Sigrid Jacobeit: The Ravensbrück Concentration Camp 1939-1945

Plastik zum Gedenken an die Frauen von Ravensbrück, Foto: B. Kauers,2021

Construction of the camp complex

In Ravensbrück, a village in Prussia 90 kilometres north of Berlin, the SS had the largest all-female concentration camp built on the territory of the German Reich: the Ravensbrück women’s concentration camp. Three infrastructural elements contributed to its strategic location.

Nearby Fürstenberg, a small town in what was then Mecklenburg, was situated on the Berlin-Stralsund/Rostock railway line; imperial road No. 96 ran through Fürstenberg linking it with Berlin, Oranienburg, Greifswald and Stralsund. Moreover, the vicinity of the concentration camp site to the river Havel was a locational advantage for the future transportation of materials by water. The southernmost tip of the projected concentration camp site extended as far as Lake Schwedtsee. The area designated for the camp was in an isolated place enclosed within natural boundaries – a virtually ideal situation for the erection of a state-of-the-art concentration camp. In January 1939, a group of inmates of the Sachsenhausen concentration camp was detailed to start building the new facility. In addition, the “SS-Neubauleitung FKL Ravensbrück” (new construction office for the Ravensbrück women’s concentration camp) commissioned a variety of building contractors from Fürstenberg, Ravensbrück and nearby. A number of non-local companies and corporations were also involved in the building works.

Ravensbrück concentration camp came into its six-year existence when 867 female inmates of the Lichtenburg women’s camp, situated in Prettin on the river Elbe, were transferred here, starting on 15 May 1939 and ending on 27 May. Before that, women who did not conform to Nazi standards were held in protective custody in penal institutions and correctional facilities. Starting in the autumn of 1933, the first central women’s camp was set up in Moringen, Prussia, in the Solling Nature Park. A little later, in March 1934, it also took in women from other provinces. Members of the local chapter of the National Socialist Women’s League were recruited as wardens. In December 1937, the female inmates in Moringen were moved to Lichtenburg, now the central concentration camp for women. Lichtenburg, a castle dating back to the Renaissance, had been used as a concentration camp for men as from 1933. The transfer there of the 1,415 women previously held in Moringen was the first act in putting Lichtenburg under the control of the meanwhile established “Inspektion der Konzentrationslager” (concentration camps inspectorate /IKL/), which was in charge of all men’s and women’s camps. This administrative act was accompanied by a significant worsening of the detention conditions, which included solitary confinement in dark cells in the bunker in Lichtenburg, food deprivation, prolonged standing etc.

Ravensbrück was built and opened as a women’s concentration camp only after the large all-male camps of Sachsenhausen (1936), Buchenwald (1937), Flossenbürg (1938) and Mauthausen (1938). On 27 May 1939, 970 female inmates were registered in Ravensbrück. Just as the other camps making up the concentration camp system, the women’s camp had the same typical structure: rows of barracks arranged along a camp road where the prisoners were accommodated, an administrative building, the “Kommandantur” (headquarters), at one end with the service buildings (waterworks, telephone exchange, garages, workshops etc.) standing at right angles, and before the Kommandantur and very close to the entrance to the camp, the residential estate for the SS staff including the “staff houses” for the female guards, in short: a typical “concentration camp ensemble”. In the first building phase lasting until approximately 1940, the site contained 12 residential barracks, as well as two hospital barracks called “Revier”, one barrack building was used for punishments and another as prison; two were used as workshops. On top of that, there was a support building with kitchen, showers and laundry. The buildings were meant to house approximately 3,000 female prisoners. The whole site was surrounded with a four-metre high wall topped with high-tension barbed wire. The barracks, which the inmates called “blocks”, consisted of an A wing and a B wing, with each side holding 100 bunk beds sleeping 100 women. Next to the dormitory was a common area; washrooms and toilets were in the middle. After the invasion of Poland, further barracks were added. In 1942, the extended “new camp” was established using barracks of a different type. However, they were soon no longer sufficient to hold the increasing numbers of deportees from the countries invaded, which made the living conditions for the prisoners catastrophic on the whole.

Because of the pressing need to accommodate more prisoners, other facilities went up as well, such as a telephone exchange, a waterworks, a sewage treatment plant and an electrical substation. They all helped to make the camp complex self-sufficient. The completion of the camp’s own crematorium in 1943 had the same purpose. It needed to be extended in 1944 because of capacity constraints. Until then, the dead bodies had to be taken to the cemetery in Fürstenberg for cremation. Toward the end of 1939, a two-level building containing 78 cells for solitary confinement was completed that the inmates called “bunker”. It was specifically set up to mete out punishment including flogging and confinement in a dark cell and is a testimony of the brutality of the penal system at the Ravensbrück women’s camp. For the inmates, the “bunker” became synonymous with horror. In 1944, it was also used to detain a large number of special prisoners, i.e. people who belonged to various resistance organizations or were arrested in connection with the failed attempt to assassinate Hitler on 20 July 1944.

In the course of time, more barracks and buildings were added to the “industrial yard” situated within the perimeter wall, which were used as workshops and manufacturing facilities with rooms for typical and traditional women’s work, such as tailoring, fur making, weaving, straw-shoe braiding, ribbon weaving and shoe making. Initially, the workshops were the responsibility of the camp commandant, but they were later turned into SS companies of which the SS administrative office was in charge. In April 1941, a men’s camp was added to the Ravensbrück camp complex, which was a labour pool for skilled trades before the concentration camp was fully completed. In August 1941, five accommodation huts and one manufacturing hall for the men’s camp were completed in the south-eastern part of the site immediately next to the industrial yard. Although the number of detainees was constantly rising, no additions were made until the camp was liberated.

It was mostly male prisoners that built the “Uckermark juvenile custody camp” that also belonged to the Ravensbrück complex. It was opened on 1 June 1942, consisting of two barracks – one for the “educators” and one for the “wards” – and was to serve as “youth education camp” for young girls between 14 and 18 years of age. In December 1944, the SS ordered the youth camp to be gradually cleared and subsequently dissolved. Most of the girls and young women were transferred to the women’s camp, sent to work in the war industry or discharged home. The site of the “Uckermark juvenile custody camp” was then used as death and selection area, making it the largest death zone in the Ravensbrück concentration camp.

