On a Transport to Heaven

Himmelkommando [unit to heaven] or Himmeltransport [transport to heaven] were unique concepts in the German concentration camps, and meant that prisoners who had been sick and unable to work for a long time, were called up for transport and sent to another camp.[i] Such transports were planned in the camp’s Schreibstube [office] according to a specific pattern. The Schreibstube worked with several sets of colored index cards. If a prisoner was no longer able to carry out his work, his name was transferred to a yellow or a red card. A prisoner with a yellow card was always in the danger zone. A prisoner with a red card was so to speak written off. It was therefore important for the prisoners to keep informed of what took place in the Schreibstube, in order that they could be alerted in time that their names had been transferred to either a yellow or a red card. Then plans had to be made.

As the standard of living of the Norwegian prisoners improved as a result of the packages they received, they also had a sound basis for negotiations in the event they were advised that some one had been transferred to a yellow or a red card. Such negotiations almost always took place via Blockälteste [senior block prisoner]. To remove a prisoner from the red or yellow stacks of cards meant that the women had to go through several intermediaries. Blockälteste had to be bribed, as did Lagerälteste [senior camp prisoner], Lagerschreiber [camp clerk], as well as the prisoner who wrote out the daily lists. Here as everywhere else, the solidarity between the Norwegian prisoners was exceptionally good. It rarely happened that the negotiations were unsuccessful.

But then one day something went wrong. Suddenly three of the Norwegian prisoners, Solveig Smedsrud, Helene Bråstad and Kirsten Brunvoll, were told to get ready for transport and to report nach vorne [to the camp leadership]. A huge machinery was set in motion, but everything was in vain. A mistake had been made in the internal communication system, and now there was no way out. Contact was made with the leadership of the camp as well as directly with the SS. But it was no use. The three of them had been unable to work for a while. Kirsten had an infection in her foot – a phlegmone [large infected sore]. The other two were very weak. All of them had been given red index cards, even though they had not reached the stage of a Muselmann (emaciated, skeleton-like) yet – or Schmuckstückstadium (pieces of jewelry stage), as it was called in Ravensbrück.

The mood in the Norwegian barracks was subdued. Solveig, Helene and Kirsten were important and well-known prisoners. It was inconceivable how they could have been so unlucky. But now it was too late; that was something everyone had to admit. The evening before the transport was scheduled to leave all those who were being sent away were gathered in the bathroom [shower room]. Extra guards surrounded the bath that night. The SS did not tolerate any nonsense. At 4 o’clock in the morning names and numbers were checked for the last time, and the column consisting of 800 prisoners was told to start marching, Abmarsch. The prisoners walked to the railroad station, where the train awaited them.

The camp leadership too was present, i.e. the commandant, Schutzhaftlagerführer [the protective custody camp chief warden], SS head nurse Marschall and SS nurse Erika. When Kirsten passed the commandant, she could not care less about regulations and orders. She stopped in front of him and asked: “Tell me, Herr Kommandant [commandant], why on earth do you send us Norwegians on transport? That is so unnecessary. Had you given us a little more time, we would surely have recovered in the camp.” The commandant looked at her in amazement. He was completely speechless both because of the woman’s impertinence and because of the nature of her question. He looked at Schutzhaftlagerführer and asked: “Are there any Norwegians in this transport?” Then he turned to Kirsten: “How many of you are there?” “There are three of us”, answered Kirsten. But that was the end of it. The commandant made no move to intervene, and the prisoners behind her pressed forward. She had to find her place in the cattle car just like all the others.

It was one of the usual cattle-car transports with 60 prisoners crowded into each car. They knew where they were going: to Maidanek near Lublin to be “taken care of,” as the commandant had said. No one believed it. They knew that they were on a Himmeltransport [transport to heaven – the end of their lives].

Late in the afternoon of the following day the train passed Warsaw, where it remained standing on a sidetrack for a while. It was almost worse to stand still than to move. When the train was in motion it always jolted and shook somewhat. The prisoners’ bodies moved with the unevenness of the railroad tracks, which helped them maintain a minimum of body heat. When the car stopped, so did their bodies. It was snowing outside and bitterly cold. An ice cold piercing wind blew into the locked train car. Suddenly the train jerked. Slowly it began rolling again. They were still traveling.

