Ravensbrück, Hitler’s death camp for women


This video is called Holocaust: Ravensbruck and Buchenwald, part 1.

These two videos are the sequels.

From daily The Guardian in Britain:

If This Is a Woman: Inside Ravensbrück, Hitler’s Concentration Camp for Women by Sarah Helm – review

Ravensbrück is a camp relatively unknown because it doesn’t fit the Holocaust narrative. The hundreds of survivors’ stories in this account bear witness to the terrifying heterogeneity of Nazi crimes

Early in 1938 Heinrich Himmler began to plan a concentration camp for “deviant” women: prostitutes, abortionists, “asocials” and socialists, habitual criminals, communists and Jehovah’s Witnesses, among others. He chose a site near the village of Ravensbrück in the picturesque Lake District of Mecklenburg, an hour away from Berlin, where one of his best friends in the SS had a country house. Male prisoners were sent from Sachsenhausen and built the new camp; on 15 May 1939 the first 867 women arrived, and 130,000 more would follow before Ravensbrück was liberated by the Red Army in April 1945. Himmler had been warned from the start that the camp – grotesquely crowded, holding 50,000 at its peak – would be too small.

Sarah Helm’s first book was about Vera Atkins, who worked in the French section of the Special Operations Executive and after the war traced some of the female agents she had lost in action to Ravensbrück. Helm is a tireless researcher. She has recovered the testimony of scores of women, many from eastern Europe, many of whom had until now been silent; she describes the Nazi medical experiments at the camp from the perspective of its terrified victims; and she recovers the history of the ancillary children’s camp nearby. She makes unimaginable suffering seem almost graspable through hundreds of intimate stories. She rightly says her book is the first exhaustive “biography of Ravensbrück beginning at the beginning and ending at the end”.

That said, Ravensbrück is not “still today, hidden away, its crimes unknown, the voices of its prisoners silenced”, as Helm claims. Far from it. A bibliography published in 2000 has almost a thousand entries; the camp became a memorial in the German Democratic Republic in 1959 and since 1993 has become part of a new, larger commemorative site. Two of the Ravensbrück doctors, Herta Oberheuser and her boss Karl Gebhardt, were among those convicted in the well publicised Nuremberg Doctors’ trial of 1946, and the records of the trials, conducted by British occupation authorities, of another 21 women and 17 men for war crimes committed at Ravensbrück, have been open for decades. The camp has been well known and intensively studied for almost half a century. But Helm is nonetheless getting at something; well known for what?

Not for the sheer numbers murdered there. An exact accounting is impossible, but orders of magnitude are clear: 5,000-6,000 died in a gas chamber hastily built in late 1944 when Auschwitz stopped taking new arrivals, and several thousand more in the gas chambers of a nearby Nazi euthanasia centre. Between 30,000 and 50,000 died from cold, starvation, shooting, beatings, lethal injections, disease and medical experimentation; tens of thousands were sent east to be murdered. But, in the quantitative league tables of Nazi crime, these numbers scarcely register. In Auschwitz, 400,000 Hungarian Jews were gassed during six weeks of the summer of 1944 alone; the purpose-built killing factory at Treblinka murdered between 870,000 and 925,000 Jews in just over a year, between July 1942 and November 1943.

Ravensbrück is also not seared into the western visual imagination. Unlike the British liberation of Bergen-Belsen, Ravensbrück’s was not recorded by a professional film crew; unlike Dachau, Buchenwald or Orhdruf, no iconic photographs were taken there: no tiers of emaciated prisoners on bunks, no German civilians made to see what they had wrought, no shocked American generals standing over corpse heaps.

Ravensbrück does not fit well into the Holocaust story. In the first place, the number of Jews there was always relatively small in comparison with other categories of prisoners; Himmler declared it Judenfrei after the last thousand or so Jewish women were sent to Auschwitz in late 1942. It did not stay that way – some Hungarian Jewish women who had escaped the summer roundups of 1944 ended up in Ravensbrück as did the survivors of the infamous winter death marches from the east – but the camp does not figure prominently in the story of genocide. For a time its role, however small, was almost forgotten. Two recent books on Jews at Ravensbrück now restore it to memory by bearing witness on a human scale. In neither is the argument quantitative. One estimates that Jews constituted about 20% of a total of 132,000 prisoners; the other, after an exhaustive survey, identifies 16,331 Jewish prisoners — probably a low number — of whom 25% are known to have survived. The author, Judith Buber Agassi, provides a compact disc with their names and other information.

More importantly, Ravensbrück is an outlier to the Holocaust narrative because the question of who counts as a Jew, not measured by Nazi racial laws but by more subtle markers of identity and memory, is more exigent there than in any other camp. Helm implicitly recognises this in her account of the life and death of the camp’s most famous victim: Olga Benário Prestes, Jew and communist. Benário was the model for Die Tragende (“Woman Carrying”), a statue of an emaciated woman carrying a comrade which stood over the East German memorial site at Ravensbrück. For the communist regime she represented anti-fascist heroism and brought the camp into line with the official state narrative which held that all the perpetrators were in the west and all the resisters in the east. Perhaps her statue does not portray adequately a “tortured wife and mother”; it certainly elides her Jewishness and yet, according to Helm, she lived and died in the camp as a Jew.