In the immediate vicinity and nearly at the same time, the Siemens corporation had a production facility built on a site some 20 hectares in area, which started to work on 24 August 1942. The workers in the 675-sqare-metre factory halls were female prisoners selected for their dexterity, because they had to assemble different types of electrical appliances and coils used in the war effort. Siemens ran its war production in Ravensbrück in 20 factory buildings until the camp administration had the Siemens camp cleared in the early hours of 14 April 1945. The Siemens camp consisted of six residential barracks. Until early December 1944, the women were housed in the barracks of the main camp. The Siemens site was surrounded with a barbed wire fence attached to concrete poles and four watchtowers.

Also in 1942, female and male prisoners, together with companies in the vicinity, set up the SS Ravensbrück experimental farm on the site of an 18th-century farmstead, followed a little later by a market garden with extensive greenhouses. Here, the SS had biodynamic agriculture tried and tested by female prisoners in the framework of its “German Nutrition and Food Research Institute”.

*The article is based on a number of recent publications on the Ravensbrück concentration camp. Of them, the following were used: * *Bernhard Strebel: Das KZ Ravensbrück. Geschichte eines Lagerkomplexes (The Ravensbrück Concentration Camp. History of a Camp Complex). Paderborn/Munich/Vienna/Zurich 2003. Grit Philipp: Kalendarium der Ereignisse im Frauen-Konzentrationslager Ravensbrück 1939-1945 (Calendar of the Events in the Ravensbrück Women’s Concentration Camp). With the assistance of Monika Schnell. Berlin 1999. Jack G. Morrison: Everyday Life in a Women’s Concentration Camp 1939-1945. Princeton 2000, Zurich (in German) 2002.
Gedenkbuch für die Opfer des Konzentrationslagers Ravensbrück 1939-1945 (Memorial Book for the Victims of the Ravensbrück Concentration Camp 1939-1945). Published by the Ravensbrück Memorial with scientific assistance from Bärbel Schindler-Saefkow. Berlin 2005. Der Nationalsozialismus im Spiegel des öffentlichen Gedächtnisses. Formen der Aufarbeitung und des Gedenkens (National Socialism as mirrored in public memory. Forms of reappraisal and remembrance). Commemorative publication for Sigrid Jacobeit, published by Petra Fank and Stefan Hördler.
Annette Leo: Ravensbrück – Stammlager (Main camp Ravensbrück). In: Der Ort des Terrors. Geschichte der nationalsozialistischen Konzentrationslager (The place of terror. History of National Socialist concentration camps), vol. 4, Flossenbürg, Mauthausen, Bevensbriick. Published by Wolfgang Benz and Barbara Distel. Munich 2006. Die Sprache des Gedenkens. Zur Geschichte der Gedenkstätte Ravensbrück 1945-1995 (The language of remembrance. On the history of the Ravensbrück Memorial). Published by Insa Eschebach, Sigrid Jacobeit, Susanne Landwerd. Schriftenreihe (series of papers) issued by the Brandenburg Memorials Foundation vol. 11. Berlin 1999. *

Transports and deportations to Ravensbrück

The inmates of the Ravensbrück concentration camp were women, men and children from all parts of Nazi-occupied Europe. Based on arrival lists, three types of committals can be distinguished:

  1. Collective transports mainly from the “Reichsgebiet” (territory of the Reich). There were prisoners sentenced to different types of detention and coming from a variety of nationalities, who had made a stopover in the prisons in Barnimstrasse and Alexanderplatz in Berlin before they were assembled to be sent to Ravensbrück. The arrival lists do not mention where they came from.

  2. Deportations, mainly from German-occupied areas; the detainees were first herded together in assembly points, camp-like facilities or prisons. The arrival lists refer to deportations partly as special transports and mention the place of origin.

  3. Transports from other concentration camps, such as Auschwitz. These are, as a rule, evacuations in the face of the approaching Allied troops. The “arrivals” happened in four phases: May 1939 to late 1942, all the year of 1943, the most problematic year of 1944 with a total of approximately 70,000 arrivals and January to April 1945. The year 1944 stands out from the others because it accounts for more than half of the arrivals in total. The reasons for internment were by and large political, “racial” and socio-racial. On top of that, the warfighting Nazi empire needed increasing numbers of workers for armaments production. The political prisoners were mainly women who had offered resistance, had fought in the armies of their home countries or were locked up because of their nationality. Among those persecuted for racial reasons or “racial defilement” were Jewish as well as Sinti and Roma women. In the spirit of the “Volksgemeinschaft” (people’s community), “asocials” and “criminals” kept in protective custody were to be “eliminated” just as “career criminals”, which also included midwives that had carried out abortions and had been denounced.

Children in the camp

The arrival lists of Ravensbrück named 881 children aged two to 16 years from 18 different nations committed to the camp between 1939 and 1945. Among them were 263 Jewish children and 162 “gypsy” children. Most of them came with their mothers, fathers or other relatives. Larger groups of mothers with children arrived after the suppression of the Warsaw Uprising in late 1944 and in connection with the deportations of Hungarian and Slovak Jewish women starting at the turn of the year 1944-45. The children had to line up for the roll calls together with the women, which often required them to stand for hours. During the day, they had to stay indoors. When they were 12, they had to work in the workshops. Boys at the age of 12 were moved to the men’s camp. The camp administration regarded the children as superfluous ballast and useless eaters. Yet the children were especially tormented by hunger, and the memory of it is unforgotten to this day. There are numerous reports about “camp mothers”, women who took charge of children left alone, trying to help them survive. Some, indeed, managed to do so.

