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Ravensbruck: Life and Death in Hitler's Concentration Camp for Women Paperback – March 22, 2016
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“Brilliantly presented. . . . Elegantly crafted. . . . Under Helm’s sympathetic hand, the women of Ravensbrück come alive once again.” —The Washington Post
“Moving. . . . Absorbing. . . . When acts of resistance are described, inspirational.” —The New York Review of Books
“Fascinating. . . . Achieves just the right balance of judgment, fearlessness and restraint.” —San Francisco Chronicle
“A sense of urgency infuses this history. . . . [Helm’s] book comes not a moment too soon.” —The Economist
“A profoundly moving chronicle.” —The Guardian (London)
“Ravensbrück helps us understand how thoroughgoing an onslaught on humanity Nazi Germany perpetrated, and how central to its identity was its implacable urge to enslave and kill those it considered undesirable. . . . Ravensbrück gives us an agonizing sense of the dark heart of the Nazi ethos.” —The New York Times Book Review
“Illuminates the attempted escapes, executions, and impossible courage of women history conspired to forget.” —O, The Oprah Magazine
“A remarkable and riveting narrative.” —Minneapolis Star Tribune
“A groundbreaking, detailed biography. . . . There’s much to absorb here, from talks of inhumanely cruel punishment to examples of camaraderie, resilience and courage.” —The Jewish Week
“Compelling. . . . Powerful. . . . Devastating. . . . What one is left with at the end of this momentous book is a sense of the power of human nature, both for good and for evil.” —The Irish Independent
“Using material once locked behind the Iron Curtain, Sarah Helm has performed a tremendous feat of historical rescue. This book at last gives full voice to the women of Ravensbrück, the only Nazi concentration camp for women, for the very first time.” —Anne Applebaum, author of Gulag, winner of the Pulitzer Prize
“An important cautionary tale. . . . A revelation. . . . Helm describes an amazing social structure that, despite all, arose in that encapsulated place, run for and mostly by women. The courage of the prisoners in the face of overwhelming cruelty was extraordinary.” —Lynn H. Nicholas, author of The Rape of Europa, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award
“Ravensbrück is a book everyone should read. . . . Beautifully written. . . . Helm has done an amazing job with an enormous and enormously painful topic.” —PopMatters
“A beautifully written history of events that offers additional insight into Nazism and those caught in its path. . . . This book deserves significant attention.” —Publishers Weekly (starred)
“Chronicles the history of this much-ignored site for women. . . . Helm delivers a gripping story of the women who outlasted them and had the strength to share with the author and us sixty years later.” —Kirkus Reviews
About the Author
Sarah Helm is the author of A Life in Secrets: Vera Atkins and the Missing Agents of WWII and the play Loyalty, about the 2003 Iraq War. She was a staff journalist on the Sunday Times (London) and a foreign correspondent on the Independent, and now writes for several publications. She lives in London with her husband and two daughters.
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And Ms Helm's book is the book I have been waiting for, a triumph of meticulous research, of painstaking fact-checking in at least 5 countries that I can recall, including her most extraordinary race to interview the last remaining witnesses and victims to the atrocities of this camp. How did she do it? How did she get them to talk, when they had been silent for so long? I don’t know, but her book is written with such compassion and conviction, that I assume that the survivors understood her as she understood them. She wanted to chronicle the truth before time ran out. To tell us all and help us understand. Her timeline is difficult and yet she is able to keep track of all the events, blending and building on events and people, and making this many-layered book into an almost seamless chronology.
In the wider story of the Holocaust, Ravensbruck is not a camp that targeted the Jewish people, but rather demonstrated the Nazis to be equal-opportunity torturers with little differentiation between Poles, Jews, Gypsies, Czechs, Germans, or the French, because their goal was singular: they wished to destroy women. Destroy their spirits, bodies, and minds, their ability to bear children or trust other human beings; to make them into unwilling slave labor to the Nazi cause. They were used to the limits of their endurance and then destroyed when they no longer had a purpose: gassed, their bodies turned to dust. And the final plan was to kill all the women if the war turned against the Nazis.
Ravensbruck first began as a prison for political prisoners as well as Jehovah’s Witnesses, Roma women, Communists. Dare to speak against any aspect of Nazi Germany, and chances are you would wind up in Ravensbruck.