The three women stayed together. They tried to protect each other. They were on their last journey. They had much to talk about, even though most of it had already been said. Kirsten was the only one among them who had a husband and children, two sons. Her husband and one of her sons were together. She had recently heard from them. They were in Sachsenhausen concentration camp on the outskirts of Berlin. Gunnar, the youngest, had managed to escape the day they were arrested, but she had heard from him too. He was in Sweden then, and she knew that he was on his way to Canada. She had fervently hoped that the four of them would meet again at their home at Jar, but now she was here. She was calm. Also her two fellow-Norwegians seemed relaxed. They tried to get some sleep and to warm each other as best they could.

In the evening of the third day they arrived in Lublin. The train stopped with a jolt. The doors opened, and the usual commotion began. The SS shouted, the dogs barked, the customary orders could be heard: “Los, los, schnell, schnell, raus, raus!” (get going, hurry up, get out). Oh, these well-known words! But there was one good thing about this reception: a row of trucks was waiting to receive them. They were stiff and tired and completely exhausted after sitting on the floor of a bumping railway car for three days. At least they would not have to walk the last distance.

They noticed that the trucks passed a camp gate. They stopped briefly. The list of prisoners was checked. The drivers were instructed in which direction to drive. They heard someone call out German orders.

They had no idea where they were going. Suddenly the cars stopped. The tarpaulins were pulled aside. They were told to get off. Armed guards stood close together around them. They were steered into a semi-dark room with pegs on the wall and a few stools to sit on. They were divided into groups of 50. Then they had to wait again.

They stood, they sat, and they lay on the floor. No one took any notice of them. One hour passed after another. Finally they were told to get undressed and throw their clothes into a pile in the middle of the floor. They stood there naked and shivering. The three Norwegian women held each other’s hands. Slowly the group was driven into an adjoining dimly lit room. They could clearly see the showers in the ceiling. Several benches were placed alongside the walls.

Soon all 50 were inside the door. It was locked from the outside. Not a word was spoken. The prisoners knew exactly what faced them, for Maidanek was notorious for its gas chambers. The women had each their own thoughts. They had already discussed the whole thing several times. They had talked about their much younger Jewish fellow prisoners, young Norwegian women whose whole lives had been ahead of them, and who had had to walk this path before them. Now it was important not to let the SS have the pleasure of seeing their deep despair at their farewell to life.

The only thing that struck them as odd was that there were still SS women in the room. That did not seem right. They also noticed that they were not equipped with gas masks. Then one of the female SS guards went over to a wheel and turned it. Seconds later the miracle happened. It was not gas that came from the showers but water, wonderful warm water, water that trickled down tired and worn-out bodies, water that seeped into eyes and ears and through hair and across shoulders. Everyone had been given a bar of soap at the door. They were still in shock. But then they automatically began to wash themselves with the soap. The SS guard stood at the wheel and screamed: “Schnell, schnell, einseifen!” (quick, wash yourselves with soap). Suddenly they had something else to think about. It was the first bath they had had in weeks and months, and they were anxious to get washed as well as possible before the water was turned off. More shouting came from the SS guard, signaling that there was no more water. The door at the other end of the bathroom was opened, and two more female guards stood there with towels.

Only when the women were drying themselves did they regain their power of speech. But there was no time to talk. It seemed as if everyone pressed forward in order to get as far away from the bathroom as possible. In the next room clothing was distributed. They took whatever clothes they were handed and hurried on through another door, where they had to line up and be counted again. It was not possible to establish where they were going. They just followed the group.

But suddenly everyone stopped. They noticed some tables and a stove in the middle of the room they had come to. This was the Maidanek Zugangsblock [quarantine area for newly arrived prisoners], and they were alive. Shortly thereafter several prisoners came along carrying pots of soup, and soon the distribution of the food was in full swing. It was actually quite good, considerably better than at Grini [Norwegian prison] and in Ravensbrück. And it was warm. The three Norwegians had found places at one of the tables, and the moment they swallowed the last drop of soup they fell asleep. They were completely exhausted. And they were alive.