Prisoner categories and identification

Prisoners had to wear on their clothes different-coloured triangles giving the reason for their arrest. The admitting authority of the concentration camp, the “Political Department”, assigned every prisoner to a category; this classification was highly arbitrary and can only be described as an incomparable stigmatization. The SS knew neither borderline cases nor ambiguities. Communists, social democrats, women not attached to any party but active in the resistance were political prisoners and had to wear the red triangle. The red triangle was also handed out to women accused of “intercourse with persons of alien ethnicity” and/or the “crime of sexual intercourse”. The real political prisoners called them disparagingly “political between the sheets”. “Asocials” had to wear a black triangle on their clothing, which applied to all “gypsies” and also to women with a previous conviction for offences such as theft, fraud, refusal to work, illegal abortion, prostitution or sexual offences, i.e. frequently changing sex partners or having children from different fathers, as well as “criminal detainees under preventive detention” who had been sent to the camp after serving a prison sentence. Jehova’s Witnesses (also called “Bible Students”), who were among the first concentration camp prisoners of the Nazi regime after Jehova’s Witnesses had been banned in 1933-34, wore a purple triangle. Just about 100 women in Ravensbrück wore a green triangle assigned to “career criminals” or so-called prisoners in preventive detention. The legal authorities and the SS saw them as “dangerous habitual offenders”, among them midwives who had performed abortions and were denounced. Two further prisoner categories – blue for emigrants and pink for lesbian women – played no role in Ravensbrück.

Assignment of numbers in Ravensbrück

Turning human beings into numbers was one of the worst acts of degrading treatment inflicted on the inmates of Nazi concentration camps. The Ravensbrück women’s and men’s camp as well as the “Uckermark juvenile custody camp” had their own serial numbers starting with the first arrivals and continuing right up to late April 1945 when the camp was liberated. By handing out numbers, camp inmates were to be robbed of their individuality and identity. Prisoners were to be identified with a number for registration purposes rather than first names and surnames. The rise in the Ravensbrück prisoner population is reflected in the numbers given out between 1938 and 1945. (The reason for choosing 1938 is that, in May 1939, the women from the Lichtenburg camp were transferred to Ravensbrück and their numbers were taken over.) The first number issued in the women’s camp in Ravensbrück is 1,104; the last one registered in April 1945 is 123,000. For the men’s camp, a total of 19,905 numbers were handed out between 1941 and 1945.

Total number and composition of the prisoners

There are no exhaustive sources giving the accurate prisoner population in Ravensbrück. Yet it is justified to assume that approximately 130,000 women and children as well as 20,000 men were detained. The numbers break down as follows:

40,000 Poles (34,200 women and 6,423 men); 20,000 women and men from the Soviet Union (Russians, Ukrainians, Byelorussians et al.); 10,000 Germans and Austrians; 10,000 French; 10,000 Hungarians; 2,700 women and men from Yugoslavia (Slovenes, Serbs, Croats); 2,500 Belgians; 2,000 Czechs; 2,000 Slovaks;
1,000 Italians; 250 Greeks; 200 Spaniards; 150 Norwegians; 150 Rumanians; 161 women from Luxembourg whose names are known.

In addition, there were women and men from Albania, Bulgaria, Denmark, Finland, Portugal, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, the United Kingdom and other places. Approximately 15,000 women and men were Jews from many different European countries, and approximately 4,000 were Sinti and Roma. On 6 October 1942, based on an order given by Himmler, the remaining 522 Jewish women were transferred to Auschwitz-Birkenau to make the Ravensbrück women’s camp “judenfrei” (cleansed of Jews). Before that, in the spring of 1942, 404 Jewish women had been sent to the State Sanatorium and Mental Hospital in Bernburg where they were killed in a gas chamber as part of Action 14f13. With the shortage of workers becoming more acute due to increasing war losses, the advance of the Red Army and the American landings in Normandy, companies were literally offered Jewish women as workers; this applied especially to Hungarian and Slovak women who were mostly taken to Ravensbrück via Auschwitz starting in the autumn of 1944. They stayed only for a short time before moving on to subcamps to work in armaments production, which the SS terminology euphemistically called “labour camps.”

Hierarchy of the prisoners

The situation in the women’s camp varied greatly for the individual nationalities and persecuted groups. Their status within the community of prisoners depended on the Nazi ideology of race, ranking the value of human lives. According to it, the women registered as “Reichsdeutsche” (citizens of the German Reich) were at the top, followed further down by Scandinavian, Czech and Western European, Southern European and Polish detainees. Prisoners from the Soviet Union, together with the “racially” persecuted Jews as well as the Sinti and Roma were at the lowest level of the hierarchy. However, this hierarchical pyramid changed in the course of the camp’s existence, as is shown by the fact that, after the first Polish women were sent to the camp in 1939, they became the targets of particular harassment.

With the invasion of the Soviet Union, the women deported to Ravensbrück from there found themselves at the lowest level of the hierarchy. The same applies to “Nacht-und-Nebel-Häftlinge” (night-and-fog prisoners) among the French women who were arrested as from March 1943 and sent continuously to Ravensbrück. Being members of the Resistance, they were not to return to France.

Prisoner administration: the system of the prisoner functionaries

In Ravensbrück as in all concentration camps, the SS used prisoners to build, maintain and extend the facilities. Yet prisoners were also assigned to controlling and supervising other prisoners and carrying out tasks in the camp administration. The organizational system of the SS was based on transferring defined roles to a number of individuals. The SS camp administration controlled how these jobs were performed. The prisoner functionaries were at the lowest level of the supervisory hierarchy in the camps. It was a “grey zone” of power between victims and perpetrators that became firmly established in the course of time, yet it has barely left any traces in concentration camp sources. The memories of prisoner functionaries were, with just a few exceptions, merely sporadically collected. The concept of permanent terror borrowed from military service went back to Theodor Eicke, who became the first concentration camp inspector; it was applied in the Dachau camp for the first time. The intention of the concept was to prevent the prisoners from sticking together or even showing solidarity for one another. The motto was “divide and rule”. While prisoner functionaries were used not only in Dachau, but in all men’s camps from the start, the system evolved only gradually in the women’s “protective custody” camps. In Ravensbrück, the protective custody camp leader was in charge of selecting the prisoner functionaries in agreement with the senior overseer. Appointments and removals depended on a person’s position within the prisoner hierarchy. Ethnic German citizens of the Reich including Austrians were given preference; Jewish as well as Sinti and Roma women were excluded. Prisoner functionaries were assigned to the following fields in the camp: 1. Barracks and work; 2. Supplies (kitchen, sickbay etc.); 3. Administrative record keeping.

