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Last survivors of Nazi women's camp tell their stories

Interview: Sarah HofmannJanuary 25, 2016

"There were lots of tears in the interviews," says author Sarah Helm of her meetings with last survivors of the Nazis' only concentration camp for women, Ravensbrück.

Memorial at Ravensbrück concentration camp, Copyright: picture-alliance/dpa/B. Settnik
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/B. Settnik

Your book "If This Is a Woman" about Ravensbrück, Hitler's concentration camp for women, is now being published in German after coming out last year in English - more than 70 years after the end of World War II. Only a few survivors are still alive today. Where you still able to speak to some of the former prisoners?

I was very lucky that I was able to find a lot of the survivors when I started the research for my book in 2007. Obviously most of them had been young women in the camp, but some of them hadn't been; they were already in their mid-90s. A lot of them were British women and some of them were my neighbors! I live in South London, where a lot of the Polish women lived. I also found a Dutch woman who lived a few streets away from me. That was a big surprise.

Some of them were of course also very far away. I had to go to Odessa, to Donetsk, St. Petersburg and Moscow to meet the Russian and Ukrainian women of Ravensbrück. But I am still surprised by how many I found. In total there 50 women that I met and, including the women I exchanged letters with, probably 60-70 women.

How did these last survivors react to your questions?

I reached some of the women when they were in the last days of their lives and they wanted their stories to be told. And even though they were so old, the stories they did tell were very fresh since they were telling them for the first time. Many had not been sharing their story at all - some did, but never in detail. It was very moving for them; there were lots of tears in the interviews.

There was a wonderful Polish survivor who lived in London, close to where I live. Maria Bielicka was already 90 and she told me that she had recently been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and had only six months to live. She suggested that I came to her as often as I could because she had so much to say. She just wanted to have it out there before she died.

Sarah Helm, Copyright: Barney Jones Photography
Sarah HelmImage: Barney Jones Photography

Ravensbrück was the only women's concentration camp. Still, its story is not as well known as the ones of Dachau, Bergen-Belsen or Buchenwald, not to mention Auschwitz. Why do you think that is?

I still don't totally know the answer. Part of it is that it was in the East. So for western historians, it was impossible to get to the GDR [Eds.: The German Democratic Republic was communist East Germany.] and the documents in Russia. In the GDR, they told very much - as they did with the male camps - the story of communist heroism and the anti-fascist fight.

Many other elements got hidden. Another reason is that in the 1960s and 70s, when the story of the Holocaust began to emerge in its full and unbelievable horror, it took a while to rebalance and realize that the Jewish Holocaust remains the biggest crime that humanity has ever known and still it wasn't a reason to obscure other aspects of the Nazi horror. But there is definitely a third reason: The mainstream historians today are still largely men. And these men were not interested in the nature of this women's camp. In doing so, they missed a great part of the Nazi cruelties: the crime against women.

In which sense did Ravensbrück differ from other concentration camps where men and women were held?

Heinrich Himmler, who was in charge of all the camps, believed, for example, that women were much more afraid of dogs than men. So instead of watchtowers and guns, they used a lot of dogs. There were also women guards, working underneath male SS officers [Eds.: The SS, or Schutzstaffel, was a paramilitary Nazi unit.] of course, but nevertheless the people who dealt directly with the women prisoners were the women guards. This may be surprising: Why should the SS care about women's privacy issues and women's need to have special treatment by women?

I think it was part of how it looked to the outside world. It looked more like a regular prison than a concentration camp. But as the camp evolved and got more overcrowded and the SS felt they had to ensure discipline, it became more and more like a regular men's concentration camp. The level of cruelty evolved rapidly, punishments began to increase. Ravensbrück then also became a death camp with a gas chamber.

The inmates of Ravensbrück were very diverse. Among them were communists, Jehova's Witnesses, prostitutes, resistant fighters, and Jewish women from all over Europe. But they all had one thing in common: They were women. Was the "atmosphere" somehow different than in the men's camps?

The women suffered in different ways. They suffered not so much by the physical torture but by what happened to their children who were taken from them or brought to the gas chambers. As the camp evolved and more and more women were coming, many of them were pregnant and they had to undergo abortions, they had to undergo mass sterilization in the cruelest circumstances; they were used as guinea-pigs. They felt completely violated.

In the last year of the camp, when the SS could not control the childbirth because there were so many women coming into the camp from various parts of Europe, they allowed children to be born. They allowed mothers to actually breastfeed their babies, knowing these babies would die. The mothers had no milk in their breasts. I find it hard as a woman to think of a torture or a cruelty that could be imposed that could match that in any of the male camps. Any sense in history that Ravensbrück was somehow a place that was less cruel, less evil is a complete deception.

In your book, you describe both the inmates and the guards. Is there anything that all of the female guards at Ravensbrück have in common?

You can say that a lot of the guards were ordinary German women who had taken the job for no other reason than that it was a job and could somehow increase their livelihood. They thought they would get a nice uniform, a slightly better salary; they had some security to their lives. They weren't well educated at all, but not badly educated.

None of them had any criminal record to think that they would behave in any particularly shocking manner. And significant numbers showed very quickly how willing they were to go along with the regime, to beat prisoners or worse; some showed very sadistic tendencies. The exception was those who showed signs of refusing. Some left their jobs, some tried to help the prisoners and get messages out.

Memorial plaque at Ravensbrück, Copyright: picture-alliance/ZB
This plaque at Ravensbrück reads: "Here lie the remains of hundreds of murdered women and children from over 20 European countries."Image: picture-alliance/ZB

Johanna Langefeld, the first chief guard at Ravensbrück, is a very interesting case. She came from the prison system; she had the most powerful job among women in the SS. She believed in collective punishment, but drew the line at beatings. When she became aware of the worst cruelties like the medical experiments, she opposed the commandant. So there were women guards who resisted at some point, but they were certainly the minority.

You say Johanna Langefeld was extraordinary as a guard. Is there one story of the prisoners that especially moved you?

One of the ones that really moved me was the story of Evgenia Klemm, who was a teacher from Odessa, an older women who found herself captured during the fall of Crimea with many very young Red Army trainees, doctors and nurses. Many of them were not older than 20 and had no idea to what happened to them. But Klemm had been in World War I as a nurse. She was actually a history teacher, and she told them that they would survive and continued to hold them together. She got most of them out of the camp.

By the time she got back to Russia, Stalin punished many of the Red Army members who had been imprisoned in Germany, because he thought they should have fought to the death. In this atmosphere, she lost her job as a history teacher, and she killed herself in 1953 by hanging. This is a human tragedy on an enormous scale and the most impressive of the stories that I came across.

How do you think it will be possible to keep the memory alive in the future - when all of the survivors will have died?

My main intention was to give them a voice. Ravensbrück should be given its proper place in all accounts of the Nazi atrocities and the role it played in history where women were tortured and exterminated. And I think, the second, third and fourth generations of survivors and of Germans who find out their grandmothers or other relatives had worked in the camps, still have many accounts that we don't know yet. It's important that these are written and gotten out to the public by the third and fourth generation.

From 1939 to 1945, approximately 130,000 women from 40 different nations were held in the concentration camp of Ravensbrück. Tens of thousands of them were murdered or died of hunger, illnesses or medical experiments. Sarah Helm's book, "If This Is a Woman. Inside Ravensbrück: Hitler's Concentration Camp for Women," was released in English in January 2015. The German version comes out in late January 2016.