None of them knew how long they had slept when a new order was heard throughout the room. They were brought to another barrack where they were registered. Their names were marked off on the lists of prisoners and they were given a new prison number. Prisoners kept the records, but it was the SS who checked that everything took place as it was supposed to. The proceedings came to a brief halt when Kirsten and her two friends came to the registration table. Nationality? Norwegian, Norweger, norski. The clerk looked at them in disbelief. The SS repeated: “Norweger?” Yes, Norweger. Once more they were asked the same question and then the clerk entered a large N in the column for nationality. They were the first Norwegian prisoners who had been registered in this camp. Suddenly they had aroused the interest of both the Polish clerks and the German SS. They had become a curiosity. Norwegian prisoners in Majdanek!

Several prisoners came over to them and began talking to them. Is it true that you are Norwegians? But why are you here then? The questions came faster than they managed to answer them. Eventually they were shown to their places in a large dormitory. Kirsten summoned up her courage and asked one of the younger Polish prisoners where the gas chamber was. A few of the others heard the question. They all looked at each other. Then the prisoner, who had acted as the spokeswoman all the time, smiled slightly. “We understand what you mean”, she said “but you can relax. We are in fact in the gas chamber right now. Both this dormitory and the adjoining one are the former gas chambers. This camp was changed into a sick-camp two months ago. No prisoners are gassed here for the time being.” At first the three Norwegian women were completely speechless. Then they relaxed. Now they could go to bed and rest, at least tonight. And then they would see what tomorrow would bring.

But the next day did not bring anything special apart from the fact that they were allowed to stay in their bunks and that, later that day, someone came to look at their sores. They began to orient themselves about the conditions in the camp. They found out that the highest-ranking SS chief was a woman with a male SS being next in command, and that the camp was characterized as a transitional camp. The SS could not afford to waste as many human lives as they had previously. Therefore, this camp had been changed into a sick-camp. As long as it was possible to make the sick prisoners well enough to be used for productive work again, this was preferable. If not, well then the real Himmeltransport would begin.

The three Norwegians realized that they had been given a reprieve. They fought battles on two fronts; on one hand they fought with time, on the other, with their state of health. They also found out that regardless how ill some of the prisoners were, they were given a certain time limit called quarantine that lasted two weeks. If there was any sign of improvement during that time, there was hope. If the prisoners’ condition worsened, there was none.

But now a new element entered into the picture. There were large movements on the eastern front. The Red Army advanced much faster than the SS had anticipated. But there was one thing that was obvious to the SS. No camps could be allowed to fall into the Russians’ hands, at any rate, not with live prisoners. Therefore, a new order was issued by the camp leadership: The prisoners who had become totally unable to work would be sent back to Ravensbrück. Those who were recovering and for whom there was still hope, would be sent to Auschwitz, as were those for whom there was no hope.

Majdanek was a large camp, and when it came to emptying it of prisoners, it was not a matter of pushing a button. The SS had to take their time. And the three Norwegians gained another respite.

But eventually the day arrived. Everything was ready for the transport to Auschwitz. Their spirits sank again. Auschwitz, that was the real death camp. Trucks drove up. The prisoners were stowed onto the flatbeds. The three Norwegians stayed together. Cattle cars stood in long rows at the station. And then the counting began again, 60 in each car, no more no less. This time the Norwegians were unlucky. Helen was the first of the three to get on the train. She was No. 59 and Solveig was No. 60. Kirsten tried in vain to negotiate a place in the same car. Forget it. The SS were hard as nails. Ordnung muss sein! (everything must be in order). So she became No. 1 in the next car. Now it was important to make sure that they would be reunited again at the next station, i.e. in Auschwitz.

The transport was horrific and lasted three days and three nights. Some of the prisoners died on the way, others were shot. At the railway station in Auschwitz the prisoners were once again crowded into trucks. They only stopped when they arrived on Lagerstrasse (camp road) inside the camp, where all of them were chased off the trucks.