Unfortunately for these prisoners, Ravensbruck quickly segued into the only women's prison camp, a place to train women guards to become torturers for the other camps, as well as an experimental station for doctors to practice their art of using humans as “rabbits” (almost entirely Polish women), moving back and forth between Auschwitz, Mauthause, Belsen... The prisoners became slave labor, marched to work at Siemens , forced to build their own gassing chamber, own crematoriium; they shovelled sand until their hands were shredded, hauled coal, rocks, and made roads pulling giant cement rollers by hand.
Ms Helm chronicles the world these women existed in with a voice that begs us all to listen. Her interviews with the survivors, some of them the Polish “rabbits”, others Russian communists who suffered even more at the hands of their own compatriots under Stalin post-war, among others, & the surviving SOE agents, was incredible reading. I can never feel what they felt, but Ms Helm tells us to try, and to never forget.
One of the things that Ravensbruck excelled in (if I may be permitted to use that word) was psychological torture. Women were given hope only to have it snatched away, time and time again, in the ultimate cat-and-mouse game until even the most optimistic of women would lose all hope. Surviving in unimaginable filth with no chance to bathe or change their clothes, lying in excrement or having it drip from upper bunks, they began to feel like animals although they tried as hard as possible to not give in. One of the things that made me cry was after their liberation, they were told by kindly Swedish doctors to remove their clothes to be fumigated, and they began to scream in abject terror. Readers will understand that they had been so mentally tortured, given hope so many times by smiling men in white coats, that they thought it one last trick by the Nazis, and a final hope of freedom lost as they were headed for the gas chambers.
Then there was the horrible efficiency of Commandant Fritz Suhren who, long after Auschwitz had stopped gassing prisoners, continued to do so at Ravensbruck within several days of its liberation by the Russians, and when he needed to rapidly cover up truths, took political prisoners who knew too much and threw them, fighting, screaming, and kicking live into the crematoriums. Ms Helm’s extraordinarily meticulous research on this — what can you call the worst of humans? — is difficult reading. He was STILL manipulating the lives of the women with the Russians one day away, and Count Bernadotte at the door with his red cross trucks, still playing God. He was not human, he was the worst of non-humans.
This is not an easy book to read, but it is so worthwhile. It makes us, the readers, rejoice in the prisoners’ heroism to overcome terrible odds, the most appalling of tortures, and conditions and adversity that would have broken most men. They were largely ignored after their liberation (and sadly, a great amount were raped by their Russian liberators) and some had the ignominy of seeing men strutting about with medals on their chests who had never done a thing to earn them. But then Ms Helm reminds us in so many words that still these women survived.
And they lived to tell their tale.
First published in 2014 in the UK where the title was If This is a Woman
First of all the UK title comes from Primo Levi’s book If This is a Man (often titled Survival In Auschwitz in the US:
Consider if this is a woman
Without hair and without name
With no more strength to remember
Her eyes empty and he womb cold
Like a frog in winter.
Meditate that this came about:
I commend these words to you.
This is a remarkable book and not only because the author tells a part of the German concentration camp story that’s not generally know. I’ve read a lot about WWII (not at all an expert mind you) and before reading this book knew only the name of the camp and that it was for women.
What’s most remarkable about this book is the characters that she manages to bring to life, the women who lived this nightmare primarily but also the women who were their guards and doctors, the SS men who ran Ravensbrűck and its satellite camps, and the various people and organizations who form part of its story: Himmler who planned and managed all the camps, and the Swede, Bernadotte, the only one who actually mobilized to save any of the millions in the camps. (The military, American, British and Soviet armies overran camps on their way to Berlin and certainly offered freedom and succor to the inhabitants, but there was no other effort to save those in the camps, even toward the end of the war when Hitler’s orders were to kill all the inhabitants of the camps, burn them down and plow them under before they could be captured by the enemy. Eisenhower said he could help those prisoners best by military defeat of Germany. His attitude was that of all the Allies.)
Many people don’t realize that prisoners in Hitler’s concentration camps had a “different status” from those in POW camps where generally men were not made slave laborers or starved or denied communication with the outside world (their relatives were notified they were POWs and they had a right to receive aid packages, etc.). There were no rules governing concentration camps…none except Hitler’s rules.
Ravensbrűck was unique among Hitler’s camps in that it was experimental, a camp for women, built in 1939 in Mecklenburg near the town of Furstenberg. If you have Google Earth search for "Ravensbrűck Memoria"l and you’ll see the remains of the camp with even some of the barracks still standing. Near of beautiful lake—it was a vacation spot—east of Hamburg in what became East Germany. It was intended as something of a “model camp”.
