them. All that time they’d stay in that apartment and never go anyplace. You know, I think she felt guilty. I think she was worried that someone at these parties, which are more than 50 percent Germans, is going to know about her. What a nerve she had.”

Rinkel’s deportation followed a lengthy Justice Department investigation. She has admitted to serving as a guard at the all-women’s concentration camp from June 1944 until it was abandoned almost one year later.

“Thousands of innocent women were brutalized and murdered at Ravensbrück through the active participation of Elfriede Rinkel and other guards, whose principal function was to prevent prisoners from escaping the abominable conditions inside the camp,” said Eli Rosenbaum, director of the Justice Department’s Office of Special Investigation. “Her presence in the United States was an affront to surviving Holocaust victims who have made new homes in this country.”

About 90,000 prisoners died at Ravensbrück, mostly due to disease and malnutrition. And though it was a concentration camp, not a death camp, around 2,300 Jews — mostly Hungarians — were gassed there in the closing days of the war.

Rinkel’s lawyer, Alison Dixon, did not return repeated calls from j., though she did tell the San Francisco Chronicle that Rinkel answered a newspaper ad to get the Ravensbrück job and feared refusing the offer would result in being incarcerated at the camp. Dixon also said Rinkel admitted to her wartime past and voluntarily left the country to avoid the klieg lights of a public deportation trial.

Rinkel apparently kept her secret to the end. Her brother, a Berkeley resident, first learned of her wartime past from newspaper reporters. He told them that Rinkel didn’t even reveal her situation when he gave her a ride to the airport, claiming she wanted to leave the country because of problems with her apartment. She is now living with family near Dusseldorf.

Fred Rinkel fled his native Germany for Shanghai prior to the war, eventually settling in the Bay Area along with three of his four brothers. Trained as an opera singer in his homeland, he worked for many years as a singing waiter in San Francisco. Working several different shifts and on evenings and weekends kept him from attending B’nai B’rith meetings — and he could become very defensive about this when other members joked with him.

“He rarely came to things, but he was very fastidious,” recalled Harry Gluckman, a fellow member of B’nai B’rith.

“He was typically German. If something was announced for 8 o’clock he would show up at 7:59.”

Around five years ago, Rinkel contacted B’nai B’rith colleague Cantor Julius Blackman with interest in Jewish music and pursuing cantoral work.

“I told him it would take more than one or two lessons. But he sang a little to show me he had a voice and he really did, a really nice tenor,” said Blackman, the former cantor at San Francisco’s Ner Tamid.

Longtime neighbor Shah recalled spotting the Rinkels many times through the years at the Chabad menorah lightings in Union Square. He described them as a dapper couple who would stroll romantically, arm-in-arm, through the streets of San Francisco. The couple, who met at a German American dance night, had no children.

From the communal bathroom on the fifth floor of the apartment building the Rinkels called home since at least the early 1970s, Shah could often hear the couple ballroom dancing in their flat, and Fred Rinkel regularly sang along with his LPs.

Fred Rinkel’s heart attack came after many years of coronary problems and Elfriede was not doing well in the months leading up to her deportation either. Shah said he regularly had to walk her up and down five flights of stairs — the building’s rickety elevator is often broken — and hold doors open for her.

Following her husband’s death, Elfriede fell into a deep depression, according to neighbor Alice Fung.

“I gave her a lot of support. And she did open up to me. But she never told me about her past. She told me she was moving to Switzerland,” said Fung.

“She was a sweet lady. She cared about other people. But she was a very private person.”

Shah, an Indian who fled persecution in Uganda, said he strongly identified with Rinkel’s Jewish background and refugee past. But he was also saddened by the deportation of an elderly woman, a move he described as heartless.

“She is 84 years old. She felt remorse. She felt the burning in her heart. Where is the humanity?”

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.