Saturday, March 28, 2015

Ravensbrück: Hitler’s Concentration Camp for Women (Only 10% Were Jews)

Ravensbrück: Life and Death in Hitler’s Concentration Camp for Women. By Sarah Helm. Nan A. Talese; 743 pages; $37.50. Little, Brown; £25.

AS SHE searched for survivors of Ravensbrück, a concentration camp 50 miles (80km) north of Berlin, Sarah Helm came home one day to find a French voice on her answering machine. The message was from Louise Le Porz, a doctor from Bordeaux, who asked her to visit. There was much to talk about, she said to Ms Helm, a British journalist. “But you’d better hurry. I’m 93 years old.”

A sense of urgency infuses this history, which comes just in time to gather the testimony of the camp’s survivors. Ravensbrück has had far less attention than Auschwitz and other Nazi death camps. What happened there was covered up. The files were burned as the Allies drew near in 1945. Later, Soviet tanks bulldozed the buildings. The camp’s history soon became divided, like Europe. East Germany had its own, selective version, stressing the heroism of the communists among the inmates; the West, without ready access to the site and with evidence from war-crimes trials on the camp classified as “secret”, largely ignored it. In the late 1960s some historians even started to question the existence of the gas chambers there.

Yet Ravensbrück deserves to be remembered. It was Hitler’s only concentration camp specifically for women. Towards the end of the war, as other camps emptied, it became the engine of the Nazi killing machine on the orders of Heinrich Himmler, without even the pretence of an ideological reason, however perverted. This was killing for the sake of killing.

About 130,000 women passed through the camp. Ms Helm estimates that 40,000-50,000 died. Jews made up only about 10% of the prisoners. The rest were communists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, gypsies, prostitutes and women simply swept up by the events of the war in Europe. By 1944 the camp held women of 21 nationalities; besides Germans, the largest groups were Poles, Russians and French.

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