The new camp had buildings like other camps: an Appellplatz (square where prisoners assembled for roll calls) a revier, or infirmary, and an Effectskammer or prisoner’s clothes store. (The latter held the belongings of those who died or were killed and was the only source of clothes for the living.) The camp had electrified fences (with enough power to kill a person trying to scale them) but no watchtowers or gun emplacements like the men’s camps. Flowers, red salvias, were planted alongside the first row of barracks. Some ex-prisoners were to hate the sight of red salvias in their afterlives….
The first 867 prisoners entered Ravensbrűck in May of 1939 (there would be several hundred thousand at the end of the war, many not even processed, as prisoners were moved hastily from places further east, many ill and starving or worn out from forced marches). They were divided into groups: asocials (prostitutes, beggers, lesbians, petty criminals, gypsies, mentally ill or retarded people, etc), political prisoners who were mostly Communists at first, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Jews were divided into political and non-political. Political Jews were usually those arrested for Rassenschande (polluting the race by having relations with non-Jews).
There were many Germans in the prison who were not Jews, a fact which is sometimes ignored, but all the categories Hitler wanted out of Germany were there as well in later years as women who critized Hitler or the regime. Among the foreigners, the different groups tended to stay together. Among the most close-knit were the Russians, many of whom were actually in the Red Army as nurses, doctors, even foot soldiers. The closeness of the Russian group and the wisdom of their leader gained them some points in negotiating with their captors. The Poles were the next largest group, but there were also many Austrians, Czechs and others. When the American army was poised to take Paris, the Gestapo transported all its prisoners east, the women to Ravensbrűck. Most had been arrested for working with the Resistance, but there were some SOE women from the UK and at least one American who had helped get stranded pilots out of Framce.
The book opens with Johanna Langefeld inspecting the site. Langefeld is the first of many women Helm brings to life. An experienced prison guard, she was to be the Oberaufseherin (head female guard).We see her as excited about an experimental project at first. Then we see her later through the prisoner’s eyes, not exactly a nourishing type of person but generally decent. Later we see her when she’s transferred to Auschwitz and is unable to tolerate the degree of cruelty. Then we see her back at Ravensbrűck only to find much of what she hated at Auschwitz. Finally we see her on trial and in 1957 we see her knocking on the door or an ex-prisoner trying to explain herself.
I would guess that maybe 10 or 12 were characterized in some detail and followed through their lives, including before and after the camp. Though there was not an "after" for many. 50 or 60 other woman are also presented so that we not only associate them with the part they played in the story of Ravensbrűck but as people, with pasts and in some cases futures, with likes and dislikes and problems, illnesses, talents and peculiarities. And friendships—there were a lot of friendships especially among women who were long-term prisoners, evidently considerably more than in men’s camps.
One case would be that of 15-year old Krysia Czyz . She was one of about 75 “rabbits” (kännchen is the German word; we’d call them guinea pigs), young and fit girls from Lublin in Poland who were singled out for possible medical experimentation by Dr. Karl Gebhardt. Of those actually experimented on, some died of the operations performed on them, other died later and still others, including Kysia, lived through many transports (when a prisoner was selected for transport it usually meant to be killed. At first they were sent away to mental hospitals elsewhere in Germany—where Hitler had arranged to experiment with gassing as a way of killing large numbers of people—but later they were sent to the “Youth Camp” adjoining Ravensbrűck where they might be starved to death, left to die because they were already ill, or shot. Eventually Ravensbrűck got its own gas chamber.)
The Polish prisoners were allowed to correspond with family, though the letters were severely censored. Krysia came up with a plan to write in urine between the lines of her letters home, telling her family what had been done to her and others and asking them to contact anyone they can in London (remember there was an interim Polish government in exile at the time). Krysia’s daughter was eventually able to give the author a copy of one of those letters.
I recommend this book highly. It is not a depressing read. Any book where bad things happen is much less likely to be “depressing” if you understand something of the individuals involved. That is this author’s genius, to dig in, which was not easy nearly 70 years after the end of the war, and give faces and characters to the people involved.
In telling the complicated story of the camp, we get to learn about dozens of memorable women prisoners: how they coped and survived; how they helped each other; how they died or what happened to survivors after the war. Helm also discusses why the camp at Ravensbruck has been overlooked by scholars. This book helps to redress that lack of attention. I also recommend Helm’s A Life in Secrets: Vera Atkins and the Missing Agents of WWII. It is also quite detailed, yet through dozens of personal stories it conveys the drama and sacrifice and bravery of those who opposed the Nazis in the second world war. Both are rewarding reads.