At the top of the hierarchy was the camp elder, also called camp runner. She was the inmate responsible to the SS, which required her to implement SS orders. Apart from the camp elder, there were block elders and room orderlies in charge of maintaining peace and order in the barracks (there was one block elder and two room orderlies per block), handing out the food, preparing the daily roll calls and keeping the block diary. To oversee the work details, the SS appointed prisoners with instructional powers whose job was comparable to that of the “kapos” in men’s camps. In the summer of 1942, another function was created: the camp police. The camp policewoman was responsible for guarding the storerooms and the punishment block, for the maintenance of order in general and the reception of new arrivals. Prisoners in those functions were a kind of extended arm of the SS. They wore armbands for identification: green ones were for block elders and room orderlies, red ones for the camp policewoman and the instructional prisoners of the work details and yellow ones for the instructional prisoners of the sickbay. The various responsibilities were also given on the armbands, such as “Revier” on the yellow armband of the ones in charge of the sickbay. While such functions could be helpful and often saved lives, the leeway they offered was also highly dangerous. Any kind of assistance was always under the risk of being spied out and denounced. The service regulations of the Ravensbrück women’s concentration camp had this to say on the issue: “No prisoner must feel to be able to trust the others.” Prisoner functionaries, when found to support their co-prisoners, could be punished by the SS and be locked up in the bunker; yet after liberation, Carmen Mory from Switzerland, a prison functionary in Ravensbrück, was put on trial and sentenced to death.

Existing between life and death

The conditions under which the inmates of Ravensbrück lived depended on place and time and also on the people around them. Everyday life in the camp was determined by the limited walled-off space, the (tightly) structured daily routine, inadequate food and clothing, the excessively heavy or monotonous work to be performed, precarious sanitary conditions and permanent fear. On top of that, the ever growing numbers of inmates in the course of the years made it increasingly more difficult to satisfy even the most basic needs in virtually all areas – accommodation, food, clothing, sanitation. The years 1944-45 are remembered as those of a plague of head lice, a spate of diseases and epidemics and unimaginably cramped conditions. When the blocks were eventually more than full to capacity, the camp administration had a tent, 50 metres in length and 20 metres in width, set up in mid-August 1944 close to blocks 24 and 26 in what was by then the fourth camp road. Initially, it was used to accommodate women and children sent to Ravensbrück after the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. After them came women from Auschwitz and Jewish women from Hungary. The conditions in the tent were dreadful, claiming an above-average number of victims every day. In retrospect, surviving such conditions appears to have been a miracle. Memoirs recounting the sharp deterioration in living conditions over the years regularly mention an exception: blocks 1 to 3 situated on the first camp road. They housed primarily prisoner functionaries and were also showpieces presented to visiting grandees of the Nazi regime or representatives of Red Cross organizations. Here, the women all had their own plank beds with clean bedding, the tables where they ate their food were scrubbed, and they wore clean clothes. While the living conditions for nearly all prisoners deteriorated continuously, the daily routine was strict, starting with the wailing siren in the morning, roll-calls in the morning and the evening often lasting for hours, the fight for food rations, the assignment to work, the way there and back, ending at 21:00 hours when it was lights-out. There was a bit of “free time” on the weekends that was used for a number of activities.

Clothing and food

When arriving in the camp, the women had all their private belongings including their clothes taken away. Instead, they were all given the same prisoner uniform: a blue-and-grey striped baggy dress made of coarse linen, an apron, a headscarf and a jacket made of the same blue-and-grey striped material. Wooden clogs or lace-up shoes with wooden soles served as footwear. In addition, they had two pairs of stockings, underpants, a slip, two vests and a belt to hold sanitary towels. Summer and winter clothes were largely identical, but there were seasonal rules for the headscarves: in the winter months, the headscarf had to be tied under the chin, while in the summer, it had to be tied in the back of the neck. Although the clothes for the prisoners were made in the camp’s own sewing workshop, there was not enough of them as early as autumn 1942. New arrivals were given private clothes of women who had been transferred here earlier, with a big cross painted on the front and back with oil paint. The scarcity of clothing and food was reason for the camp administration to allow the inmates to be sent private parcels starting in October 1942. Memoirs often refer to the importance such parcels had because they improved the chances of survival and allowed people to show solidarity.

The scarcity of food in Ravensbrück is remembered by many prisoners in their reports. The fact of the matter is that quantity and quality of the food deteriorated continuously. Percy Treite, the SS doctor working in the sickbay, attributed the rising mortality rate among the detained women to “serious malnutrition”. Helene B., an overseer in charge of the prisoners’ kitchen between August 1941 and June 1943, cited the following daily ration: in the morning half a litre of “coffee”, occasionally with sugar, 300 grams of war bread, 30 grams of margarine three times a week, at noon a hot meal (three-quarter-litre helping of vegetable soup), 30 to 40 grams of meat three times a week, and in the evening a three-quarter-litre helping of cereal soup. It is well known that the quality of the food rations was far worse than the overseer’s enumeration appears to suggest. Especially the soup was poor. What is less well known is the fact that many prisoners felt perpetual undernourishment and starvation to be less of a strain than the permanent fear of punishment, disease and death.

“Looking after the sick”: the sickbay

The sickbay in the Ravensbrück women’s camp stood where the first camp road began. It consisted of two H-shaped barracks, called Revier I. In 1943, several other huts next to it or opposite were added as Revier II reserved for prisoners with diseases such as tuberculosis, scarlet fever, angina and typhoid. Starting in 1944, a growing number of hospital blocks also belonged to Revier II. This collection of barracks was by no means a place where sick people were looked after – it was rather a place of dying and killing, of selections and forced sterilizations, a place of cries and agony, and also a place of cruel medical experiments – and a place where mothers gave birth to children. The register of births, which has been preserved, lists a total of 522 births between 19 September 1944 and 22 April 1945. Only very few of the newborn babies survived.