In the commotion that followed, Kirsten looked for Solveig and Helene. She discovered Solveig near the wall of a barrack. She was totally confused and it was hard for her to explain what had happened to her. Eventually she managed to stammer that one of the guards had knocked her down and she had lost her glasses. She was completely helpless without them. Helene had come to her rescue and gotten her back on her feet. Then she had continued to look for Solveig’s glasses. And then suddenly, wonder upon wonders, Helene stood there, albeit soaked in mud. She had crawled on her knees looking for Solveig’s glasses and found them!

It was gray and miserable when they arrived in the camp that morning, but now the sun was breaking through. They removed most of the muck from Helene’s and Solveig’s clothes, and cleaned Solveig’s glasses. Then they sat down in the sun and calmly waited for what would happen now. Little by little it looked as though order had been restored to the transport. The SS had calmed down. Now the newcomers were called up. They found their places in alphabetical order, were called up one by one, and came to a table where Polish prisoners sat and wrote. They were given a number each and had to continue on to a barrack, where two young Jewish women tattooed their numbers on their left arms. Then they had to try to find a place where they could sit down and wait.

Later that day, someone arrived with pots of soup, and they got the first warm meal in three days. The soup tasted awful, but it was warm. What happened now can only be characterized as organized chaos. They had obviously come to a part of the Auschwitz complex, which was the reception area for newcomers, regardless where they came from. Male and female prisoners, interspersed with SS soldiers, milled about. There were endless barracks. All the SS soldiers shouted and gave orders. Darkness was descending.

For the three Norwegian prisoners it was most important that they stay together, and incredibly enough they did.

In the middle of all this the air-raid siren sounded. The lights went out. Now they saw clearly how the flames from several chimneys rose towards the sky – columns of fire from the crematoriums. The ovens worked at full capacity.

Eventually they were herded into another room, one of the many bathrooms in Auschwitz. This time too it was a real bath, not a disguised gas chamber. The bath led into a large hall, where the distribution of clothes took place. What clothes? They were nothing but rags! The prisoners looked funny when they finally got dressed in the clothes they had been handed. Even the SS guards roared with laughter at the sight of the women. But all the time “Los, los, weiter, weiter!” [hurry, hurry, go ahead] could be heard. And finally after having passed through several barbed wire gates, they came to something that looked to be a women’s camp, where all three of them were ordered into one of the empty barracks.

And then the air-raid siren sounded again. A terrible racket broke out, banging and crackling everywhere. It took a while until the women discovered that anti-aircraft guns had been placed in the camp itself and were now in action.

The three of them tried to orient themselves in the middle of the chaos. Eventually they got the answer to the many questions they had asked about their whereabouts. They had come to the Jewish camp of Birkenau in Auschwitz. Because of the evacuation of other camps further east, many categories of prisoners had recently come to this camp. Auschwitz was still characterized as an extermination camp for Jews. But in addition to the Jews, Poles, Germans, Czechs, Frenchmen, and other prisoners from many, many nations, had now been sent to this camp. The fact that many of these prisoners were Aryans resulted in problems for the SS. They could not follow the usual pattern of putting those who were healthy to work, and sending those who were not, directly to the gas chamber.

This is where the dilemma arose for the camp leadership, who had no clear instructions from Berlin about how to deal with Aryans who were unable to work. Should they too be gassed? This was extremely doubtful and had to be clarified.

In the meantime those of the Aryans who were sick were admitted to the Revier (camp hospital). To add to the confusion, the camp index cards that had come with the prisoners from Majdanek, had disappeared. What now? Neither Solveig, Helene, nor Kirsten was able to work. Solveig had pneumonia and a high fever, as did Helene. And the infection in Kirsten’s leg that had temporarily improved in Majdanek, had flared up again.

