Situated near the forest and overlooking a beautiful lake, Ravensbrück seemed more like an ideal place for summer holidays than what it became during World War II: The only Nazi concentration camp solely dedicated to imprisoning and murdering women (and later, children.)
Historian Sarah Helm’s Significant Research
While the Heinrich Himmler-chosen spot remains nearly forgotten by the world at large, historian Sarah Helm recently took great pains to interview survivors and tracked down written accounts from those imprisoned there.
As she points out in Ravensbrück: Life and Death in Hitler’s Concentration Camp for Women, much of the official records about the camp were unaccessible for decades, partially because the camp’s location dictated its inclusion into East Germany after World War II, and therefore difficult for westerners to access.
The British government also waited decades to declassify documents regarding its female spies once held there. As a result of these and other factors, Ravensbrück remains nearly forgotten while Dauchau and Auschwitz earn instant recognition.
Ravensbrück’s Diverse Prisoners
Unlike other concentration camps, Ravensbrück’s population consisted of only about ten percent of Jews. Instead, the diverse population included gypsies, communists, Poles (including countesses), Germans, French resistance, British spies, and prostitutes.
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Through the years preceding and during the war, various groups gained and lost favor, foraging and stealing to survive mentally and physically. The staff played groups off of one another and an unofficial ranking system (with periodic shifts, although prostitutes and gypsies remained at the bottom) took place.
Horrifically, a small group of Germans and a larger group of Poles (all initially healthy) underwent experimentation; these women became known as the “rabbits.” The medical staff chose each participant carefully and offered shorter imprisonment terms for volunteers. The staff exposed newly created wounds on the legs of these healthy women to poison gases and other lethal substances found on the battlefield, experimenting with different medicines to cure the infections; needless to say, many of these women died agonizing deaths without the benefit of painkillers.
Because of their bravery throughout their suffering, the ‘rabbits’ who survived earned special protection and status throughout the camp among other prisoners.
Bureaucracy of Ravensbrück: Guards vs. SS
Until 1943, Johanna Langefeld served as the head guard at Ravensbrück, coordinating the female guards and implementing rules. The SS stationed several men there to oversee operations and Langefeld clashed with them. As Helm explains, Langefeld attempted to maintain control over the camp, but ultimately lost her position when she halted the SS’ planned execution of two of the rabbits, resulting in her immediate dismissal.
The Liberation- and Further Torment
In 1945, Ravensbrück’s SS guards knew that the Allies continued to advance on their position. As the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum notes, they began a long march with about 20,000 prisoners but slowly, many of the guards and other staff members disappeared, escaping as they could – although some of them failed. Less than 4,000 prisoners remained in the camps, unguarded when the Soviets found them on April 29 and 30, 1945 according to the Jewish Virtual Library’s “Ravensbrück Concentration Camp: History and Overview.”
Helm, never failing to shy away from the grim truth, notes that the Soviet soldiers who liberated those filthy, emaciated, tortured women also raped them in substantial numbers, further compounding the horrors the women experienced.
After the war, extensive trials resulted in the execution of several staff members, especially the doctors and nurses who conducted the inhumane experiments on the rabbits and other prisoners.
Ravensbrück Disappears into East Germany- and Finally Reappears
Ravensbrück disappeared into the new East Germany, transforming into a monument dedicated to the Soviet communists imprisoned there while overshadowing the other women of different backgrounds. Because of its remote location in communist-controlled territory, western-based survivors, family members and tourists remained unable to visit until after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The communist government stressed the communist women who lived there and built the narrative of the camp around them, omitting the many other diverse groups of women.
With the reunification of Germany and the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II in 2015, Ravensbrück finally offers us another chance to stare at the horrors of the Nazi administration and its maltreatment of approximately 132,000 prisoners (according to the Jewish Virtual Library) with open eyes and long memories.
Roger Busbice says
Great review of a crucially important and timely book! Never Again!
Frank Beswick says
In the early 1980s I worked with a woman who was a Ravensbruck survivor. She had married a British soldier and settled in England. She had been left with a phobia of Dobermann Pinscher dogs, those used by the guards. But after an incident in the 1980s when she was bullied by young yobs on a bus she told me simply, ” I have seen their type before, but then they wore SS uniform.” She was aware that there are people in our society and indeed all societies who would behave like camp guards, being cruel to the vulnerable.
I lost contact with her when she retired and as it is thirty or more years ago I have little confidence that she yet lives.