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Book Review: Ravensbruck

By (March 28, 2015) No Comment

Ravensbruck:ravensbruck cover

Life and Death in Hitler’s Concentration Camp for Women

by Sarah Helm

Penguin Random House, 2015

The concentration camp of Ravensbruck in northern Germany was established in 1939 and liberated by the Russians in 1945, and in those six years, around 130,000 prisoners were fed into its brutal system: criminals, political opponents of Nazism, Gypsies, communists, war refugees, and so on – all of them women, in the only Nazi concentration camp built for women. According to Sarah Helm in her passionately-written, brutally-necessary new book Ravensbruck, as many as 90,000 women may have died there, beaten to death, frozen to death, tortured to death, poisoned, gassed. It was a place that often echoed, as one survivor attested, with cries of “untold despair, pain and revolt,” and Helm has written the most extensive, detailed, and authoritative account of its existence that we’re ever likely to have, since the Nazis were as thorough about destroying the records of Ravensbruck as they were about destroying its inhabitants.

Sarah Helm has gone in search of every scrap of documentation that’s left about the place, and she’s interviewed its tiny handful of survivors. She’s searched through German archives and recently-opened Soviet records-troves; she’s walked the ground herself, and she’s crafted out of all of it the definitive account of this little corner of Hell, where brutal female guards punched and whipped and kicked thousands of stunned and terrorized female prisoners, worked them to death, exposed them to the elements (and to worse than the elements), selected them for grotesque experiments by the camp’s twisted doctors, and stacked the bodies of the dead for destruction in the camp’s crematorium.

Political prisoners were the first inmates, jailed dissidents and resistance fighters transferred from their jails to this camp in the woods by a lake. And those ranks swelled as the years went on, as more refugees and political prisoners poured into the camp. Helm fleshes out the individual stories of dozens of these women, always managing to find the most heart-wrenching little details, like the protestation made by the mother of one such woman in February of 1944:

The Allied landings were expected in May at the latest, so they’d definitely be back by Bastille Day, 14 July, said Christiane [de Cuverville]. A general’s daughter, she had joined a resistance cell at seventeen without telling her parents; when her mother found that Christiane was arrested she marched into the Gestapo’s Paris headquarters declaring, ‘My daughter is not a terrorist. I want her back.’

That irate mother’s disbelief was shared by the great majority of women who found themselves on cattle-cars on in “death marches” to Ravensbruck. Time and again in Helm’s account, new arrivals to the camp are so stunned they can barely process what’s happening to them:

Two more days, then at 2 a.m. On 3 February someone shouted: ‘We’ve arrived.’ As they tumbled out half dazed, the women stared at the guards and the dogs in utter disbelief. The French women’s description of their arrival has a different tone to many other prisoners. Though they were shocked by the brutality, what they remember most today is their inability to believe what they saw. ‘The reality was so brutal and so hard we could hardly grasp it,’ said Denise Dufournier. Some survivors said later they genuinely thought they had been brought here by mistake. Others said they simply refused to see what was in front of them.

Such reactions were of course understandable, since the realities these women encountered at Ravensbruck spanned the entire Nazi spectrum of horrors, all of which Helm chronicles in scrupulous, exhaustive detail. It’s dark, unsettling reading, made all the more so by how close the whole story came to being lost, just one more barbaric thing the Nazis did in forests. Sarah Helm is to be commended for rescuing the full breadth of this history from archives and survivors’ memories while it still could be rescued. Her book deserves the widest possible readership.