It was May 1944. In addition to their other ailments, the three Norwegian women contracted typhoid fever. They were admitted to the typhoid barrack, where they only spent a few days before they were sent on to another barrack, a so-called Schonungsblock (a recuperation barrack). Because they were in poor health they were able to stay there without having to work. They had landed in a veritable maelstrom. It was obvious that no one seemed to know what to do with the Aryan prisoners who were sick.

One day the Norwegians were separated, that is, it was Solveig who disappeared. The two others looked for her but did not find her. Gradually they began to resign themselves to the fact that she had probably been sent on a transport. But one day Helene found her in a sick-barrack. She told what had happened: She had been made to work in a transport Kommando [work unit]. Each and every day they had to pull all kinds of carts all over. Sometimes they also had to pull toilet carts many kilometers beyond the camp area. As a result, her feet became infected and she could no longer walk. So she had ended up in the Revier again.

The summer of 1944 had begun. All the barracks in Auschwitz were overcrowded. Transport upon transport piled up. It was primarily the transports of Jews from Hungary that marked the daily life in the camp. The crematoriums worked at full speed. Up to 60,000 prisoners were put to death in one day. New gas chambers were put to use. Approximately 2000 people could be crowded together in an area of a little more than two hundred square meters. It took 10-15 minutes to gas them to death. It was a Holocaust, an inferno.

The problem with the Aryan prisoners in this hellhole had still not been solved. Sometimes the SS doctor came to see them. He asked that the prisoners state whether they were capable or incapable of working. All three Norwegians declared that they were able bodied. So it was up to the camp leadership to provide suitable work for them.

One day the camp’s Arbeitsdienstführer (leader of the work details) came to inspect the Aryan prisoners. He wanted to speak to all those who had alleged that they were able to work. It was soon Kirsten’s turn. “I would like to work as a knitter”, she said, “I am an experienced knitter, because I did this kind of work in Ravensbrück. I am a Norwegian prisoner and I am used to working.” Arbeitsdienstführer looked surprised. He gave a few orders to his next in command, which accompanied him everywhere. He nodded.

Kirsten quickly got hold of Helene and Solveig. She told them about the situation and implored them to do their utmost to stay in the Schonungsblock for the time being. The following day, Kirsten found herself in the Auschwitz knitting shop, knitting as hard as she could. Next to the knitting shop was the crematorium. It worked at full capacity. Somehow the three Norwegian women still managed to stay in touch. Technically speaking they were now in different camps. But they had now become sufficiently lagerfähig, i.e. used to the camp conditions, so that they always found a way to be in contact.

The conditions in Auschwitz deteriorated steadily. More prisoners arrived daily and new projects began every day. Medical experiments of different kinds had been going on in Auschwitz for a long time, as it had in Ravensbrück. But now these experiments became so varied that it was difficult even for the SS to keep track of them. One hundred pairs of twins lived in one of the barracks where medical experiments took place. Another barrack housed many dwarfs.

No one knew what the SS were doing. What was known, though, was that the SS took care of their twins and their dwarfs, as if they were indispensable. They were provided with better food and clothes than the rest of the prisoners in the camp, and no one was allowed to go near them.

Then one day the Norwegians lost each other again. Regardless how much Kirsten looked for them, both Helene and Solveig were gone. No one knew anything, no one had seen them. It was as though they had disappeared from the surface of the earth. At the same time Kirsten’s condition deteriorated noticeably. The inflammation in her leg flared up again and she ran a high temperature. Her stomach pains were also getting worse, and she was heading toward an acute crisis. This is how she tells it in her book The Road to Auschwitz,

I was getting weaker and weaker and with my strength my will to live disappeared. I began to reason with myself to find plausible grounds to give up the fight.

Was it really necessary to make it back home again? My husband was a mature person, who could manage without me. My boys were also adults. They did not need me any more. Why did I continue to struggle in this hellhole, when every minute was suffering? How good it would be to give up. Something inside of me screamed: Give in – give in to the Germans and the NS? (Nasjonal Samling – National Assembly – Nazi party) Allow them to defeat me? Give up? Never! But as my strength waned the cry got weaker. In the end there were only two words that were alluring: Give up.

