Of the thousands of Nazi concentration camps, Ravensbrück has always been an outlier as the only large-scale camp built expressly for women. Opened in May 1939, Ravensbrück was designed to hold 3,000. It had an aviary and later a hair salon for the guards. Prisoners slept 150 to a block. At its peak, in February 1945, it held 46,473 women. Babies were delivered and left to starve to death. Children were sterilized. Up to 50,000 women were exterminated – gassed, shot, worked to death as slave labor (Siemens used slave labor in its munitions factory on site). Also, it was not built primarily for the internment of Jews, although thousands of Jewish women passed through the camp and were murdered. The prisoners were an amazing assortment of intellectuals, political activists, aristocrats, celebrities - including the sister of New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia and Franz Kafka's lover Milena Jesenská - along with Jehovah's Witnesses and women deemed "asozial" by the Nazis- primarily prostitutes and petty criminals. By 1942 Himmler proudly declared the camp "Judenfrei" , which is perhaps why Ravensbrück does not figure prominently in historical accounts of the Holocaust.
Sarah Helm has done amazing research for Ravensbrück, tracking down and interviewing any survivors in Holland, Belarus, Israel, France; speaking with the children of survivors and victims, transcribing letters, documents, autobiographical accounts, And she doesn't just recount the stories of the prisoners; the female guards also figure prominently in the book. One treasure-trove of information was provided by head guard herself:
‘The year is 1957. The doorbell of my flat is ringing,’ writes Grete Buber-Neumann, a former Ravensbrück prisoner. ‘I open the door. An old woman is standing before me, breathing heavily and missing teeth in the lower jaw. She babbles: “Don’t you know me any more? I am Johanna Langefeld, the former head guard at Ravensbrück.” The last time I had seen her was fourteen years ago in her office at the camp. I worked as her prisoner secretary . . . She would pray to God for strength to stop the evil happening, but if a Jewish woman came into her office her face would fill with hatred . . .‘So she sits at the table with me. She tells me she wishes she’d been born a man. She talks of Himmler, whom she sometimes still calls “Reichsführer”. She talks for many hours, she gets lost in the different years and tries to explain her behavior.’
Ravensbrück has dozens of accounts of depraved cruelty - the barbaric "medical experiments" carried out by Nazi "doctors" on the Polish women prisoners are especially sickening - yet the book is strangely uplifting to read. Many of the women - mostly the politically committed ones, but not only these - showed remarkable courage and solidarity in caring for the other inmates. There was Elsa Krug, an S&M prostitute from Dusseldorf who refused to beat her fellow prisoners and was beaten mercilessly for this. Yevgenia Lazarevna Klemm, unofficial leader of 500 uniformed women from the Red Army. was a mother figured to the teenage girls in Ravensbrück and encouraged the Russian women to learn German to help in their survival. The "Red Army women" were effective in sabotaging he munitions they assembled as slave laborers for Siemens.
And then there was Olga Benário Prestes, a Jew and famous communist leader who, along with her husband, was sent by Stalin to help mastermind a coup against President Getulio Vargas of Brazil. She was captured and sent back to Germany as a gift to the Führer. At Ravensbrück Olga was forced to wear both the yellow star for being Jewish and the red star for her communist activism. She was an inspirational leader for the other women, but in the end her fame did not save her: Himmler sent her to the Bernburg Psychiatric Clinic’s gas chambers, where she was murdered by carbon monoxide gas in “Action T4”. But she was still able to smuggle a note in her clothing to warn others. The terse message read:
"Die letzte Stadt ist Dessau. Wir sollen uns ausziehen. Misshandelt worden sind wir nicht. Adieu."
(The last city is Dessau. We are told to undress. We haven't been harmed. Good-bye.)
Today there is a statue depicting Olga Benário holding up an emaciated inmate ("die Tragende" - "the one who carries") standing at the site of the Ravensbrück Camp.