Female prisoners at Ravensbrück, 1939
|Operational||May 1939 - April 1945|
|Number of gas chambers||1|
|Inmates||Mostly female political prisoners, a plurality Polish; also 26,000 Jews|
|Number of inmates||130,000 to 132,000|
|Killed||45,000-50,000 to 117,000|
Ravensbrück (pronounced [?a:v?ns'bk]) was a German concentration camp exclusively for women from 1939 to 1945, located in northern Germany, 90 km (56 mi) north of Berlin at a site near the village of Ravensbrück (part of Fürstenberg/Havel). The largest single national group consisted of 40,000 Polish women. Others included 26,000 Jewish women from various countries: 18,800 Russian, 8,000 French, and 1,000 Dutch. More than 80 percent were political prisoners. Many slave labor prisoners were employed by Siemens & Halske. From 1942 to 1945, medical experiments to test the effectiveness of sulfonamides were undertaken.
In the spring of 1941, the SS established a small adjacent camp for male inmates, who built and managed the camp's gas chambers in 1944. Of some 130,000 female prisoners who passed through the Ravensbrück camp, about 50,000 of them perished, some 2,200 were killed in the gas chambers and 15,000 survived until liberation.
Construction of the camp began in November 1938 by the order of the SS leader Heinrich Himmler and was unusual in that it was intended exclusively to hold female inmates. Ravensbrück first housed prisoners in May 1939, when the SS moved 900 women from the Lichtenburg concentration camp in Saxony. Eight months after the start of World War II the camp's maximum capacity was already exceeded. It underwent major expansion following the invasion of Poland. By the summer of 1941 with the launch of Operation Barbarossa an estimated total of 5,000 women were imprisoned, who were fed gradually decreasing hunger rations. By the end of 1942, the inmate population of Ravensbrück had grown to about 10,000.
Between 1939 and 1945, some 130,000 to 132,000 female prisoners passed through the Ravensbrück camp system; around 40,000 were Polish and 26,000 were Jewish from all countries including Germany, 18,000 Russian, 8,000 French, and 1,000 Dutch. According to Encyclopædia Britannica, about 50,000 of them perished from disease, starvation, overwork and despair; some 2,200 were killed in the gas chambers. Only 15,000 of the total survived until liberation, and on 29-30 April 1945 some 3,500 prisoners were still alive in the main camp. During the first year of their stay in the camp, from August 1940 to August 1941, roughly 47 women died. During the last year of the camp's existence, about 80 inmates died each day from disease or famine-related causes.
Although the inmates came from every country in German-occupied Europe, the largest single national group in the camp were Polish. In the spring of 1941, the SS authorities established a small men's camp adjacent to the main camp. The male inmates built and managed the gas chambers for the camp in 1944.
There were children in the camp as well. At first, they arrived with mothers who were Romani or Jews incarcerated in the camp or were born to imprisoned women. There were few children early on, including a few Czech children from Lidice in July 1942. Later the children in the camp represented almost all nations of Europe occupied by Germany. Between April and October 1944 their number increased considerably, consisting of two groups. One group was composed of Romani children with their mothers or sisters brought into the camp after the Romani camp in Auschwitz-Birkenau was closed. The other group included mostly children who were brought with Polish mothers sent to Ravensbrück after the collapse of the Warsaw Uprising of 1944. Most of these children died of starvation.
Among the thousands executed at Ravensbrück were four members of the British World War II organization Special Operations Executive: Denise Bloch, Cecily Lefort, Lilian Rolfe and Violette Szabo. Other victims included the Roman Catholic nun Élise Rivet, Elisabeth de Rothschild (the only member of the Rothschild family to die in the Holocaust), Russian Orthodox nun St. Maria Skobtsova, the 25-year-old French Princess Anne de Bauffremont-Courtenay, Milena Jesenská, lover of Franz Kafka, and Olga Benário, wife of the Brazilian Communist leader Luís Carlos Prestes. The largest single group of women executed at the camp were 200 young Polish members of the Home Army.