Responsibility for the Revier was in the hands of SS doctors, supported by nurses. Starting in the autumn of 1943, doctors and nurses from the ranks of the detainees were recruited, among them Adelaide Hautval from Alsace and Zdenka Nedvedova, a Czech, who had previously worked as a doctor in Auschwitz. Medical care was nearly out of the question; all that was done was trying to handle the misery and prevent it from becoming ever more dreadful because of the rising number of prisoners. Patients were predominantly judged for their ability to work – being unfit for work meant death. In the last six months of the existence of the camp, the control of epidemic diseases became increasingly important for the Revier, mainly to protect the SS staff from infection. In Ravensbrück, a number of pseudo-medical experiments were carried out on prisoners under the supervision of Prof. Dr. Karl Gebhardt, an orthopaedist. They had to do with the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, chief of the Reich Security Main Office (RSHA), on 27 May 1942 who had died of a sepsis a few days later. Gebhardt wanted to show that sulphonamides helped to treat wound infections. Seventy-four Polish women and 12 women of other nationalities were selected as test subjects. They were called “rabbits” in the camp, while they called themselves “queens”. The tests started in July 1942 and lasted until August 1943: the women had their calves cut open and the wounds were artificially infected; experiments on bones, muscles and nerves in the women’s legs were carried out on top, sometimes repeatedly. Seventeen of the women operated on died immediately after the operation, among them five Poles and 12 women of other nationalities; six others were shot. The surviving women were scarred forever, suffering from the injuries and the permanent pain.

Forced to work as a slave

In the first two years of the camp’s existence, women were not systematically employed as workers in the war economy. No blueprints existed yet to use female concentration camp prisoners as a pool of cheap labour. In many cases, the things the prisoners were made to do appeared to them to be pointless for the sake of mere harassment. They mostly had to build and enlarge the camp and maintain its daily operation. Women were detailed to build roads, grade land, set up huts and haul heavy loads. Others had to work in the workshops sewing, weaving, winding and knitting to meet the requirements of the camp. The work assignments indoors and outdoors varied – there are numerous “work assignment lists” supporting this assumption. When the industrial yard was added as from 1942, huge production halls went up, for example for sewing, weaving, shredding and fur-making. The workshops did not only produce clothes for the prisoners, but also uniforms for the female guards and the Waffen-SS. Prisoners also had to wash, iron and repair the uniforms of SS men returning from the frontline. All the work was done for the SS-owned company “Gesellschaft für Textil- und Lederverwertung mbH”, or Texled in short. It was the only company of the SS that had been in the black from day one, i.e. 21 June 1940, the day of its establishment. There are figures from the 1943 Annual Report that show the enormous quantities that female prisoners from a large number of European countries produced in day and night shifts:

For concentration camps: 789,210 pieces of clothing for male inmates 706,307 pieces of underwear for male inmates 81,842 pieces of clothing for female inmates 70,922 pieces of underwear for female inmates 3,328 pieces of clothing for female guards

For the Waffen-SS: 648,517 pieces of clothing 151,160 pairs of mittens

With regard to the overall number of female inmates, approximately 60 percent were forced to work for Texled in September 1942. Although production was rising, the number of inmates assigned there went down, due to the growing use of modern machinery. In late 1943, 3,000 women worked for Texled. Working in day and night shifts, they described their work as slave labour. Work at the Texled workshops was initially done in three eight-hour shifts. When Himmler visited Ravensbrück on 3 March 1943, he demanded to introduce a two-shift system, each shift lasting 11 hours, which was an additional burden on the inmates. On top of the heavy workload, extra efforts were needed when, for example, 28 uniform trousers had to be made per shift. Meeting the quota was especially tough for those women who had not learned how to sew. Failing to fulfil the quota led to corporal punishment such as flogging. In many cases, the required quota was literally knocked out of the women, without regard for their poor state of health.

With the front approaching and the labour shortage becoming dramatic, female concentration camp prisoners increasingly had to work in the war industry. Ravensbrück became a hub and transit point for the many subcamps established close to armaments factories. The first two subcamps were set up in Grüneberg, 40 kilometres from Ravensbrück, und in Neurohlau in the Sudetenland. Until the summer of 1944, women from the Ravensbrück camp worked in 40 or so subcamps. The armaments facilities were subordinated to SS institutions, the Wehrmacht (often in cooperation with private corporations) and private companies. Among the places with the largest subcamps were Malchow, Neustadt-Glewe and Neubrandenburg in Mecklenburg, as well as, in the rest of the Reich, Leipzig, Oranienburg, Eberswalde, Belzig, Genthin and Genshagener Heide near Ludwigsfelde. Thousands of deported women were forced to work there to keep the war going; at least 90 percent of them were foreigners. They had initially been taken to Ravensbrück. Within a few days of their arrival, they were allocated to the various subcamps and accommodated there. Since the products they had to produce were largely directed against their home countries, incidents such as disrupting and sabotaging production were on the rise. Quite a few of them paid with their lives. Starting 1 September 1944, the system of the subcamps was restructured for female detainees. The reason was the sheer number of subcamps that had exploded in the spring of 1944. Following an order by the “Wirtschaftsverwaltungshauptamt WVHA” (Central Economic-Administrative Office), Ravensbrück had to hand subcamps situated further away over to other concentration camps, in this case to Buchenwald, Flossenbürg, Sachsenhausen and Mauthausen. Following the territorial reorganization, Ravensbrück was geographically in charge only of places to the north of Berlin. Working and living conditions in the various subcamps varied a good deal. They depended on the type of work, the prisoner hierarchy outlined above and also on the company management, its civilian foremen who provided guidance and supervision, as well as on the SS guards and overseers.

