In Europe - East, Russia

Book excerpt by author Sarah Helm, published in the Toronto Star, March 15, 2015

Female prisoners at Ravensbrück concentration at the time of liberation by the Soviet Army in 1945

Female prisoners at Ravensbrück concentration at the time of liberation by the Soviet Army in 1945

In her new book, If This Is a Woman, journalist and author Sarah Helm relates the six-year history of the Nazis’ all-female Ravensbrück concentration camp. She unearths unknown stories of the heroism and endurance of some of the 130,000 women who passed through its gates. The book’s title comes from the Primo Levi poem “If This Is a Man,” in which he writes: “Consider if this is a woman, / Without hair and without name / With no more strength to remember, / Her eyes empty and her womb cold / Like a frog in winter. / Meditate that this came about: / I commend these words to you.”

From Berlin’s Tegel airport it takes just over an hour to reach Ravensbrück. The first time I drove there, in February 2006, heavy snow was falling and a truck had jackknifed on the Berlin ring road, so it would take longer.

Read also:
Review of ‘If This Is a Woman: Inside Ravensbrück, Hitler’s Concentration Camp for Women’, by Yvonne Roberts, The Guardian, Jan. 18, 2015

Heinrich Himmler often drove out to Ravensbrück, even in atrocious weather like this. The head of the SS had friends in the area and would drop in to inspect the camp as he passed by. He rarely left without issuing new orders. Once he ordered more root vegetables to be put in the prisoners’ soup. On another occasion he said the killing wasn’t going fast enough.

Nazi concentration camp for women at Ravensbrück  Germany, photo from Brandenburg Memorial Foundation

Nazi concentration camp for women at Ravensbrück Germany, photo from Brandenburg Memorial Foundation

Ravensbrück was the only Nazi concentration camp built for women. The camp took its name from the small village that adjoins the town of Fürstenberg and lies about 50 miles due north of Berlin, off the road to Rostock on Germany’s Baltic coast. Women arriving in the night sometimes thought they were near the coast because they tasted salt on the wind; they also felt sand underfoot. When daylight came they saw that the camp was built on the edge of a lake and surrounded by forest. Himmler liked his camps to be in areas of natural beauty, and preferably hidden from view. Today the camp is still hidden from view; the horrific crimes enacted there and the courage of the victims are largely unknown.

Ravensbrück opened in May 1939, just under four months before the outbreak of war, and was liberated by the Russians six years later — it was one of the very last camps to be reached by the Allies. In the first year there were fewer than 2,000 prisoners, almost all of whom were Germans. Many had been arrested because they opposed Hitler — Communists, for example, and Jehovah’s Witnesses, who called Hitler the Antichrist. Others were rounded up simply because the Nazis considered them inferior beings and wanted them removed from society: prostitutes, criminals, down-and-outs and Gypsies. Later, the camp took in thousands of women captured in countries occupied by the Nazis, many of whom had been in the Resistance. Children were brought there too. A small proportion of the prisoners — about 10 per cent — were Jewish, but the camp was not formally designated a camp for Jews.

Ukrainian and Russian mothers and babies in Ravensbrück  right after the camp's liberation by the Soviet Army, image from Brandenburg Memorial Foundation

Ukrainian and Russian mothers and babies in Ravensbrück right after the camp’s liberation by the Soviet Army, image from Brandenburg Memorial Foundation

At its height, Ravensbrück had a population of about 45,000 women; over the six years of its existence around 130,000 women passed through its gates, to be beaten, starved, worked to death, poisoned, executed and gassed. Estimates of the final death toll have ranged from about 30,000 to 90,000; the real figure probably lies somewhere in between, but so few SS documents on the camp survive nobody will ever know for sure. The wholesale destruction of evidence at Ravensbrück is another reason the camp’s story has remained obscured. In the final days, every prisoner’s file was burned in the crematorium or on bonfires, along with the bodies. The ashes were thrown in the lake.

I first learned of Ravensbrück when writing an earlier book about Vera Atkins, a wartime officer with the British secret service’s Special Operations Executive. Immediately after the war Vera launched a single-handed search for British SOE women who had been parachuted into occupied France to help the Resistance, many of whom had gone missing. Vera followed their trails and discovered that several had been captured and taken to concentration camps.

I tried to reconstruct her search, and began with her personal papers, which were filed in brown cardboard boxes and kept by her sister-in-law Phoebe Atkins at her home in Cornwall. Inside were handwritten notes from interviews with survivors and with SS suspects — some of the earliest evidence gathered about the camp. I flicked through the papers. “We had to strip naked and were shaved,” one woman told Vera. There was “a column of choking blue smoke.”