Among the survivors of Ravensbrück was author Corrie ten Boom, arrested with her family for harbouring Jews in their home in Haarlem, the Netherlands. She documented her ordeal alongside her sister Betsie ten Boom in her book The Hiding Place, which was eventually produced as a motion picture. Polish Countess Karolina Lanckoronska, an art historian and author of Michelangelo in Ravensbrück, was imprisoned there from 1943 until 1945. Eileen Nearne, a member of the Special Operations Executive, was a prisoner in 1944 before being transferred to another work camp and escaping. Ravensbrück survivors who wrote memoirs about their experiences include Gemma La Guardia Gluck, sister of New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, as well as Germaine Tillion, a Ravensbrück survivor from France who published her own eyewitness account of the camp in 1975. Approximately 500 women from Ravensbrück were transferred to Dachau, where they were assigned as labourers to the Agfa-Commando; the women assembled ignition timing devices for bombs, artillery ammunition and V-1 and V-2 rockets.
A male political prisoner, Gustav Noske, stayed in Ravensbrück concentration camp after his arrest by the Gestapo in 1944. Later Noske was freed by advancing Allied troops from a Gestapo prison in Berlin.
Camp commandants included SS-Standartenführer Günther Tamaschke from May 1939 to August 1939, SS-Hauptsturmführer Max Koegel from January 1940 till August 1942, and SS-Hauptsturmführer Fritz Suhren from August 1942 until the camp's liberation at the end of April 1945.
Besides the male Nazi administrators, the camp staff included over 150 female SS guards assigned to oversee the prisoners at some point during the camp's operational period. Ravensbrück also served as a training camp for over 4,000 female overseers. The technical term for a female guard in a Nazi camp was an Aufseherin. The women either stayed in the camp or eventually served in other camps.
Some of these women went on to serve as chief wardresses in other camps. Several dozen block overseers (Blockführerinnen), accompanied by dogs, SS men and whips oversaw the prisoners in their living quarters in Ravensbrück, at roll call and during food distribution. At any single time, a report overseer (Rapportführerin) handled the roll calls and general discipline of the internees. Rosel Laurenzen originally served as head of the labour pool at the camp (Arbeitdienstführerin) along with her assistant Gertrud Schoeber. In 1944 Greta Bösel took over this command. Other high ranking SS women included Christel Jankowsky, Ilse Goeritz, Margot Dreschel and Elisabeth Kammer. Head wardress at the Uckermark death complex of Ravensbrück was Ruth Neudeck (January 1945 - March 1945). Regular Aufseherinnen were not usually granted access to the internees' compound unless they supervised inside work details. Most of the 'SS' women met their prisoner work gangs at the gate each morning and returned them later in the day. The treatment by the SS women in Ravensbrück was normally brutal. Elfriede Muller, an SS Aufseherin in the camp was so harsh that the prisoners nicknamed her "The Beast of Ravensbrück". Other guards in the camp included Hermine Boettcher-Brueckner, Luise Danz, Irma Grese, and Margarethe de Hueber.
The female chief overseers (Lagerfuehrerinnen and Oberaufseherinnen) in Ravensbrück were:
In 1973, the United States government extradited Hermine Braunsteiner for trial in Germany for war crimes. In 2006, the United States government expelled Elfriede Rinkel, an 84-year-old woman who had resided in San Francisco since 1959. It was discovered that she had been a guard at Ravensbrück from 1944 to 1945.
When a new prisoner arrived at Ravensbrück she was required to wear a colour-coded triangle (a winkel) that identified her by category, with a letter sewn within the triangle indicating the prisoner's nationality. For example, Polish women wore red triangles, denoting a political prisoner, with a letter "P" (by 1942, Polish women became the largest national component at the camp). Soviet prisoners of war, and German and Austrian Communists wore red triangles; common criminals wore green triangles; and Jehovah's Witnesses were labelled with lavender triangles. Prostitutes, Romani, homosexuals, and women who refused to marry were lumped together, with black triangles. Jewish women wore yellow triangles but sometimes, unlike the other prisoners, they wore a second triangle for the other categories. For example, quite often it was for rassenschande ("racial pollution").
Some detainees had their hair shaved, such as those from Czechoslovakia and Poland, but other transports did not. In 1943, for instance, a group of Norwegian women came to the camp (Norwegians/Scandinavians were ranked by the Nazis as the purest of all Aryans).[clarification needed] None of them had their hair shaved.