Survival: strategies and chances

The cruel microcosm of the concentration camp was determined by conditions that could mean life or death. To begin with, the crucial factor for survival was the strong and permanent will to survive. It included self-respect and human dignity, self-assertion and solidarity – and, last but not least, hope that the enemies would be defeated and liberation come. Given the deadly conditions in the camp, the strength to survive came from different sources. A political conviction unbroken despite interrogations and punishments, a firm religious belief, traditional, deep-seated patriotism as well as friendships, intellectual exchange, mental and creative activities and the awareness of the need to help made the individual and also the group stronger. Gestures of solidarity were especially important, although here, the scope for action was particularly narrow. Some survivors carried the burden of having been unable to help because assistance was impossible under concentration camp conditions for the rest of their lives. Acting in a spirit of solidarity was based, above all, on national, political, religious, ethnic, familial or personal motives, its “success” depending on conspiratorial networks. That was especially the case when a co-prisoner was to be saved from death through gassing or other means. Survival strategies encompassed different forms of resisting dehumanization and degradation, including also the extermination intentions of the SS. All activities and behaviours of the prisoners aiming to prevent the powers that be from achieving their aims need to be seen as resistance. After all, apart from the will to survive and to help others, there were also other more or less successful forms of resistance in Ravensbrück. Among them were protests, rejections of bonus payments, individual and collective refusal to work, sabotage and, above all, moral opposition. Polish women had this to say on the issue: “Sabotage is like wine.” Among the survival strategies were attempts to get information on the course of the war or on death plans and efforts to disseminate information on the increasingly dreadful conditions in the camp outside it. In some cases, it was even possible to send encoded messages to relatives. Some women kept a diary making daily entries, such as Germaine Tillion, a French ethnologist, or wrote down their observations over several weeks, such as Yvonne Useldinger from Luxembourg. Art Breur, a Dutch artist, made portraits of dead women for documentary purposes. Such activities were dangerous and the chances to hide documents were slim, as is shown by the fact that seven death sentences were passed on five women from Poland and two from Germany, whose records the SS had found, between January and April 1945 alone. Another chance to survive were creative activities, music, religious or political debates and instructions, handicrafts, hand-made gifts and greetings cards. Everything had to be kept secret, always under threat of being discovered by the SS. There is a lot that took place, and there are tiny testimonials of the skills involved. Miniature books, drawings, figures of animals or a crucifix were saved and are carefully looked after to be shown in exhibitions of the Ravensbrück Memorial. There are reports on the place and time for such a world of intellectual-creative resistance. The cramped conditions of quarantine provided the women with opportunities to learn without learning aids, to sing without songbooks, to train their memory or to meet new people. Over many decades, survivors of Ravensbrück from different nationalities have vividly spoken of how such and similar activities had fed their hope to be able to survive.

Between extermination and liberation

On 15 January 1945, the camp complex of Ravensbrück held 46,070 female prisoners and 7,848 male detainees. About two thirds of the men and at least one third of the women were detained in one of the 13 larger subcamps. The main camp was increasingly caught between the frontlines until it was liberated by the Red Army on 30 April 1945. Before that, numerous people had come to Ravensbrück, either in dramatic transports or on foot. The SS had thousands of inmates killed. Over the last few months of its existence, Ravensbrück served as a place of both evacuation and extermination. Seven thousand female prisoners from Auschwitz alone arrived here in late January/early February. Six thousand male prisoners came from Mittelbau-Dora and the Neuengamme subcamp of Watenstedt in mid-April 1945. It was impossible to put such a high number of arrivals to work in the subcamps and accommodate them there. The camp administration tried to get rid of prisoners by

Killing approximately 10,000 mainly female prisoners by deliberately cutting supplies; Poisoning prisoners with Luminal (nicknamed “white powder” by the inmates); Shooting; Gassing prisoners in a provisional gas chamber next to the crematorium and in the area of the “Uckermark juvenile protection custody camp” now largely vacated, which thus became a place of death and selections and the largest death zone of the camp complex; Transferring at least 10,000 women and 4,200 men to other concentration camps and their subcamps; and Discharging detainees, in particular 2,200 Polish women from rebellious Warsaw.

At around the same time, 7,500 female prisoners were liberated by the International, Swedish and Danish Red Cross shortly before the end of the war. Named “White Bus Rescue Action”, the prisoners were taken to Sweden, the first few busses carrying Norwegians and Danes, followed by vehicles painted white with French, Belgian, Luxembourgian, Dutch and Polish women, among them also Jews and mothers with babies. The last transport to Sweden leaving Ravensbrück on 26 April carried 3,960 Polish women. A “ghost train” took them via Lübeck across the Danish border. Numerous selections starting in late January 1945 turned into virtual killing sprees by the SS doctors and guards; they were followed with a variety of activities getting rid of the inmates, such as shootings and gassings. Selection meant death, and the targets of selections were not only detainees unfit for work, but also anyone with grey hair, a pale complexion, swollen legs, varicose veins, wounds or abscesses. Since the sources are insufficient, it is impossible to say when exactly the shooting and gassing of selected prisoners started. However, it is indisputable that about 600 shootings took place in the area next to the crematorium. Gassings are believed to have started in late January and ended in late April 1945. The camp administration made efforts to keep the gassings secret. Registers listing those who were gassed were put together later, claiming a transfer to the “Mittwerda rest camp”. Such a rest camp never existed. One of the Mittwerda lists was saved. It is in keeping in Warsaw and gives 496 names (including one of a woman from Luxembourg), the date of 6 April 1945 and the signature of Ravensbrück commandant Suhren. The overall number of the women gassed in Ravensbrück is 5-6,000. The Memorial Book Commemorating the Victims of the Ravensbrück Concentration Camp 1939-1945 gives the overall number of the dead whose names have so far been identified as 13,161. The book refers to 9,718 female and 3,334 male prisoners. Among the nationalities identified are 53 women and men from Luxembourg. Responsibility for the gassings and mass shootings in Ravensbrück was in the hands of a commando of six headed by SS Hauptscharführer Otto Moll. Moll had come from Auschwitz, where he had been in charge of mass executions; starting in early 1945, he was also responsible for mass executions in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp.

While the selections and killings took place, Albert de Cocatrix, a representative of the International Red Cross (IRC), tried to persuade camp commandant Fritz Suhren to hand the camp over to the IRC. Referring to an evacuation order issued by Himmler, Suhren had all 20,000 prisoners still able to walk driven out of the camp under the supervision of SS guards. On 24 and 26 April, the male prisoners set out in several columns to march northwest; followed by the female prisoners on 27 and 28 April. The columns shrunk all the time, because some managed to flee while others were shot. Some prisoners made it to Schwerin; others ran into soldiers and officers of the Red Army after just a few kilometres. Those evacuation marches went down in the history of the liberation of the concentration camps as death marches. As for Ravensbrück, it is impossible to establish how many prisoners died or were killed on the way after leaving the camp. Mass graves in the cemeteries of the villages along the route hold the remains of numerous nameless victims. About 2,000 women and men, partially terminally ill, had stayed in Ravensbrück, together with 10 doctors and 30 nurses from among the prisoners. Suhren had also ordered several female overseers and SS guards to stay. Then, on 30 April, advance parties of the Red Army arrived at the camp. They belonged to the 49th Army of the 2nd Byelorussian Front whose combat zone was north of Berlin. Colonel Romazan became the military commander of the liberated camp. A commission visited the area, put together a “file of evidence” and took 16 photographs, which have not been found to date. The report included statements by former inmates “on the extermination and abuse of prisoners” and a statement on the medical crimes. In parallel, a military hospital was set up for the liberated prisoners who were ill; some 800 women from Fürstenberg were recruited to clear up the area, look after the sick and bury the dead whose bodies had been piled up in two heaps; after all, the dying continued on a daily basis even after liberation. Those of the former prisoners who were able to walk waited to be taken back home. When the last of them left in July 1945, the Red Army took over the entire camp complex. Only in 1989-90, after Germany’s unification and the withdrawal of the Soviet troops from Fürstenberg/Ravensbrück in February 1994, the former concentration camp territory became accessible again.

Responsibility for the crimes: the SS staff

Germaine Tillion was able to return to France. She was called as witness to the crimes at the first Ravensbrück trial before a British military tribunal in Hamburg in 1946-47. Thirteen staff members and three former prisoner functionaries of Ravensbrück were in the dock then. This is what she wrote later:

“There I was, overcome with pain, facing those people who had done such bad things; they were sitting in a row just a few metres away from me, held responsible for thousands of murders . . . There they were, well dressed, combed, washed and shaven – tidy people: one dentist, several physicians, a former printer, nurses and a few middle-ranking employees. No previous convictions, normal education, normal upbringing ... very normal people.” (Germaine Tillion, Frauenkonzentrationslager Ravensbrück /Ravensbrück Women’s Concentration Camp/. Lüneburg 1998, p. 156)

Who were the women and men who were responsible for the crimes carried out against humanity in the Ravensbrück concentration camp, and what was the organizational structure within which they did their criminal deeds? Just as all other large concentration camps at the time, Ravensbrück was initially under the control of the concentration camps inspectorate. Later, when the inspectorate was integrated in the Central Economic-Administrative Office as Amtsgruppe (division) D as from 16 March 1942, the four departments there (D I = Central Department, D II –Allocation of Manpower, D III – Medical Administration, D IV – General Administration) supervised the corresponding departments in the concentration camps. The camp administration in Ravensbrück was subdivided into five sections: Kommandantur (headquarters) with Adjutantur (adjutant’s office), Political Department, Protective Custody Camp, Administration and Camp Physician. In 1941, a sixth department was added: Work Assignment. Ravensbrück was headed by the commandant, who was called “camp director” until the spring of 1942. He was assisted by an adjutant as chief secretary and personnel manager. The first director of the women’s camp in Ravensbrück was Max Koegel, who had been the camp manager of the Lichtenburg protective custody camp before. In August 1942, Koegel was posted to the Lublin-Majdanek concentration camp. He was followed by commandant Fritz Suhren on 1 September 1942, who had previously been the leader of the protective custody camp in Sachsenhausen and stayed in his position in Ravensbrück until the camp’s liberation. While the commandant was in charge of the entire camp complex, his deputy, the protective custody camp leader, was in charge of running the actual prisoner camp. He had a chief supervisor as support, who was also his deputy, and a number of other overseers. The first chief overseer of Ravensbrück was Johanna Langefeld, who had held the same position in Lichtenburg; in December 1943, she was replaced by Maria Klein-Plaubel. Being chief supervisor was the highest position that a woman could hold in the women’s camp. All female guards recruited for work were not members of the SS, but belonged to the “female SS auxiliaries” and were paid as employees of the Reich. Their scope of action was anything between looking the other way and having sympathy for the situation of the prisoners to corporal punishment, often with the help of a watchdog they all had, which cost some prisoners their lives. Survivors remember that one of the most infamous guards was Dorothea Binz, who was born in a place near Fürstenberg and volunteered as a guard when she was 20 years old. Dorothea Binz was given the death penalty at the Hamburg trial which was carried out. Other guards managed to avoid punishment or got off lightly. For them, working in a concentration camp was obviously an ordinary type of job. Just as their male colleagues, they worked obediently in the system of terror and persecution. Between 1939 and 1945, more than 2,000 female guards worked in Ravensbrück. At the same time, 3,800 guards were trained, some of whom were then posted elsewhere. They were recruited in three ways: Some 10 percent of them had volunteered or answered to job advertisements, about 20 percent came to the women’s camp through the employment agencies, and the remaining 70 percent were enlisted in factories or conscripted. There were 22 buildings specifically set up in the SS residential estate to house the female guards and also the leading male staff. All in all, there were four “Führer houses” (each for one family), 10 “Unterführer houses” (each for two families), and eight buildings each with 10 apartments for the female guards. Since there were more male SS leaders and sub-leaders, only the highest ranking ones lived there; the others lived further away from the camp complex in the small town of Fürstenberg. Apart from the two commandants, there were 25 men in Ravensbrück as “heads of departments” and senior SS leaders. In addition to the SS leaders, approximately 50 to 60 SS men worked in 24-hour-shifts, in admin and as external guards.

Criminal convictions

In the seven Ravensbrück trials held in Curio-Haus in Hamburg between 1946 and 1948, seven male staff members were sentenced to death and executed. Apart from Dorothea Binz, overseer Margarete Mewes from Fürstenberg and Carmen Mory, a prisoner functionary who was the elder of the tuberculosis block, were also on trial. While Binz and Mory were condemned to death, the British military tribunal sentenced Mewes to 10 years in prison. Mewes was released on probation in 1952. Fritz Suhren and Hans Pflaum, a brutal work assignment manager, had been on the run and were put on trial in Rastatt in 1949 only; a French military tribunal sentenced them to death. A Polish court in Cracow sentenced to death chief supervisor Maria Mandel, who had been transferred from Ravensbrück to Auschwitz. In 1948, several trials against guards from Ravensbrück were held in the Soviet Occupation Zone. Without establishing their individual guilt, the defendants were sentenced to long-term imprisonment, yet most of them were pardoned or released early in the mid-1950s. The Soviet secret service interned about 120 guards of the Ravensbrück camp in the NKVD special camp in Sachsenhausen. After the camp was dissolved, they were handed over to a court of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) in Waldheim, Saxony, in 1950 and summarily sentenced to long-term imprisonment. German courts in the Soviet Occupation Zone had investigated the guards since 1948. Their penalties were significantly milder. In 1965-66, the Rostock district court sentenced three overseers from Ravensbrück to life imprisonment.

