Ravensbrück; Life and Death in Hitler’s Concentration Camp for Women by Sarah Helm. Doubleday, 2016 paper.
Ravensbrück is a history (Sarah Helm calls it a biography.) of this concentration camp for women in the Mecklenburg region fifty miles due north of Berlin. The book is also a compendium of information that many will find useful, as I did. I had a good friend, Maguy (Katz) McCullough, who spent almost a year in the Ravensbrück camp. Her story blends into Helm’s camp chronology. See my essay in three parts, “Maguy (Katz) McCullough, In Memoriam.” www.goerings.com
The title of Helm’s book should read “Heinrich Himmler’s Concentration Camp for Women.” Its location and purpose were determined by Himmler’s authority as Reichsfürher and head of the SS (Schutzstaffel). Ravensbrück was part of his ‘empire’ within the Third Reich. He had an estate near the camp, where he had installed his mistress and hence made periodic visits to the camp. He was the quintessential micro-manager, making decisions about such minutia as the number of strokes of the whip for various offenses.
The prison was built primarily to house German female opponents of the National Socialists and to relieve overcrowded local jails. But the camp and its sub-camps kept receiving new groups of women who weren’t politicos: Jehovah Witnesses, Jews, habitual criminals, and a-socials (prostitutes, homeless women, and the “work-shy”). Ravensbrück and its satellite camps had a top population of 45,000, well above capacity. The higher administration was primarily drawn from the SS and changed frequently. The women guards were from neighboring villages. They had had no training; they generally despised those they oversaw, and frequently beat them out of their frustration.
The inmates were expected to work in order to live. Many of them worked in an adjoining factory that made military uniforms or at Siemens, an electronics company that made components for weapons. Payments for the work of these women were made directly to the SS, not to the workers. Hence they were ‘slaves’ and their labor, ‘slave labor.’
Helm argues that the killing that went on in Ravensbrück was not primarily the result of any ideological position. Hanna Arendt’s famous phrase “the banality of evil” that results from ordinary people following orders without much thought about their actions best explains the murdering that went on at Ravensbrück. Yet how can one fit into any scheme of private morality the story Helm tells of some guard beating to death with a hammer an inmate who could not get up when commanded to do so?. Or the story of twelve Polish Catholic nuns who, for reasons unknown, ended up at Ravensbrück in its last few weeks and were shot, some through their eyes?
Helm spends much time detailing the camp’s organization. In addition to the staff, there were prisoners called blockovas (elsewhere kapos) who supervised the day-to-day operations. Their volunteering made it less likely that they would be selected for one or another horrible fate and because they received perks. Some blockovas were brutal, like their masters. Some tried to be ameliorative.
Much has been made of the medical experiments performed on prisoners at Ravensbrück and other camps. They resulted in much suffering. Fortunately the numbers were small and the deaths few.
My friend was Parisian and had been arrested for her participation in the French Resistance. Fortunately for Maguy, her arrest was late in the German occupation, sometime after D-Day when German occupation forces decided to ship female prisoners off to Ravensbrück. They were ill-prepared for camp life; shocked at what the encountered upon arrival. Fortunately they only had to survive one Ravensbrück winter.
Most of the French inmates were liberated in April 1945, the result of an agreement between Himmler and a member of the Swedish royal family, Count Folke Bernadotte, acting on behalf of the Swedish Red Cross. Initially mostly Danish and Norwegian women were liberated, transported to the Danish border on especially marked white buses and then by rail through Denmark and ferry to Sweden. Himmler eventually opened the rescue to all nationalities. The Ravensbrück rescue is the largest in World War II.
Himmler approved the rescue as part of his screwy idea of convincing the British and Americans to join him in a ‘post-Hitlerite Germany’ in opposing the Soviet domination of central and eastern Europe. Our General Eisenhower would have none of this and other such schemes by Nazi big-wigs who were hoping to avoid the hangman’s knot.
Eisenhower’s other decision that impacted the fate of the prisoners at Ravensbrück was that they should “stay-put,” awaiting the arrival of Allied forces and prepare themselves for an orderly repatriation after the German surrender. Meanwhile the sick were getting bullets in the head, and the Ravensbrück gas chambers were operating to tidy up the camp for its liberation.
Himmler hid these arrangements from Hitler. Hitler had ordered that the releases from Ravensbrück and other camps cease and all remaining inmates shot or gassed. Or marched to camps deeper inside Germany. The result was those deadly marches in the last few days of the war. But Maguy Katz was safe in Sweden.