Between 1942 and 1943, almost all Jewish women from the Ravensbrück camp were sent to Auschwitz in several transports, following Nazi policy to make Germany Judenrein (cleansed of Jews). Based on the Nazis' incomplete transport list Zugangsliste, documenting 25,028 names of women sent by Nazis to the camp, it is estimated that the Ravensbrück prisoner population's ethnic structure comprised: Poles 24.9%, Germans 19.9%, Jews 15.1%, Russians 15.0%, French 7.3%, Romani 5.4%, other 12.4%. The Gestapo further categorised the inmates as: political 83.54%, anti-social 12.35%, criminal 2.02%, Jehovah's Witnesses 1.11%, rassenschande (racial defilement) 0.78%, other 0.20%. The list is one of the most important documents, preserved in the last moments of the camp operation by members of the Polish underground girl guides unit "Mury" (The Walls). The rest of the camp documents were burned by escaping SS overseers in pits or in the crematorium.
One form of resistance was the secret education programmes organised by prisoners for their fellow inmates. All national groups had some sort of programme. The most extensive were among Polish women, wherein various high school-level classes were taught by experienced teachers.
In 1939 and 1940, camp living conditions were acceptable: laundry and bed linen were changed regularly and the food was adequate, although in the first winter of 1939/40, limitations began to be noticeable. The German Communist, Margarete Buber-Neumann, came to Ravensbrück as an inmate after nearly two years in a Russian Soviet Gulag. She described her first impressions of Ravensbrück in comparison to the Soviet camp in Karaganda:
I looked across the great square, and could not believe my eyes. It was surrounded by manicured lawns, covered by flower beds on which bloomed bright red flowers. A wide street, which led to a large open area, was flanked by two rows of wooden barracks, on both sides stood rows of young trees and along the roadside ran straight flower beds as far as the eye could see. The square and the streets seemed freshly raked. To the left towards the watchtower, I saw a white wooden barrack and beside it a large cage, the size of a birdhouse the like you see at a zoo. Within it paraded peacocks (stolzierten) and on a climbing tree dangled monkeys and a parrot which always screamed the same word, "Mama". I wondered, "this is a concentration camp"?
Buber-Nuemann wrote how her first meal in Ravensbrück exceeded her expectations, when she was served sweet porridge with dried fruit (backobst), plus a generous portion of bread, margarine, and sausage.
They didn't shoot the women. We were to die of misery, hunger and exhaustion...when we arrived at Ravensbrück, it was the worst. The first thing I saw was a cart with all the dead piled on it. Their arms and legs hanging out, and mouths and eyes wide open. They reduced us to nothing. We didn't even feel like we had the value of cattle. You worked and you died.
Starting in the summer of 1942, medical experiments were conducted without consent on 86 women; 74 of them were Polish inmates. Two types of experiments were conducted on the Polish political prisoners. The first type tested the efficacy of sulfonamide drugs. These experiments involved deliberate cutting into and infecting of leg bones and muscles with virulent bacteria, cutting nerves, introducing substances like pieces of wood or glass into tissues, and fracturing bones.
The second set of experiments studied bone, muscle, and nerve regeneration, and the possibility of transplanting bones from one person to another. Out of the 74 Polish victims, called Kaninchen, Króliki, Lapins, or Rabbits by the experimenters, five died as a result of the experiments, six with unhealed wounds were executed, and (with assistance from other inmates) the rest survived with permanent physical damage. Four such survivors--Jadwiga Dzido, Maria Broel-Plater, W?adys?awa Karolewska, and Maria Ku?mierczuk--testified against Nazi doctors at the Doctors' Trial in 1946.
Between 120 and 140 Romani women were sterilised in the camp in January 1945. All had been deceived into signing the consent form, having been told by the camp overseers that the German authorities would release them if they complied.
All inmates were required to do heavy labor ranging from strenuous outdoor jobs to building the V-2 rocket parts for Siemens. The SS also built several factories near Ravensbrück for the production of textiles and electrical components.
The women forced to work at Ravensbrück concentration camp's industries used their skills in sewing and their access to the factory to make soldiers' socks. They purposely adjusted the machines to make the fabric thin at the heel and the toes, causing the socks to wear prematurely at those places when the German soldiers marched. This gave the soldiers sore feet.
For the women in the camp, it was important to retain some of their dignity and sense of humanity. Therefore, they made necklaces, bracelets, and other personal items, like small dolls and books, as keepsakes. These personal effects were of great importance to the women and many of them risked their lives to keep these possessions. Some of these types of effects can be seen at the exhibition "Voices from Ravensbrück" (hosted by Lund University Library, Sweden).
