Book Reviews

Ravensbrück and the Unique Experience of Women During the Holocaust

The exhibition “Ravensbrück: Forgotten Women of the Holocaust” opened at the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre on February 14, and will run through May 30, 2003. Special group tours are available. For information see the VHEC website at  or call (604) 264-0499.

By Roberta Kremer, Executive Director of the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre

“Those who commit genocide know that to destroy a people, one must destroy the women. Genocide is different from war. In genocide, women and children are primary targets, not accidental victims or occasional combatants.”

-- Andrea Dworkin, “The Unremembered: Searching for Women at the Holocaust Memorial Museum”, Ms. Magazine, November/December 1994

Situated on tranquil Lake Schwedt, a short distance from Berlin, is Ravensbrück, the largest Nazi concentration camp built exclusively for women. The camp opened on May 18, 1939. Labeled “Schwesterlager” or “sister camp” to camps such as Buchenwald and Dachau, Ravensbrück was built as a centre for the economic exploitation of female prisoners—a profit-making enterprise with the goal of “re-education”, slave labour and extermination. The SS calculated that an inmate at Ravensbrück would produce 1,631 Reichmarks profit, with a lifespan of nine months. In the six years that Ravensbrück existed 132,000 women and children passed through its gates. By the time the camp was liberated by Soviet forces in 1945, 117,000 women and children had perished. 

Though all sites of Nazi atrocities during the Holocaust are distinctive, the response of the women themselves makes the story of Ravensbrück unique. The living conditions, work assignments, as well as the responses and resistance to the inhumanity of the Nazi regime by the inmates were distinctive and gendered. The resistance of the women and their methods of documentation were different from their male counterparts. Sterilization, forced prostitution and abortions made even the form of their victimization intimately connected to their gender.

Ravensbrück remains one of the least known of the major German camps. Why is this the case? Is it because it was a women’s camp or because the majority of its victims were not Jewish? The discussion of these issues is rooted in the complexity of Holocaust historiography and representation. Understandably Holocaust scholarship has focused on Jewish victims, the largest and most targeted group persecuted and murdered by the Nazis. In Ravensbrück Jewish women comprised only 15-20% of the camp’s population, until 1944 when their numbers increased dramatically with the arrival of women on “death marches” from camps in the east. Yet in proportion to other groups, more Jewish women died or were murdered at Ravensbrück. 

Much of our knowledge of the Holocaust comes from the memoirs of survivors. Many of the inmates of Ravensbrück, unlike most Jewish survivors, returned to their home countries and if they wrote of their experiences they did so in their own languages; the majority of memoirs are written in French. Collections of Ravensbrück testimonies are located in Sweden, Poland and France. Many of these first-hand accounts are just now being translated into English.
Though the number of prisoners and the range of groups changed dramatically over time, most of the inmates were German dissidents—communists and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Witnesses believed Hitler to be the anti-Christ and were avowed conscientious objectors. Among the political prisoners, one of the largest inmate groups were women who were active in the resistance. Political prisoners included women caught hiding Jews in their homes, distributing anti-Nazi leaflets, making illegal identity cards or running underground presses. 

Our knowledge of Ravensbrück comes primarily from the hands of the women inmates themselves. The SS burned most official records in the final days of the war. The only existing photographs are those staged by the SS in 1940-41 to deceive the Red Cross. They show a clean, ordered camp where the women were well treated, and are in stark contrast to the hundreds of drawings made by women inmates while in Ravensbrück. Without training, women documented their experiences in hundreds of tiny sketches at extreme personal risk. Other inmates wrote poems (over 1200 have been documented) also a punishable offense, and others kept written accounts of conditions in the camp. These poems, written on stolen scraps of fragile paper, were passed from person to person and translated into many languages within the camp. Many of these poems survived because prisoners hid them on their persons or in their clogs, where they could be smuggled out of the camp. These expressive and creative works form an important body of documentation, and are a testament to the women’s sense of creative and spiritual resistance.