I gave up. It was a relief to let myself sink. I neither ate nor thought any more. I was not able to. Slowly I slid into apathy. I moved in a foggy no man’s land. Nothing concerned me. I saw the others at a great distance. Stana fetched my soup in the afternoon. She shouted at me: “You must eat. You have a duty toward your husband and your sons.” I had already debated this point with myself. She screamed: “You must not give in. You must resist. The war will be over soon. We will go home again.” I had heard this for more than two years. Every Christmas, Easter and Whitsun we were going home. I did not believe it any more. Did not have the strength to believe it. I continued to sink. The fog became thicker. The smoke from the crematorium did not frighten me any more. Soon it would be my way out to freedom.

Why were the cries of the tall flames rising to the sky so heartbreaking? There was no reason to cry. It was good to die.

Then suddenly something happened. Kirsten received a letter from her husband in Sachsenhausen. And then something else happened. She began to receive packages. The packages brought new friends. Everyone was willing to take care of her, to nurse her. More parcels arrived from Norway, Sweden, and Denmark. She acquired more friends, friends who helped her with practical matters, with her sores, and to exchange food for warmer clothes. Life became brighter and easier. She noticed that her strength returned. Now she was definitely the only Norwegian in the entire camp.

The parcels she received contained soap and other toiletries. Little by little she was able to leave her bunk, and to move around in the barrack. She could go to the washroom [primitive washing facilities, where the women stood in line to get washed] alone and take care of herself. It was fall and she was able to exchange some of the content of her parcels for fresh vegetables and sometimes a bit of fresh fruit.

The influx of Jews to be put to death and prisoners from newly evacuated camps had abated somewhat. There was noticeably more room in the camp. Kirsten was able to buy other services, i.e. to have her clothes washed and her bed kept clean. And then she received more letters from her husband and her son from Sachsenhausen. Of course she was going home. Of course she would live.

Major changes were taking place in Auschwitz. The entire knitting shop was closed, and the prisoners were told to move to another barrack, a 15-minute walk away. It was fall and getting cold. Christmas approached. Some night, the thermometer showed minus 20 degrees C. In the middle of December, rumors circulated that all the crematoriums were going to be torn down. And indeed, one day, the roof of one of the crematorium barracks was gone. Large columns of prisoners were busy removing the barbed wire that separated the camp into smaller camps. Auschwitz was undergoing changes.

Christmas came and went. It was a truly sad affair. The air raid warnings increased in numbers. The planes were more and more aggressive. Occasionally the bombs fell inside the camp. A few times barracks were hit and were immediately on fire. One night Blockälteste called, “Everyone must get up and get dressed well. Take two woolen blankets each and get ready to march. We must leave the camp quietly and calmly. Those who speak in a loud voice or shout will be shot.”

This was the beginning of the evacuation of Auschwitz. Soon the prisoners were instructed to begin walking. All of them had taken along whatever clothes and food they had been able to forage in the camp. There was no control when they left the camp. Five SS soldiers with machine guns headed the column of prisoners. On both sides SS soldiers flanked the column at regular intervals. Despite the fact that most of the prisoners were in poor shape they made progress; at any rate, in the first hours. Soon many of them began to understand that they had taken too many things with them. They did not have the strength to carry their packages, and began throwing them away. “Keep the woolen blankets,” the SS soldiers said, “you will make use of them tonight.” Occasionally, they were ordered to stop. Then the prisoners sank down at the roadside and rested. The SS soldiers were not used to march either. Some of them developed blisters, just like the prisoners. As the day wore on, the column of prisoners began to spread out. The SS urged them on. Not all of them managed to keep up. Soon shots could be heard. The bodies of the first dead women remained at the roadside.

Toward evening they approached a few small farms. Here the SS decided that they would stop for the night. Some of the prisoners found shelter in the barn, others in the haylofts, and still others inside the houses. The people who ran the farms did their best to help the prisoners. But it did not do much good. Most importantly, they had a roof over their heads, but not all of them. Some slept sitting on the steps, others sought shelter from the wind behind piles of wood. They were almost frozen stiff in the morning when they were ordered to start marching again.

