Concentration camps in Nazi Germany were originally set up in 1933 to terrorise Hitler’s political enemies; as war drew near, their function expanded to gratify his obsession (and that of Reichsführer Himmler, as head of the SS which administered them) with ‘purifying the race’ by getting rid of gypsies, Jews, ‘asocials’ — prostitutes, criminals, vagabonds — as well as the mentally ill and handicapped. An all-female camp at Ravensbrück, set up in 1938, soon afforded the prison doctors a steady supply of women — the ‘rabbits’, as these prisoners became known — for medical experiments .
After war broke out in September 1939, Resistance fighters from France and other occupied countries and captured enemy agents joined the prisoner populations. Ravensbrück women, as much-needed slave labour, were worked to death in satellite camps, employed by prominent industrial firms. Siemens, the electrical engineers, had a factory adjoining Ravensbrück.
Ravensbrück, a small lakeside village 50 miles north of Berlin, was far from any major centre where it might attract unwelcome public criticism. Himmler was a frequent visitor, not least because his mistress lived nearby. He took a particular interest in the medical experiments and in camp discipline, supporting a programme of savage beating to break the spirit of the Jehovah’s Witness prisoners — sober, grey-haired ladies who believed Hitler to be the Antichrist.
Such camps as Ravensbrück plumbed the greatest depths of horror known to mankind; they make life in the Great War trenches, so scrutinised in this past year of commemoration, seem almost humane by contrast. Out of a total of about 120,000 prisoners who passed through during the camp’s existence, around 50,000 are reckoned to have died.
Ravensbrück inmates knew starvation and exposure to freezing weather; disease; perpetual fear of betrayal, gassing and humiliation; loss of identity; moral corruption of both prisoners and guards; and above all, intense cruelty — as in the case of Katharina Waitz, a trapeze artist whose gallant escape over the camp wire ended in her recapture and mauling to death by guard dogs.
Villains like Professor Karl Gebhardt masterminded some of the most sinister medical experiments. His personal friendship with the head of the International Committee of the Red Cross prevented a Red Cross investigation of the conditions at Ravensbrück— of which they were well aware. He and other doctors, guards and officials were finally sentenced to death at Nuremberg and Hamburg, but too late to prevent much suffering.
The worst crime committed at Ravensbrück was during the last months, when the adjoining so-called ‘Youth Camp’ was converted to a death camp, carrying on the work of extermination lately closed down at Auschwitz. Traces of equipment for gassing and for a crematorium have disappeared, but interviewees confirm their existence.
Survival had to be learned. Much depended on strong moral, political and religious beliefs, contributing to group solidarity — something, Sarah Helm implies in this comprehensive exploration, that women were better at than males, because less inhibited about showing affection or bonding generally.
Helm had been surprised, when working on her previous book about missing British female wartime secret agents, at how little appeared to be known about Ravensbrück and how dated some English accounts seemed. The destruction of the camp records was one explanation and censorship by Soviet authorities another — the camp being behind the Iron Curtain after the war. But perhaps, she concluded, it was simply that a women’s camp was assumed to be less important.
If This is a Woman is an epic feat of scholarly investigation, bringing together British, French, Russian, German, Polish and Czech archives and memoirs and, most interestingly, interviews with surviving camp inmates or their relations and friends. Its title is a quotation from Primo Levi’s poem ‘If This is a Man’, in the book of that name, on Auschwitz, but carrying a universal message. Considering the herculean nature of her research Helm is admirably self-effacing. Never do her investigations eclipse the vivid personalities of the camp inmates themselves.
This is a very disturbing book; but it is also inspiring. The survival of moral values, of courage and generosity in such circumstances, gives much hope for the human species. Among Helm’s many examples of this are the French ethnologist Germaine Tillion painstakingly analysing the strange society which she and her fellow prisoners inhabited, and writing a comic operetta to keep up morale; the Russian Yevgenia Klemm, about whom a camp survivor told Helm, ‘She was the reason we survived’; Vera Vanchenko, the Red Army officer, who was tortured and executed for sabotaging bullets meant for German guns; and Else Krug, the tough German former prostitute who refused to beat a fellow prisoner.
Micheline Maurel, a literature teacher from Toulon, remembered how a stranger’s kindness helped her find strength. Once when the prisoners were being served soup with semolina — which, unlike the usual cabbage soup, she could stomach — another prisoner approached her and said:
‘Micheline I think this is a soup you can eat. Here, take mine too.’ She emptied her bowl into mine and went without food that day.
The woman knew Micheline’s name but Micheline didn’t know hers — only that she was a French prostitute, a group that kept to themselves.
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