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A concentration camp for women

· As told by Sarah Helm ·

From 1939 to 1945 Ravensbrück, a hundred kilometres north of Berlin, was the location of a concentration camp for women. The camp which, in the beginning held 2,000 women, all political prisoners of Germany and Austria, eventually held more than 45,000. Except for several moments, especially towards the end, most were political prisoners, social outcasts, gypsies and women accused of having relationships with Jews, thereby contaminating the race. The number of Jewish women never exceeded 10 percent. Beginning in the fall of 1944, when Auschwitz's gas chambers closed, the camp was equipped with one, perhaps two, similar chambers and began functioning as an extermination camp. The camp also held important detainees who were generally treated better than the others as they were considered possible hostages. Such prisoners included Gemma La Guardia, a Jew and the sister of the Mayor of New York, and the niece of General De Gaulle, Geneviève. The number of women who perished varies according to historians, but typically falls between 30,000 and 90,000; and the number of women who were detained reached more than 100,000.

The women in the camp came from many different countries, including those occupied by the Nazis. Many of them were Russian, soldiers from the Red Army, as well as Polish and French. There were also ten English women who were secret service agents arrested in France and approximately a thousand Italian women who were mostly political prisoners. Ravensbrück was liberated on 30 April 1945 by the Red Army.

Written by British journalist Sarah Helm, Ravensbruck: Life and Death in Hitler's Concentration Camp for Women tells the both terrifying and fascinating story of this concentration camp and its women. The author writes in a narrative style that makes this 700-page book a pleasure to read despite its subject and size. She scrupulously weaves together historic documents and oral sources, many of whom she interviewed herself. Names rather than numbers are at the heart of the book and Helm is clearly interested in restoring life to these women and describing the way they lived, where they died, and their endless stories of strength, heroism, pain and death.

Beginning in 1942 medical experiments were performed on the prisoners in the camp. Most of their test subjects – approximately 100 – were Polish and many of the “rabbits”, as they were called in the camp, died. Some, however, survived and were able to send messages to Poland and then the Allies with detailed news of the experiments and calls for help.

Attempts to end the Red Cross' non-intervention were to no avail, due to the strong influence of Ernst Grawitz, president of the German Red Cross and a friend of Karl Gebhardt, medical director of experiments in Ravensbrück, who impeded every intervention until 1945. Grawitz committed suicide after the Reich fell and Gebhardt, who was also part of Himmler's medical personnel, was charged during the Nuremberg trials and then was hanged in 1948. Yet another tassel in the Nazi doctor's cap in the extermination.

Anna Foa




St. Peter’s Square

April 26, 2019