Story on Ravensbrück for History Today – History Matters

By Anne Sebba, History Today, January 2016

Story on Ravensbrck for History Today - History Matters

Seventy years after the liberation of the concentration camps, the question of how we should commemorate these sites of unimaginable barbarity for future generations is more alive than ever. On a bitterly cold snowy day at the end of 2015 I took the train from Berlin to Furstenburg, a pretty village just north of Berlin where the women prisoners destined for Ravensbrück were let out of their overcrowded cattle trucks to be marched to the camp itself, and followed in their tracks.

All Ravensbrück survivors remember the shock upon arrival at Furstenberg, often following a gruelling 4- day journey squashed into airless wagons with 60 or so other women, and the terror instilled by the welcoming shouts of the SS guards accompanied by the barking, biting dogs during their 35-minute walk from the train station further north to the camp itself.

Some of the French women resisters, sent there as late as the summer of 1944, had already endured months in other prisons and thought the new camp might at least offer them a chance to work outside and therefore be an improvement, a hope they grasped at on arrival as they smelled the salty Baltic air. But, as Jacqueline dAlincourt wrote, they were quickly disabused of this notion: We were forced to step out amid the yelling of guards accompanied by their dogs, tugging at their leashes, showing their fangs. Fists rained down upon us. We were faced by beasts whose only purpose was extermination. We were gripped by a terrible anguish. Midnight. We remained standing until morning, frozen stiff.

The camp location, a beautiful area with many forests and lakes, was chosen by Heinrich Himmler because it was both far enough away for people not to know about it and at the same time easy to reach – the rail station of Furstenberg, then as now, had a direct link to Berlin, useful since Himmlers mistress and baby lived nearby. Ravensbrück, built in 1939 as the Nazis only all-women camp, was intended for social outcasts, gypsies, political dissenters, foreign resisters, the sick, disabled, mad and other inferior beings, according to Nazi classification. By the end of the war it was estimated that some 130 thousand women from 20 different nationalities had passed through, with 45,000 women there at one time in a camp originally intended for a few thousand. Approximately 30,000 to 50,000 people were killed there, yet Ravensbrück was not intended as an extermination camp – only about 10% of its inmates were Jews – rather as a place of punishment which provided slave labour to some of the thousands of sub-camps fuelling the Nazi war machine, the most notorious at Ravensbrück being the Siemens and Halske plant.

Among its most famous inmates were Genevieve de Gaulle, niece of the General, the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) agent Odette Sansom, who later became Odette Churchill, and French ethnographer Germaine Tillion, who compiled an opera in the camp based on Orpheus in the Underworld and was one of those to testify to the use of mobile gas extermination units at the camp. It was also the scene of horrific medical experimentation on young, formerly healthy Polish women, known as lapins (guinea pigs), some of whom had their legs cut open and infected with bacteria and glass shards to simulate the effect of shrapnel on war wounds.

In March 1945, when it was clear the defeat of Nazi Germany could only be a matter of time, the Swedish Red Cross sent white buses to rescue some prisoners but Ravensbrück itself was not finally liberated until 30 April by the Red Army. After the war the Russians used the site as an army training camp and although there is a soviet-era tank serving as a memorial on the road from Furstenberg, widespread investigation of what went on there was discouraged once the Iron Curtain descended. Today there is a visitor centre, bookshop and exhibition space, well laid out to encourage school visits, and a building often referred to as The Bunker – the prison cells within the camp used for additional punishment and torture – has been refurbished. The Nazi crematorium remains untouched, as does the laundry block to the side of the Appelplatz and the German Government is currently overseeing extensive repairs to other buildings, including the house of the Kommandantur.

But what makes a meaningful memorial to commemorate the barbarity and killing that went on here? At Ravensbrück, overlooking the grey lake, there is a large sculpture of an emaciated woman carrying the burden of another human being, called Tragende by Will Lammert. But, short of forcing all visitors to strip, starve, endure fear and beatings how can one possibly imagine what it felt like to be here in 1944? In the summer the area is considered a beauty spot, full of forests, lakes, camping sites and youth hostels. But on the day I was there, bone chillingly cold and snowing heavily, the very vastness of the empty white Appelplatz was a powerful reminder of just how barren of all signs of humanity the entire site was. We were, apart from a coachload of polish girl guides, the only visitors. Its not hard to see why, irrespective of the uninviting weather; during my visit to Berlin, random questions to a few younger Germans in the city as to what they knew about Ravensbrück, only an hour away, met with vacant stares.

The attractions of cool Berlin with its trendy cafes, cutting edge art installations and gaudy Christmas markets selling gluhwein and bratwurst are overpowering. Yet Berlin has done so much to draw attention to its Jewish past with stolperstein brass plaques embedded in pavements recording former Jewish inhabitants murdered by the Nazis, memorial signposts in the former Jewish quarter and even pictures in some train stations of well-known Jews who once lived in that area while Ravensbrück itself, representing an important aspect of Berlins history, is little known and not encouraged as part of the cultural tour for tourists. Perhaps that is as it should be in order to avoid succumbing to what has been called holocaust tourism – the bus tours to Auschwitz, for example.

In April 2015, to mark the 70th anniversary of its liberation, some ninety former Ravensbrück inmates gathered together probably for the last time. Annette Chalut, a French Rsistante arrested by the Nazis as a teenager, now 90 and honorary Chair of the International Ravensbrück Committee, said: Vigilance is our absolute duty. Evil can return at any time, and we are not allowed to forget what happened here.” With those remarks echoing in my head, I emerged from my hotel at the end of my visit to see a group of schoolchildren on hands and knees scrubbing the stolperstein in my street with toothbrushes and cleaning fluid. Its our annual social day and our teacher suggested we did this, said the group of year nine pupils – Nicola, Lara, Robert, Richard and Leo – in impeccable English. No, they hadnt been to Ravensbrück, they told me, but they knew of it. Its very important to know about your history, volunteered one of the 14 year-old boys, especially if you are German, showing that education is, of course, the best memorial of all.


Anne Sebba is the author of Les Parisiennes; how women lived, loved and died in Paris from 1939 49 to be published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson in 2016