In addition to women, children were imprisoned in Ravensbrück. Roma (Gypsy) and Jewish children, the first to be placed in any Nazi concentration camp, arrived at Ravensbrück in 1939. Though the statistics on the number of children in the camp are incomplete, hundreds were imprisoned and died in the camp. Many of the Roma children were subjected to sadistic “medical” experiments or were sterilized. With little food, unsanitary conditions and heavy forced labour, only a few of the strongest children survived. The women prisoners secretly made clothes for the children, because the camp clothes were too big. Often a special and close relationship developed between the motherless children and the women. These “camp mothers” cared for and did what they could to save “their camp children”. 

One could not survive long in Ravensbrück without friendships, although friendships alone could not ensure survival. The women formed “family units” that nurtured, protected and shared provisions with each other. Most family units had an older woman who served as a camp mother or Lagermutter, a protector and teacher to younger women. Sometimes the woman in this role was only thirty years of age. Family units took every risk and precaution to stay together. They protected each other against outsiders and nursed each other when ill. Many of these “camp families” were closed units that did not share resources or favours with “outsiders”. Family units had birthday parties for their members, made handmade cards and gifts for each other and mourned the death of their members. For many, the love of those in their “family” became the reason and the means to survive.

Resistance at Ravensbrück took many forms—from active sabotage to complex forms of spiritual and intellectual resistance. Women sewed secret compartments in their clothing to conceal items. They stole paper to make personal journals, cards and write poetry. They followed the course of the war on a hand-drawn atlas and devised the “Toilet Radio”, a communication network where women shared information. Others used free time to “organize”, a term inmates used for the critical barter and black market network that helped procure the means of survival. 

Despite the risks and severe punishments if discovered, prisoners pursued the quest for learning as much as their search for food. Clandestine courses and lectures within language groups were held on chemistry, physics, geography, languages and literature. Many groups undertook the learning of languages, especially German and English. Tiny handwritten textbooks and dictionaries, small enough to be hidden, were made, exchanged and copied by the hundreds. One Polish inmate, Eugenia Kocwa, wrote her own English textbook on 80 sheets of stolen toilet paper. It was copied by dozens of other women.
Food dominated the consciousness of the women. To assuage their hunger and isolation they talked endlessly about food, menus and recipes, an activity they called “cooking with the mouth”. Many compiled small personal “cookbooks,” containing recipes given to them by other inmates or remembered from pre-camp life. As the women talked recipes, they shared family traditions and recalled happier times. Many deprived themselves of a half-ration of bread in order to “buy” a bit of a pencil or scraps of paper, in order to create these tiny recipe books, which became valued pieces of personal property. 
In 1945, when it became evident that Germany was losing the war, SS head Heinrich Himmler began to negotiate the release of women from the camp. After four meetings between Himmler and Count Folke Bernadotte, a diplomat from neutral Sweden, on behalf of the International, Swedish and Swiss Red Cross, 7,500 prisoners were rescued from the camp. The SS sent several thousand women out of the camp on a “death march”. A Red Cross official who was present as the women left Ravensbrück “could see they had sunken cheeks, distended bellies and swollen ankles. Their complexion was sallow. All of a sudden, a whole column of those starving wretches appeared. In each row a sick women was supported or dragged along by her fellow-detainees. A young SS woman supervisor with a police dog on a leash led the column, followed by two girls who incessantly hurled abuse at the poor women”. Hundreds died of exhaustion during these marches.

Soviet troops entered Ravensbrück on April 30, 1945 and liberated over 3,000 sick prisoners still in the camp. Just days before Soviet armies reached Ravensbrück, most of the women and some surviving children were sent out on a westward death march without provisions and with no fixed destination. Thousands died of exhaustion and starvation, hundreds more were shot by the wayside. 
After liberation, the suffering of the women did not end. Many continued to die during the weeks following liberation. 3,500 of the 7,000 women evacuated on April 28th to Helsingborg, Sweden died in the Swedish towns between May and November 1945. The oldest was 46, the youngest 14. These women had been too badly starved and mistreated to recover. For thousands of others, such as those who had been sterilized, the reality of Ravensbrück was permanent.

                                                © Copyright Dr. Roberta Kremer, 2003.
                                                                                All rights reserved.


The above article appeared in the March/April 2003 issue of Outlook: Canada's Progressive Jewish Magazine, 
Vancouver, BC, Canada.  e-mail:   web site: