Female Holocaust survivors stories from Ravensbruck camp
The horror and scale of Nazism and its determination to eliminate dissent continues to preoccupy us 70 years on. Successive generations of historians have analysed the political structures, the ideological obsessions, the territorial ambitions and the machinery of mass murder of the Third Reich. Documents, diaries, letters and photographs now provide unimpeachable evidence about the regime. Survivors have given corroborating oral testimonies to convict the guilty and refute the denialists.
Female prisoners at Ravensbruck concentration camp in Germany, 1945.
Sarah Helm’s If This is a Woman is magisterial and forensic in its reclamation of individual stories from Ravensbruck, the sole women’s concentration camp. It is not for the faint-hearted at more than 700 pages. The reader can only despair at the suffering and brutality inflicted by the Reich’s loyal servants. Their victims came from more than 20 nationalities — prostitutes, princesses, intellectuals, Roma, communists, the disabled, Jews and Jehovah’s Witnesses — and waged a futile struggle to outlive the concerted efforts to work them to death.
Helm argues this camp has been largely ignored by historians partly because women’s lives are routinely regarded as less valuable than those of men. “Just as Auschwitz was the capital of the crime against Jews, so Ravensbruck was the capital of the crime against women.” Gender may be one reason why this camp was under-examined, but it was also a relatively small camp and not designed as a centre for mass murder. Only 80km from Berlin, it was of personal interest to Heinrich Himmler during its six years in operation principally as a slave labour camp for the Siemens company. Gas chambers were erected later in the war to exterminate prisoners unable to work.
Ravensbruck was a study in the vagaries of human behaviour. Heroism countered opportunism, altruism battled self-interest and corruption, defiant solidarity fought base individualism, political consciousness combated asociality, and courage resisted collaboration. Women were selected for horrific “medical” experimentation: bones repeatedly smashed, wounds created and purposely infected. Forced abortions and sterilisations were routine and a plethora of drugs was tested on helpless victims. In the twisted irony preferred by Nazis, a “kinderzimmer” was established where pregnant women were forced to relinquish their newborns to be starved, eaten by rats or drowned in buckets.
Politically sophisticated women maintained morale among their comrades. Yevgenia Klemm kept 500 Red Army veterans together. She recognised that survival depended on solidarity, information and hope. Hers is one of a plethora of poignant stories. Following liberation she returned to the Soviet Union where her wartime travails were largely ignored and suspicions of the survivors’ integrity were fostered. In the early 1950s, completely ostracised, this heroine of Ravensbruck hanged herself.
French ethnologist Germaine Tillion documented the arrivals and departures, and was determined to ensure a record was preserved of the numbers of prisoners and their fate. Louise (Loulou) Le Porz, a doctor from Bordeaux, arrived in the camp as part of the vingt-sept mille — the 27,000s — named for their tattooed numbers. Forced to work in the Revier, the hospital block she viewed as a theatrical facade for the selection of women for death, she recalled: “When the chimney was throwing out its smoke and we could feel the dust in the air we would say to each other — ‘you see they are among us again, our comrades’.’’
In this hell, prisoners created a Christmas party for the children, organised education classes, wrote plays, shared food and clothing and protected the sick. The entire camp conspired to hide the “rabbits” when they were to be exterminated. Protests were lodged repeatedly by the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the French who refused to assist in the war effort.
Ravensbruck’s prison guards went about their work with enthusiasm. Young German women were attracted by the good pay, excellent food, comfortable housing and the chance to meet an SS soldier. At roll call, Maria Mandl enjoyed detecting the odd curl of hair before kicking the culprit to death. Gertrud Rabenstein taught her dog to attack anyone wearing striped clothes.
Blockovas (female kapos) were appointed to maintain block order, to disrupt any communal impulses, distribute food and prepare the lists for selection. There were ethnic, class and political divisions — the communists looked out for each other, German prisoners were anti-Semitic, the French looked down on camp veterans, collaborators were despised by everyone.
Starvation, typhus, lice, diphtheria, dysentery and TB inevitably killed most prisoners. Hours spent in the freezing cold in rags standing on the appell (roll call) after backbreaking labour ensured the crematoria were regularly stoked. Despite the conditions, the prisoners succeeded in smuggling out coded letters conveying camp conditions to the Western powers.
Helm is devastating in her critique of the International Red Cross which, despite all the necessary evidence by 1943, decided neutrality was of greater importance and remained silent. The IRC took a narrow legalistic view of its mandate — to assist POWs rather than citizens incarcerated in concentration camps.
By late 1944, order was crumbling under the sheer number of victims to be worked to death, exterminated or sent on death marches to other camps. The Third Reich’s efficient record-keeping gave way to chaos and method gave way to panic as defeat became inevitable.
Originally it was estimated that 90,000 women were murdered at Ravensbruck. Helm argues the number is closer to 50,000. But precision is impossible given the movement of prisoners in and out of the camp, the escalating number of deaths from disease and exhaustion and the complexities of accounting for women held in the network of 30 sub-camps.
As the Allies advanced, Himmler stepped up the rate of killing at the camp; determined to leave no witnesses or evidence. Thirteen hundred Hungarian Jews arrived in December 1944, in the depths of winter; their only “clothing” was straw. Gas chambers were hastily constructed and operated. More than 600 babies were born in the camp in the final months of the war; 40 survived beyond their first month, only to be sent to their deaths in Belsen.
Pragmatic camp officials began to prepare for life after the Third Reich. More than 3000 women and children were sent to Belsen, the maternity block was painted, prominent prisoners were kept as hostages and preparations were made to negotiate with the Allies. In April 1945, a Swiss mission was finally given permission by Himmler to rescue some prisoners. But the buses were made to wait until another round of gassing was complete. As some 300 women finally left the camp, the commandant farewelled them, hoping they “wouldn’t have a disagreeable recollection of their time in the camp”. Once the buses left, mobile gas vans continued their task.
Liberation and its aftermath proved equally dangerous for women. Soldiers from the liberating Red Army sought vengeance for their own nation’s suffering under Nazism. Discipline evaporated as looting and raping became commonplace. Helm documents the appalling behaviour of the Soviet soldiers and the efforts made by their army leaders to re-establish order. We can comprehend Soviet soldiers exacting revenge on the German people. After all, most Germans were either actively involved or complicit in the crimes of the Nazi regime. But brutalising the broken women who survived the concentration camps is unfathomable.
The title of this book comes from Primo Levi, the Italian chemist whose oeuvre has provided us with a remarkable personal testimony to this period. He writes: “Consider if this is a woman, without hair, without name, without the strength to remember, empty are her eyes, cold her womb like a frog in winter … Never forget this happened.” Helm’s superb and harrowing chronicle of the women of Ravensbruck restores their humanity, ensuring their suffering and their courage are remembered as well as honoured.
Review: If This is a Woman, By Sarah HelmLittle, Brown Book Group, 768pp, $32.99
Review by Louise Adler chief executive of Melbourne University Press. Source: www.theaustralian.com.au