A survivor talked of a camp hospital where “syphilis germs were injected into the spinal cord.” Another described seeing women arrive at the camp after a “death march” through the snow from Auschwitz. One of the male SOE agents, imprisoned at Dachau, wrote a note saying he had heard about women from Ravensbrück being forced to work in a Dachau brothel.

Among the prisoners were “the cream of Europe’s women,” according to a British investigator; they included General de Gaulle’s niece, a former British women’s golf champion and scores of Polish countesses.

I began to look for dates of birth and addresses in case any of the survivors — or even the guards — might still be alive. Someone had given Vera the address of a Mrs. Chatenay, “who knows about the sterilization of children in Block 11.” A Dr. Louise Le Porz had made a very detailed statement saying the camp was built on an estate belonging to Himmler and his private Schloss, or château, was nearby. Her address was Mérignac, Gironde, but from her date of birth she was probably dead.

Towards the back of the box I found handwritten lists of prisoners, smuggled out by a Polish woman who had taken notes in the camp as well as sketches and maps. “The Poles had all the best information,” the note said. The woman who wrote the list turned out to be long dead, but some of the addresses were in London, and the survivors still living.

I took the sketches with me on the first drive out to Ravensbrück, hoping they would help me find my way around when I got there. But as the snow thickened I wondered if I’d reach the camp at all.

Many tried and failed to reach Ravensbrück. Red Cross officials trying to get to the camp in the chaos of the final days of war had to turn back, such was the flow of refugees moving the other way. A few months after the war, when Vera Atkins drove out this way to start her investigation, she was stopped at a Russian checkpoint; the camp was inside the Russian zone of occupation and access by other Allied nationals was restricted. By this time, Vera’s hunt for the missing women had become part of a bigger British investigation into the camp, resulting in the first Ravensbrück war crimes trials, which opened in Hamburg in 1946.

In the 1950s, as the Cold War began, Ravensbrück fell behind the Iron Curtain, which split survivors — east from west — and broke the history of the camp in two. The site became a shrine to the camp’s Communist heroines, and all over East Germany streets and schools were named after them.

Meanwhile, in the West, Ravensbrück literally disappeared from view.

In those countries that lost large numbers in the camp, survivors’ groups tried to keep memories alive. An estimated 8,000 French, 1,000 Dutch, 18,000 Russians and 40,000 Poles were imprisoned. Yet, for different reasons in each country, the story has been obscured.

In Britain, which had no more than 20 women in the camp, the ignorance is startling, as it is in the U.S. The British may know of Dachau, the first concentration camp, and perhaps of Belsen because British troops liberated it and the horror they found there, captured on film, forever scarred the British consciousness. Otherwise only Auschwitz, synonymous with the gassing of the Jews, has real resonance.

After reading Vera’s files I looked around to see what had been written on the women’s camp. Mainstream historians — nearly all of them men — had almost nothing to say. Then a friend, working in Berlin, lent me a hefty collection of essays mostly by German women academics. In the 1990s, feminist historians had begun a fightback. This book promised to “release women from the anonymity that lies behind the word prisoner.”

I had also come across a handful of prisoners’ memoirs, mostly from the 1950s and 1960s, hanging around in the back shelves of public libraries, often with sensationalized jackets. The cover for a memoir by a French literature teacher, Micheline Maurel, showed a voluptuous Bond-girl look-alike behind barbed wire. A book about Irma Grese, one of the early Ravensbrück guards, was titled The Beautiful Beast.

I went to see Yvonne Baseden, the only survivor I was then aware was still living. Yvonne was one of Vera Atkins’s SOE women, captured while helping the Resistance in France, then sent to Ravensbrück. Yvonne had always willingly talked about her Resistance work, but whenever I had broached the subject of Ravensbrück she had said she “knew nothing” and turned away.

This time I told her I was planning to write a book on the camp, hoping she might say more, but she looked up in horror.

“Oh no,” she said. “You can’t do that.”

I asked why not. “It is too horrible. Couldn’t you write about something else? What are you going to tell your children you are doing?’ she asked.

Didn’t she think the story should be told? “Oh yes. Nobody knows about Ravensbrück at all. Nobody ever wanted to know from the moment we came back.” She looked out of the window.

As I left she gave me a small book. It was another memoir, with a particularly monstrous cover, twisted figures in black and white. Yvonne hadn’t read it, she said, pushing it on me.

When I got home I read it without putting it down. The author was a young French lawyer called Denise Dufournier who had written a simple and moving account of endurance against all odds. The “abomination” was not the only part of the Ravensbrück story that was being forgotten; so was the fight for survival.

A few days later a French voice spoke out of my answering machine. It was Dr. Louise Le Porz (now Liard), the doctor from Mérignac who I’d assumed was dead. Instead, she was inviting me to stay with her in Bordeaux, where she now lived. I could stay as long as I liked as there was much to talk about. “But you’d better hurry. I’m 93 years old.”