For four days the column struggled along the road. More and more shots could be heard. More and more prisoners were left behind. It was a pitiful sight. In the afternoon of the fourth day, they arrived at a small railway station, where several railway cars, open coal cars, were standing. In the bottom of most of the coal cars was a thin layer of coal. It seemed as though someone had begun loading the cars, but that they had run out of coal. The prisoners were told to crawl into the cars. A couple of SS soldiers with guns were placed in each car.

Then the train started out. It was biting cold. The prisoners huddled close to each other and tried to cover themselves with the woolen blankets in the open cars. Some tried to shield themselves from the cold by digging down into the coal. It was an erratic transport. At times, the train stopped and would remain standing for hours. Sometimes the train moved snail-like, at other times the locomotive would run at full speed. Day turned into night and night turned into day. Occasionally, when it seemed that they would stop for a while, the prisoners were ordered to leave the cars and go down to the tracks, where they would wade a few meters into the snow on the side, lift up their skirts and let nature take its course. And then they would have to find their places on the train again. Sometimes the SS were able to organize a few buckets of water. Sometimes a few prisoners were able to light a fire. After all, there was enough fuel. Sometimes a prisoner woke up from dozing and discovered that the woman next to her was dead. The body was left at the next stop. And the train struggled on toward west, toward the Vaterland (Fatherland, home).

One day, the train stopped at a station that Kirsten recognized. They had arrived in Ravensbrück. A few hours later, she was in the camp. They had marched into the camp in the middle of the night. It seemed quite deserted. But a new element had been added since Kirsten was there, the tent, in which she herself was soon housed. It was daybreak when she arrived there together with her fellow travelers, just as the camp began to come to life. She was able to call out to a few Dutch prisoners and ask them to alert some of the Norwegian women that she was Norwegian and that she could be found in the tent. Then she had to be registered as a new prisoner in her old camp. For the second time she got a Ravensbrück number. Her first number, which she had been given at the end of February 1943, was 17,816. Now, in January 1945, she had been away from the camp for one year. Her new Ravensbrück number was 99,852. Thus eighty thousand women had marched through the camp gate since she got there the first time. The camp looked it too.

Now the rumor began circulating that Kirsten had returned. Soon she was surrounded by friends and felt their warmth flow toward her. She felt almost at home. And not only that, she received marvelous news. Helene and Solveig had come back to Ravensbrück with two different transports of sick prisoners. They were doing well, all things considered.

Kirsten’s, Helene’s and Solveig’s long Himmeltransport had ended - this time.

Without being aware of it, they had written prison history. It had never happened before that Ravensbrück prisoners on a death transport had returned, and it never happened again.

Chapter from Kristian Ottosen, The Women’s Camp: The History of the Ravensbrück Prisoners. Translation: Margrit Rosenberg Stenge (Oslo: Aschehoug, 1991).

Reprinted here with permission of the author and help of the translator. Modifications and notes by Dr. Karin Doerr, Concordia University, Montreal. 

Ottosen interviewed Norwegian women who had survived Ravensbrück and consulted public archives in Czechoslovakia, England, France, Germany, Norway, Poland, and Sweden. 

[i] Most translations of German terms according to Robert Michael and Karin Doerr, Nazi Deutsch/Nazi German: An English Lexicon of the Language of the Third Reich (Newport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2002).

For more information on Women at Ravensbrück, see Rochelle Saidel, The Jewish Women of Ravensbrück Concentration Camp (Madison, WS: University of Wisconsin Press, 2004); See also the German sources, Claus Füllberg-Stolberg, Martina Jung, Renate Rieb, and Marina Scheitenberger, eds., Frauen in Konzentrationslagern Bergen-Belsen  Ravensbrück  (Bremen: Temmen, 1994); and Sigrid Jacobeit and Grit Philipp, eds, Forschungsschwerpunkt. Ravensbrück. Beiträge zur Geschichte des Frauenkonzentrationslagers Ravensbrück, Stiftung Brandenburgische Gedenkstätten, No. 9 (Berlin: Edition Hentrich, 1997). [back to essay]