The bodies of those killed in the camp were cremated in the nearby Fürstenberg crematorium until 1943, when SS authorities constructed a crematorium at a site near the camp prison.
In January 1945 the SS also transformed a hut near the crematorium into a gas chamber where the Germans gassed several thousand prisoners before the camp's liberation in April 1945; in particular they killed some 3600 prisoners from the Uckermark police camp for "deviant" girls and women, which was taken under the control of the Ravensbrück SS at the start of 1945.
In January 1945, prior to the liberation of the remaining camp survivors, an estimated 45,000 female prisoners and over 5,000 male prisoners remained at Ravensbrück, including children and those transported from satellite camps only for gassing, which was being performed in haste.
With the Soviet Red Army's rapid approach in the spring of 1945, the SS leadership decided to remove as many prisoners as they could, in order to avoid leaving live witnesses behind who could testify as to what had occurred in the camp. At the end of March, the SS ordered all physically capable women to form a column and exit the camp in the direction of northern Mecklenburg, forcing over 24,500 prisoners on a death march. Some 2,500 ethnic German prisoners remaining were released, and 500 women were handed over to officials of the Swedish and Danish Red Cross shortly after the evacuation. On 30 April 1945, fewer than 3,500 malnourished and sickly prisoners were discovered alive at the camp when it was liberated by the Red Army. The survivors of the death march were liberated in the following hours by a Russian scout unit.
The SS guards, female Aufseherinnen guards and former prisoner-functionaries with administrative positions at the camp were arrested at the end of the war by the Allies and tried at the Hamburg Ravensbrück trials from 1946 to 1948. 16 of the accused were found guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity and sentenced to death.
On the site of the former concentration camp there is a memorial today. In 1954, the sculptor Will Lammert was commissioned to design the memorial site between the crematorium, the camp wall, and Schwedtsee Lake. Up to his death in 1957, the artist created a large number of sculpted models of women.
For the inaugural opening of the National Memorial site a scaled-up version of Tragende (Woman with Burden) was created (under the supervision of Fritz Cremer) and exhibited. This central symbolic figure, also known as the "Pietà of Ravensbrück", stands atop a stele on the peninsula in Lake Schwedtsee. The Zwei Stehende (Two Women Standing) monument also has its origins in Lammert's models. Other statues, which were also originally created for Ravensbrück, have been on display at the Old Jewish Cemetery in Berlin Mitte since 1985, in commemoration of the Jewish victims of fascism.
Since 1984, the former SS headquarters have housed the Museum des antifaschistischen Widerstandskampfes (Museum of Anti-fascist Resistance). After the withdrawal from Germany of the Soviet Army, which up to 1993 had been using parts of the former camp for military purposes, it became possible to incorporate more areas of the camp into the memorial site.
Today, the former accommodation blocks for the female guards are a youth hostel and youth meeting centre. In the course of reorganisation, which took place in the early 1990s, the Museum des antifaschistischen Widerstandskampfes was replaced by two new permanent exhibitions: "Women of Ravensbrück", which displays the biographies of 27 former prisoners, and "Ravensbrück. Topography and History of the Women's Concentration Camp", which provides information about the origins of the camp, describes daily life in the camp, and explains the principle of Vernichtung durch Arbeit (extermination through work). Since 2004 there has also been an exhibition about the female guards at the Ravensbrück Women's Concentration Camp, housed in another of their former accommodation blocks. Additionally, temporary exhibitions of special interest are held regularly at the memorial.
On 16 and 17 April 2005, a ceremony was held to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the camp's liberation. Among those invited were approximately 600 survivors from all over the world, mostly eastern Europe. At the same time a new, permanent outdoor exhibition was opened, on the theme of the train transports to Ravensbrück. Its central exhibit is a refurbished goods wagon. The exhibition's information boards describe the origins of the transports and how they developed over time, and explain the different types of trains, where they arrived, and the part played by the local residents. It is probably the only exhibition so far at a German memorial which is dedicated solely to the subject of the transports to the camp.
Sources: Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies; Holocaust. Kogon, Eugen. The Theory And Practice Of Hell. NY: Berkley Publishing Group, 1998; Encyclopædia Britannica; Encyclopedia of the Holocaust; Simon Wiesenthal Center Online.