Soon after this I made contact with Bärbel Schindler-Saefkow, the author of Memory Book. Bärbel, the daughter of a German Communist prisoner, was compiling a database of the prisoners; she had travelled far afield gathering up lists of names hidden in obscure archives. She sent me the address of Valentina Makarova, a Belorussian partisan, who had survived the Auschwitz death march. Valentina wrote back, suggesting I visit her in Minsk.

By the time I reached Berlin’s outer suburbs the snow was easing. I passed a sign for Sachsenhausen, the location of the men’s concentration camp, which meant I was heading the right way. Sachsenhausen and Ravensbrück had close contacts. The men’s camp even baked the women’s bread; the loaves were driven out on this road every day. At first each woman got half a loaf each evening. By the end of the war they barely received a slice and the “useless mouths” — as the Nazis called those they wanted rid of — received none at all.

Himmler’s SS empire was vast: by the middle of the war there were as many as 15,000 Nazi camps, which included temporary labour camps and thousands of subcamps, linked to the main concentration camps, dotted all over Germany and Poland. The biggest and most monstrous were those constructed in 1942, under the terms of the Final Solution. By the end of the war an estimated six million Jews had been exterminated. The facts of the Jewish genocide are today so well-known and so overwhelming that many people suppose that Hitler’s extermination program consisted of the Jewish Holocaust alone.

People who ask about Ravensbrück are often surprised that the majority of the women killed there were not Jews.

Today historians differentiate between the camps but labels can mislead. Ravensbrück is often described as a “slave labour” camp, but slave labour was only a stage on the way to death. Prisoners at the time called Ravensbrück a death camp. The French survivor and ethnologist Germaine Tillion called it a place of “slow extermination.”

Leaving Berlin, the road north cut across white fields before plunging into trees. From time to time I passed abandoned collective farms, remnants from Communist times.

Deep into the forest the snow had drifted and it became hard to find the way. Ravensbrück women were often sent out through the snow to fell trees in the woods. The snow stuck to their wooden clogs so that they walked on snow platforms, their ankles twisting as they went. Alsatian dogs held on leashes by women guards pounced on them if they fell.

The names of forest villages began to seem familiar from testimony I’d read. Then the spire of Fürstenberg church came into view. From the centre of the town the camp was quite invisible, but I knew it lay just the other side of the lake. Prisoners talked about seeing the spire when they came out of the camp gates.

On the other side of Fürstenberg a cobbled forest road — built by the prisoners — led to the camp. Houses with pitched roofs appeared on the left; from Vera’s map I knew these were the houses where the guards lived. One had been converted into a youth hostel, where I would spend the night. The original guards’ decor had long since been stripped away, to be replaced by pristine modern fittings, but the previous occupants still haunted their old rooms.

The lake opened out on to my right, vast and frozen white.

The Siemens factory camp, a few hundred yards beyond the south wall, was overgrown and hard to reach, as was the annex, called the Youth Camp, where so much killing had happened. I would have to imagine what they were like, but I didn’t have to imagine the cold. The prisoners stood out here on the camp square for hours in their cotton clothes. I sought shelter in the “bunker,” the stone prison building, its cells converted during the Cold War period into memorials to the Communist dead. Lists of names were inscribed on shiny black granite.

Outside the camp walls I found other memorials, more intimate ones. Near the crematorium was a long dark passage with high walls, known as the shooting alley. A small bunch of roses had been placed here; they would have been dead if they weren’t frozen. There was a label with a name.

There were three little posies of flowers in the crematorium, lying on the ovens, and a few roses scattered on the edge of the lake. Since the camp had become accessible again, former prisoners were coming to remember their dead friends. I needed to find more survivors while there was still time.

I understood now what this book should be: a biography of Ravensbrück beginning at the beginning and ending at the end. The book would try to throw light on the Nazis’ crimes against women, showing, at the same time, how an understanding of what happened at the camp for women can illuminate the wider Nazi story.

So much of the evidence had been destroyed, so much forgotten and distorted. But a great deal had survived, and new evidence was becoming available all the time.

Most important for this book would be the voices of the prisoners themselves; they would be my guide as to what really happened.

The sun broke through briefly as I stood near the shooting gallery. Wood pigeons were hooting at the tops of the linden trees, competing with the sound of traffic sweeping past. A coach carrying French schoolchildren had pulled in and they were standing around smoking cigarettes.

I was looking straight across the frozen lake towards the Fürstenberg church spire. In the distance workmen were moving around in a boatyard; summer visitors take the boats out, unaware of the ashes lying at the bottom of the lake. The breeze was blowing a red rose across the ice.

© 2015 Sarah Helm, extracted from the prologue of If This is a Woman, published by Little, Brown.


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