In Sarah Helm’s new book, Ravensbruck: Life and Death in Hitler's Concentration Camp for Women (Random House, 2015), the klieg lights arc onto the only World War II German concentration camp for women.
Ravensbrück is a small village in northern Germany, about fifty miles north of Berlin. Near the village a concentration camp was constructed and opened in 1939, exclusively for women. The majority of prisoners were Polish, taken after Germany invaded Poland in 1939. There were also Russians, Germans, Jews, French, and women from over twenty other countries. Heinrich Himmler was an equal opportunity tormentor: the only criteria was (a supposed) racial inferiority.
The prisoners came from all walks of life: housewives, political enemies, actresses. prostitutes, doctors, the disabled, politicians, and the sick and infirm. There were well known women like Gemma La Guardia, the sister of (then) New York Mayor La Guardia, and Geneviève de Gaulle, niece to French General de Gaulle. Whoever they were before didn’t matter anymore. They were all marched to Ravensbruck, kicked and whipped as they went.
The plan was to quarantine and eventually eliminate the “inferior” human beings. Author Helm describes Ravensbrück as: “a mysterious planet where the macabre, the ridiculous, and the grotesque rubbed shoulders in a fantastic irrational chaos.”
Sarah Helm reported and wrote features for the Sunday Times of London. Intrigued with the camp, Helm interviewed survivors. Then, in a stroke of good fortune, she was allowed access to post Cold War archives that illuminated the horror that was Ravensbrück.
Not that a female concentration camp has more horrors than any other concentration camp. But Ravensbruck was unquestionably unique in everything, including the social structure of the camp. The male SS leaders disdained the “inferior” non Aryan female prisoners, not even stooping to rape them. For hands on mistreatment SS men turned to SS women.
There were some 150 female SS guards overseeing the prisoners. Known as “aufseherin,” (‘matron’) and typically accompanied by dogs and whips, the female guards meted out an excessive brutality for six consecutive years that earned them nicknames like “the Hyena” (Irma Grese), or "The Beast of Ravensbrück" (Elfriede Muller). No infractions were necessary for any prisoner to be suddenly beaten to unconsciousness or death, or have dogs set on them for sport.
Helm writes from the inside of the camp, describing the daily brutality in numbing detail. There are sections of grim reading and plenty of vicarious exposure to trauma. It is interesting that at the beginning the camp contained some amenities, like gardens and personal needs items. As the war dragged on, and fortunes turned against Germany, disapproval over events was taken out on the prisoners.
The gas chambers and ovens needed only a pretext – racial inferiority - to become very active sections of the camp. Helm occasionally takes a wide angle lens to include the complex, historical drama of World War. More often she provides gritty day to day detail.
For instance, the fact that in the summer of 1942 doctors added another level of cruelty by conducting bone and muscle experiments on dozens of Polish women. They were injected with bacteria, and had glass and wood splinters put into their bodies. Other experiments involved breaking bones and torturing tissue to study muscle regeneration – all in the name of science, of course. Some women died from the experiments. Others never recovered and were executed. Some of the survivors eventually testified against the “doctors” after the war.
Part of the wealth of detail is the outdoors manual labor and inside factory work the prisoners were made to do. Nearby factories employed the women as slave laborers in the production of rocket parts for the Siemens corporation (who knew what was happening).
It is estimated that from 1939 to 1945 about 130,000 women entered the gates of Ravensbruck. As the years passed more and more women died in the camp. It is estimated that during the last year of the camps existence about 80 inmates died each day from disease or famine related causes.
By Spring 1945 Germany’s cause was lost. The Russian army entered Germany from the east. The leaders of the camp destroyed as much evidence as they could, including the lives of their prisoners via the gas chamber and ovens. This evoked heroism amid the abject misery and despair of the camp.
On Holy Saturday, 1945, SS women selected a Jewish woman to be gassed. There was a protest amongst the prisoners. Then a Russian prisoner stepped forward and offered her life in exchange for the Jewish prisoners.
The SS officers shrugged and gassed the Russian woman instead. Her name was Maria Skobtsova. She was a nun from the Eastern Orthodox Church who landed in the camp after being arrested in France for hiding Jews from the Nazis. For her selfless courage she was canonized a saint in 2004.
After Maria’s death the 20,000 women prisoners remaining were marched north out of the camp, on an intentional death march that killed most of the women. On April 30, 1945, the Russian army found some 3,000 emaciated women, sole survivors of the march to death. How they survived at all is 3,000 studies of heroism and hope in the face of black dread and despair. Simply being around violent death long enough can cause a soul to despair. These survivors are a testament to hope, and a tough as nails determination to live. Indeed, their existence at the end of Ravensbrück is a cry of victory against evil personified.
Another survivor was Corrie ten Boom, a Dutch Christian woman arrested for hiding Jews in her home in the Netherlands. Ten Boom and her sister were sent to Ravensbrück. Sister Betsie died there on December 16, 1944. Her last words to sister Corrie were: “There is no pit so deep that God is not deeper still."
After the war, Ten Boom returned home and created “refuge houses” for concentration camp survivors and the homeless. She became a celebrity, wrote best selling books, and had one book turned into a movie, The Hiding Place.
Another heroine was Germaine Tillion. A member of the French Resistance, Tillion was betrayed by a priest who was in fact a Nazi spy. She and her mother were sent to to the camp, where Tillion’s mother died in March 1945. Tillion herself escaped the camp and later published Ravensbruck: An eyewitness account of a women's concentration camp (1973).
While a prisoner, Tillion wrote an operetta comedy ("Le Verfügbar aux Enfers") to entertain her fellow prisoners. Verfugbar is German for ‘disposable’, which neatly describes the lives of the prisoners. How Tillion was able to write a comedy in those circumstances is close to miraculous.
Other flowers bloomed over the grave of Ravensbrück. Polish Countess Karolina Lanckoronska was a prisoner who later wrote Michelangelo in Ravensbruck. One flower bloomed after death. Eileen Nearne, a British spy working as a radio operator (code name: “Rose”) in the French underground attributed her daring work to the feeling of patriotism she got from tapping the radio keys. She was captured and tortured, but didn’t break. She was sent to Ravensbrück, but before the end was transferred to another camp. She survived to live a single life until the end of her days in 2010.
Only in investigating Eileen’s personal papers did her courage and patriotism cry out and stamp her as a heroine. She posthumously received the French Cross of war medal, and a heroine’s funeral with military pomp. One may hope that wherever Eileen is now, she is not alone.
As word got out on Ravensbrück, female guards were identified in their civilian garb. They were arrested and became prisoners themselves, awaiting trial, and then being sentenced as war criminals. Truly the dharma wheel (or if you prefer, Providence) moves slowly in grinding out justice.
Today Ravensbrück contains a memorial to the former prisoners, now finally free. Some of the effects are touching. The prisoners made themselves jewelry, small dolls, and other small amusements to cling to when times were tough. Ravensbrück is now in the rear view mirror. History remembers the horrors. Sarah Helm has written an important book reminding us of what we can never let happen again.
Sarah Helm, Ravensbruck: Life and Death in Hitler's Concentration Camp for Women (Random House, 2015).
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