Ravensbruck was the only Nazi concentration camp for women, and it was run mostly by women. The majority of the women killed there were not Jews. They were women with Communist leanings, political prisoners, Gypsies, prostitutes, Jehovah’s Witnesses, members of the resistance, housewives, artists, petty criminals and upper-class women, from different countries.
“Ravensbruck: Life and Death in Hitler’s Concentration Camp for Women” (Nan A. Talese) by Sarah Helm is a groundbreaking, detailed biography of a place of crimes and abominations in a beautiful setting in the German forest about 50 miles north of Berlin, from its beginnings to its end. The camp was constructed under the direction of Heinrich Himmler in 1938, opened in 1939, and liberated by the Russians in April 1945. The guards burned the prisoners’ files and fled. By mid-May all the survivors were trying to head home, if they still had homes and families.
This is a long book — more than 650 pages plus notes — and it is captivating, one of many new titles published this year in time for Yom HaShoah and the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the camps. Like the writer, the reader thirsts for more details, as though knowing more about the place might yield understanding, and hearing more stories will honor those who suffered. There’s much to absorb here, from talks of inhumanely cruel punishment to examples of camaraderie, resilience and courage.
Over its six years of existence, about 130,000 women passed through its gates — “to be beaten, starved, worked to death, poisoned, executed and gassed.” Somewhere between 30,000 and 90,000 women were murdered. (The S.S. records were destroyed.)
“Just as Auschwitz was the capital of the crime against the Jews, so Ravensbruck was the capital of the crime against women,” Helm writes. She notes that for survivors, the precise number of women killed is less important than their names.
Based in London, Helm is a journalist who wrote for the Sunday Times (London), cofounded The Independent, and is the author of “A Life in Secrets: Vera Atkins and the Missing Agents of WW II.” It was while writing that book that Helm first learned about Ravensbruck, when she came across a box of files with notes of interviews with survivors and guards.
When she began doing research, Helm found a message on her answering machine from a doctor who invited her to visit her in Bordeaux and talk about her time in Ravensbruck, but urged that she hurry up, as the woman was 93. Helm managed to interview survivors all over the world who were aging and ready to talk. They told her of medical experiments on them; doing hard work whether in munitions at Siemen’s, shoveling sand back and forth, or making fur gloves for the pilots while their own feet were like blocks of ice; and they spoke of rules with no logic and arbitrary and cruel enforcement. And they told of how the women helped one another, secreting food for those not well, teaching each other, passing news through the camp and supporting their iron will to survive.
Helm was also able to access many documents that had been previously unavailable, whether in Soviet or German archives, including trial records of the guards. A photo section includes views of Ravensbruck, along with images of the women, both prisoners and guards, at earlier times in their lives.
A few survivors recorded their stories, but most stayed silent — they told Helm that few wanted to hear their stories when they returned. In Israel, Helm interviewed Naomi Moscovitch, who arrived in the camp as a child in 1943. She went to Israel after the war and one the things she spoke about was a recollection of a children’s Christmas party in 1944, when bombs hit. For Moscovitch, life in Israel had been hard: She lost her daughter, son-in-law and their three children in the Sbarro Pizzeria suicide bombing in 2001.
From the beginning, the Jewish women were isolated in a single block. Helm writes that they worked longer hours (and didn’t have Sundays off like the other prisoners), had meager rations and suffered extra beatings by guards. But as Himmler calculated, women could be tortured in different ways than men — the simple fact that their husbands were killed and children taken away caused tremendous pain.
Fiorella LaGuardia’s sister, Gemma LaGuardia Gluck, was a prisoner, as were a former British women’s golf champion, many Polish countesses and Milena Jeselenka, a Czech journalist who had been a lover of Franz Kafka. The spirited Jeselenka didn’t obey the rules and had a buoyancy and confidence about her that shielded her from S.S. attacks. She died in May 1944 and entrusted her story to her friend Margarete Buber-Neumann, a fellow prisoner whose first husband was the son of Martin Buber and second husband was a Jewish communist. Buber-Neumann wrote a beautiful memoir about her friend, “Milena.”
On Helm’s first visit to Ravensbruck, she had a hard time finding the place, and that was the intent of its builders. The site, hidden in the woods, was chosen for its proximity to nature. She slept there in a guards’ house that had been converted into a youth hostel. Today, there’s a Visitor’s Center that attracts about 150,000 visitors a year, which is less than other camps like Auschwitz. All the women Helm spoke with remembered their arrival, when they were greeted at the large gate by guards yelling, with whips cracking and dogs barking and lunging at them, and ordered to stand in silence.
Adjacent to the crematorium, there are plans to plant 1,000 roses on top of the mass grave, but there’s a dispute as to whether this will desecrate the remains. A photo shows a sign put up by a German survivors’ group, “You are not forgotten.”