The Ravensbrück Concentration Camp Memorial

Immediately after the Ravensbrück concentration camp had been liberated and the prisoners returned home, many survivors felt the need to share their knowledge of the crimes committed there with the general public. The call to gather documents, objects and other evidence saved from the camp and write down the experience in order to put together an exhibition came predominantly from “political” prisoners, i.e. women who had put up resistance to the Nazi regime or its stooges. Starting in 1946, commemorative ceremonies were held in Fürstenberg’s market square every year. These events recalled the liberation of the camp and remembered the events there. They gradually turned into demonstrations “against fascism and war” attended by large crowds of people, ending with a procession to Ravensbrück where, in a small area on Schwedtsee, outside the Soviet army base, remembrance took place in a variety of forms. Women from Allied-occupied Germany, later from the German Democratic Republic and the Federal Republic of Germany, from France, Luxembourg, Belgium, the Soviet Union, Poland, Czechoslovakia and other places urged to establish a memorial that offered opportunities of remembrance and information. On 12 September 1959, in the presence of 1,700 survivors from 23 European countries and 70,000 local residents, the National Memorial of Ravensbrück, designed by the “Buchenwald team”, was opened. The area available was a 3.5-hectare stretch on the eastern shore of Schwedtsee that had been used by the SS to dump the ashes of the dead from the crematorium into the water. In addition, the crematorium, which had remained intact, the camp wall nearby and the cell block to be used as exhibition building were integrated. In 1984, the building of the former commandant was added. Its top floor had plenty of space for a comprehensive (permanent) exhibition about the anti-fascist resistance struggle with regard to the Ravensbrück women’s camp. As a result, the presentation focussed mainly on the German resistance fighters; other groups of victims played no role or only a marginal one. The cell block continued to be used for exhibitions. Here, countries from where women had been deported to Ravensbrück were given the opportunity to design their own room of remembrance. This concept has largely been maintained, even though a number of countries have meanwhile redesigned their national rooms. In the late 1980s, more rooms were added to remember those who had previously not, or only very late, been included in the culture of remembrance in Ravensbrück: Jews as well as Sinti and Roma and the supporters of the 20 July 1944 plot, the failed assassination of Hitler.

Immediately after Germany’s unification, the federal government and the Brandenburg state government developed a concept for a memorials foundation, resulting in the establishment of the Brandenburg Memorials Foundation on 1 January 1993. It comprises the Ravensbrück Memorial, the Sachsenhausen Memorial and Museum and the Brandenburg Documentation Centre. Now, it has been possible to work out and implement a new remembrance concept and new ideas for research, collections, exhibitions and educational activities. Highlights in the new remembrance concept were the 50th and 60th anniversaries of liberation, on the occasion of which memorial events were held with survivors from all over the world that are well remembered to date. A large number of permanent and special exhibitions were planned, partially designed to be travelling exhibitions, collections indexed and extended, research intensified so that a wealth of new information on the Ravensbrück camp complex and its subcamps is available now. Relevant in the process are the video interviews with women, men and children of Ravensbrück that have been made since 1993 under the direction of Loretta Walz. The outstanding result of this biographical work is Loretta Walz’s 90-minute film “Und dann kommst du dahin an einem schönen Sommertag. Die Frauen von Ravensbrück” (And then you are there on a fine summer day. The women of Ravensbrück) and the accompanying book. It was shown for the first time on the 60th anniversary of the camp’s liberation and won the Grimme Prize. After the pullout of the Russian military, the former concentration camp territory, repurposed and built-up by the army, had to be redesigned. In addition, the former SS housing estate could now also be put to a new use. When the eight houses of the female overseers were turned into an International Youth Meeting Centre with a hostel and a house designated for the concentration camp survivors five years ago, the legacy of the Polish women victimized by pseudo-medical tests has been fulfilled.

Today, Ravensbrück, the former crime scene, is a place of information, remembrance and commemoration, a place of thinking and learning, and, above all, a place for generations and nations to meet.

The article is based on a number of recent publications on the Ravensbrück concentration camp. Of them, the following were used:

• Bernhard Strebel, "Das KZ Ravensbrück. Geschichte eines Lagerkomplexes" (The Ravensbrück Concentration Camp. History of a Camp Complex), Paderborn/Munich/Vienna/Zurich 2003;

• Grit Philipp, "Kalendarium der Ereignisse im Frauen-Konzentrationslager Ravensbrück 1939- 1945" (Calendar of the Events in the Ravensbrück Women’s Concentration Camp), with the assistance of Monika Schnell. Berlin 1999,

• Jack G. Morrison, "Everyday Life in a Woman's Concentration Camp 1939- 1945", Princeton 2000, Zurich (in German) 2002;

• "Gedenkbuch für die Opfer des Konzentrationslagers Ravensbrück 1939 - 1945" (Memorial Book for the Victims of the Ravensbrück Concentration Camp 1939-1945), Published by the Ravensbrück Memorial with scientific assistance from Bärbel Schindler-Saefkow. Berlin 2005;

• "Der Nationalsozialismus im Spiegel des öffentlichen Gedächtnisses. Formen der Aufarbeitung und des Gedenkens" (National Socialism as mirrored in public memory. Forms of reappraisal and remembrance), commemorative publication for Sigrid Jacobeit, published by Petra Fank and Stefan Hördler, Berlin 2005;

• Annette Leo, "Ravensbrück - Stammlager, in: Der Ort des Terrors. Geschichte der nationalsozialistischen Konzentrationslager" (The place of terror. History of National Socialist concentration camps), vol. . 4 Flossenbürg, Mauthausen, Ravensbrück, Published by Wolfgang Benz and Barbara Distel, Munich 2006;

• "Die Sprache des Gedenkens. Zur Geschichte der Gedenkstätte Ravensbrück 7 945 - 1995" (The language of remembrance. On the history of the Ravensbrück Memorial), published by lnsa Eschebach, Sigrid Jacobeit, Susanne Landwerd (Schriftenreihe - series of papers - issued by the Brandenburg Memorials Foundation vol. 11.), Berlin 1999.