The truth is more complex. Olga was so deeply estranged from her German Jewish family that her mother refused to take the infant daughter to whom Olga gave birth in prison. Luckily for the baby, Anita Benário Prestes, she was taken by her Brazilian grandmother and is now a retired professor of history in Rio. Her father was the Brazilian insurrectionist communist leader, Luís Carlos Prestes. He was jailed and his wife, Olga, was betrayed by British intelligence services to the Brazilian authorities who put her on a closely guarded boat to Germany as a goodwill gesture to Hitler. The SS took her off in Hamburg and threw her in prison. International pressure got her released for a time; then came the war, re-imprisonment, this time in Ravensbrück, and finally death.

Benário was, without question, not taken to Ravensbrück as a Jew; like another famous prisoner with whom she was gassed, the Austrian socialist Käthe Pick Leichter, she was a political prisoner who was Jewish; she wore a yellow star but also a red badge.(Some sources say that her other badge was black to label her an “asocial”, intended to make the communist prisoners shun her. They did not.) …

Even her end is difficult to fit into a Holocaust narrative. She and Leichter were among 1,600 women gassed over the course of a few days: Jews, yes, but also infirm and weak prostitutes (the asocials, who wore black triangles) and criminals (who wore green triangles). “All sorts” were taken by the end, reports a witness. They were killed in one of the clandestine euthanasia centres where the Aryan mentally ill and disabled were taken, from the institutions where they had lived, to be murdered; relatives were sent notices that they had died of natural causes. This is what happened in the case of Herta Cohen, a Jew among the 1600, who was in Ravensbrück because she had had sex with a Dusseldorf police officer in violation of racial hygiene laws. The camp commandant wrote a letter to local authorities saying that Cohen had died of a stroke and asked them to find her sister to inform her of Herta’s death, and to inquire whether there was a space in a local cemetery to receive her ashes. If there was no word within ten days her remains would be tossed away; Leichter’s ashes were sent back to Vienna along with a last letter. We have only a letter of Benário’s to her family, sent on the eve of her murder. …

The deepest problem in knowing Ravensbrück has to do with gender. Helm aims to “throw light on the Nazis’ crimes against women”, and at the same time to show how “what happened at the camp for women can illuminate the wider Nazi story”. Of course there were Nazi crimes against women qua women and Helm exposes them in great detail: in prison for prostitution, they were then forced to be prostitutes; a midwife imprisoned for performing abortions, illegal in Germany, performed them on inmates. …

In the first place, Ravensbrück was unique: the only camp especially for women in the entire murderous Nazi archipelago. Helm never explains why the regime kept it up. They did so, it seems, in part because Ravensbrück trained female guards for other camps. They also needed a place for all sorts of special prisoners: Gemma La Guardia Gluck, sister of the famous New York mayor; SOE agents; spies; members of the French resistance; Polish aristocrats and Scandinavian nationals whom Himmler hoped to bargain away.

Remembering the lesbians, prostitutes, and resisters of Ravensbrück concentration camp: here.

Samuel Willenberg: Last survivor of Poland’s Treblinka Nazi death camp dies aged 93. Mr Willenburg one of just 67 known survivors of a camp that killed 870,000 Jewish people: here.

15 thoughts on “Ravensbrück, Hitler’s death camp for women

    • I think the review is interesting in summarizing some of Sarah Helm’s writing. The reviewer also has some criticism of Sarah Helm; it seems especially of what Ms Helm writes about the role of misogyny in nazism. But I don’t think he is very clear or convincing in this.

      Liked by 1 person

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  9. On August 2, 1943, prisoners at the Treblinka extermination camp, in German-occupied Poland, launched a heroic uprising against their Nazi jailers, which shook Third Reich forces and inspired workers and youth engaged in the struggle against fascism across Europe.

    The camp, in a forest north-east of Warsaw, had begun operations in July 1942. The location was chosen because it was about 50 miles northeast of Warsaw, close enough to the ghetto which supplied most of the victims, but in an otherwise isolated rural area with good rail connections due to a local gravel mining complex.

    The construction of the extermination camp was a large-scale enterprise involving hundreds of workers, most of them Jewish forced laborers who were compelled to build the facility in which they would eventually be murdered. Over a period of little more than 12 months, until October 1943, an estimated 700,000 to 900,000 people, nearly all of them Jews, were murdered in gas chambers that operated on a daily basis.

    On August 2, dozens of inmates, led by imprisoned Polish army officers and Jewish workers affiliated with left-wing political organizations, initiated an offensive against the German troops that controlled the facility. They broke into the armory at the camp, taking dozens of rifles and other weapons.

    Hundreds set fire to buildings and surrounding structures, while giving fierce resistance to the forces of the Third Reich. Around 200 escaped the facility, but an estimated half of those were shot dead. Nazi troops responded to the upheaval with barbaric repression, raining indiscriminate machine-gun fire down on the prisoners.

    This was the same policy that had been pursued amid earlier rebellions in ghettos and concentration camps across Poland, including in response to the Warsaw Ghetto uprising in May of 1943. The Nazis’ genocidal “final solution” claimed the lives of approximately 90 percent of Polish Jews.

    http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2018/07/30/twih-j30.html

    Like

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