Maguy (Katz) McCullough, Holocaust Survivor, Friend. Part II, Ravensbrück.
There were growing numbers of women in Parisian jails as their role in the resistance broadened, and they were occupying space that the Germans wished to use for incarcerating French men. It was decided in 1944 to deport the women to Ravensbrück, a work camp for women political prisoners in Germany, due north of Berlin.
I would like to have asked Maguy about her journey from her Parisian jail to Ravensbrück. It was certainly by rail. This was not a good time to be traveling on either French or German railroads. By 1944 they were the subject of a massive British-American air offensive. The journey would have taken days, mostly nights. Maguy would have told me of over-loaded freight cars, so she may have been spared that.
The French women, Maguy included, only had to survive one winter in the camp, and that saved many of their lives. Camp-hardened Poles and other Eastern Europeans noted how ill-prepared these French women were for camp life. In turn the French women must have been overwhelmed by their first encounter with the brutal, overcrowded camp world they entered.
Maguy would have encountered every kind of prisoner: the asoziale (a-social) – prostitutes, homeless, work-shy. A good part of the camp’s inmates were Polish women sent to Ravensbrück as part of the German land clearance program in occupied Poland and then the Warsaw Uprising in August 1944. Also Polish Jews, though Jews constituted no more than 10% of the inmate population at Ravensbrück. Also represented were habitual criminals, gypsies, communists and socialists, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. The latter were the worst treated because they refused work that involved the manufacture of weaponry.
The idea of locating war production at Ravensbrück was a new initiative by Heinrich Himmler, SS Reichsfürher. There were already sewing shops that made clothes for the army. But in the fall of 1942 Siemens, a big prewar electrical company, located a unit there which made electrical parts for fighter planes. Shocked that the women in the sewing shops were only working eight-hours a day, Himmler introduced an eleven-hour day. Siemens reimbursed the SS for their work, not the women themselves. Still it was good to have work in these camps. You never wanted to become a useless mouth, as Himmler liked to put it.
Maguy told several stories that involved these Polish women. She and her Parisian colleagues had a special concern for them because they were young and miserably treated by their German guards.
She suffered from a strict camp procedure called the Appell (roll-call) in the Appellplatz, (camp square) rain or shine, or snow. In the winter it began before dawn. The women had to stand sometimes for hours until all were accounted for. On one Appell Maguy collapsed and was taken to her barracks, which saved her life, but at some risk to the rescuer. It was perhaps even more dangerous to appear at the Revier (infirmary). The sick and weak were commonly allowed to die.
By the time of Maguy’s arrival, discipline (though not the cruelty) was beginning to crumble. This was both fortuitous and unfortunate. Individual inmates could angle for the better work assignments, such as the squads that removed the dead or working in the camp kitchen. This competition eroded prisoner solidarity. The severe overcrowding required a disciplined regimen. By 1944 that was beginning to crumble with deadly results as prisoners felt more secure in ignoring the rules.
Much of the day-to-day administration was carried out by prisoners. Blockovas (elsewhere in the camp system called kapos) were put in charge of individual blocks to enforce discipline. Initially the Ravensbrück blockovas were largely a-socials, but eventually tended to be communists. Helm calls this takeover by the communists (heavily French) a “camp revolution.” Some of the blockovas were brutal, like their masters. Some actually tried to be ameliorative. In either case you didn’t want to be fired from that job!
Maguy wore the Jewish star but also a red triangle which identified her as a communist. This offended her; she was not a communist but a Gaullist, for which there was no badge. Always thin, she began to lose weight. There was never enough to eat; all of Germany was starving by 1944.
Ravensbrück had been a special project of Himmler’s. He had an estate near the camp, and came there periodically to see his mistress who was stashed there. He is said to have been the quintessential micro-manager, making decisions about such minutia as inmates’ diet and the number of strokes of the whip for various offenses. Did Maguy ever see Himmler during one of his camp inspections?
Much has been made of the medical experiments performed on prisoners by licensed doctors at Ravensbrück and other camps. They resulted in much suffering. Fortunately the numbers of these ‘rabbits,’ as they were called, were small and the deaths few. Because Ravensbrück was the only camp for women, there was also experimentation on methods of controlling – and exploiting – large numbers of female slave labor. Along with the often gratuitous cruelty, there were some SS administrators thinking about the future.
The highest camp administrators were generally SS careerists. The guards were women from neighboring villages. Neither had had had any training; they generally despised those they oversaw and frequently beat them out of frustration.
As it became more obvious that Germany was losing the war, individual inmates, guards, and administrators at Ravensbrück began to recalculate their strategies. For most inmates that involved obtaining food but also not running afoul of the camp administration. If you were an inmate who had collaborated with the administration, you would be worried about how to keep from being brutalized at war’s end by those inmates you had brutalized. If a guard, maybe fading into the rural German background from which you had been recruited. If an SS administrator, flight; but to where? Or you could deny what you were hearing about the Americans at the Rhine or the Russians only miles from Mecklenburg and await developments.