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The Women of Ravensbruck Concentration Camp

 

Introduction

Ravensbruck Concentration Camp was the largest camp for women during the German Reich. It was the largest camp for women after the Lichtenburg camp was closed in 1939. It was constructed by the German authorities starting in November 1938 near Ravensbruckvillage, at a site which is around 50 miles to the northern side of Berlin. It was constructed by around 500 male prisoners who were transported by the German authorities in November 1938 from the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp for males. The male prisoners had to build a camp with 12 barracks, an infirmary, a kitchen, and a small concentration camp for male prisoners, which was completed isolated from the Ravensbrückcamp hosting women. The entire concentration camp surrounded by a very high wall, which had electrified barbed wires at the top. The decision to have the Ravensbrück camp built was the idea of Himmler. He chose this specific location because it was easy to reach and was considered out of the way. Ravensbrück, in which the concentration camp was built, was a small village, which had beautiful scenery with several lakes and forests. The village was not far from Furstenberg. Further, there was a good road connecting Ravensbrückand Fursternberg. In addition, the Furstenberg’s rail station directly linked Ravensbrückto Berlin (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 2014).    

Who the Camp Hosted

After the completion of the camp, it first hosted 867 women prisoners (7 Austrian women prisoners and 860 German women prisoners on 18th May 1939) who the authorities transferred from another camp. These women were transferred in May 1939 from the Lichtenburg Concentration Camp located in Saxony since it had been closed. The numbers of prisoners increased greatly within a very short time. On 29th May 1939, 400 gypsy women prisoners from Austria arrived at the camp. This was followed by women prisoners from Poland on 28th September 1939. By the end of 1939, the women prisoners’ population in the concentration camp was 2,290. By the start of the year 1943, the camp had a female inmate population of over 10,000. This population grew to over 50,000 inmates by January 1945. However, by 1945, the camp had both male and female inmates even though most of the inmates were female prisoners indicating that the camp was no longer solely for women(United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 2014).

In order to cater for the increasing demand of women prisoners, the Ravensbrück camp was enlarged four times. Before the end of 1941, the camp had 12,000 female prisoners. In 1942, more women prisoners were transferred from Russia to the camp. Before the end of 1942, the prisoners’ population in the camp was at 15,000 and by the end of 1943, it had reached 42,000 female prisoners. Just as it was the case in other concentration camps, Ravensbrück had a crematory. The SS authorities decided to construct a gas chamber in the camp in November 1944. By this time, the female prisoners’ population had risen to 80,000(United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 2014).   

After the start of the war, the population in the camp was more international. Prisoners were soon coming from over 20 European countries. The inmates were from different countries mostly Poland with a representation of 36%, Soviet Union with 21%, German Reich with 18%, Hungary with 8%, France with 6%, Czechoslovakia at 3%, Yugoslavia and the Benelux countries at 2% each. The camp had different types of prisoners including Jews, political prisoners known as asocials such as Sinti and Roma, ‘work-shy’, criminals, race defilers, and Jehovah’s witnesses. The numbers of prisoners in each of these categories were varied (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 2014).

The Camp Leadership

The camp leadership had five leadership departments namely the political department, the commandant’s office, camp doctor department, protective custody camp, and administration department. Tamaschke was the first commandant serving from 1938 December to 31st April 1939. His leadership was followed Koegel who started his leadership tenure on 1st January 1940. He was succeeded by Fritz Suhren who served as the camp commandant starting on 20th August 1942 to April 1945(United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 2014).

All the SS administratorsin the camp were male but with female guards who did not belong to the SS group but rather belonged to a group known as ‘the female civilian employees of the SS’. The camp was also used as a training site for female guards starting the beginning of 1942. Additionally, the camp had 18 barracks with different functions for each of the barracks. Two of the 18 barracks served as the prisoner’s sickbay, two more as warehouses, one as a penal block, and another one as the camp prison until a different block to serve as the prison was built in 1939. The remaining twelve of the eighteen barracks was the prisoners’ housing with prisoners sleeping in three-tiered bunks, which were wooden(United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 2014).

The Prisoner’s Experiences in the Camp

Life at Ravensbrück concentration camp was difficult and shameful just like in other concentration camps. Awful activities such as death by starvation, shooting, beating, and torture were on daily basis. Initially, the barracks that served as prisoners’ housing were in good condition with a washroom and toilets for each of the barracks. However, these conditions deteriorated to a large extent starting the year 1943. At the start, the provided rations of foods to the prisons were in small quantities and these quantities were decreased further by 1942. By the start of 1945, the camp was overcrowded and this led to poor sanitary conditions resulting to typhus epidemic spreading throughout the camp. The infected and ill prisoners were not taken care of. In fact, the weak and sick prisoners were subjected to selection and the selected prisoners were isolated and killed. The selected prisoners were initially shot to death. This changed in 1942 in which the SS officers transferred the weak and injured prisoners to the Bernberg sanitarium, a place that was fitted with gas chambers initially meant for killing the people diagnosed with intellectual and physical disabilities in the process referred to as euthanasiaduring the Nazi regime. An approximated 1600 female and 300 male prisoners were sent to the Bernberg sanitarium to face their deaths in 1942. Around 50% of these prisoners sent to death were Jewish, while 25% were Sinti/ Roma, and 13% belonged to the Jehovah’s Witnesses group (American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise, 2015).

A second round of killing was initiated by the Camp authorities in the later part of 1942 and went on until 1944. During this period, over 60 trucks left the camp for euthanasia killing in Hartheim center, which is located near Linz in Austria. Each of this truck had 1,000 prisoners implying that a total of 60,000 prisoners were killed during this phase. Prisoners in the camp were also murdered by the SS staff through transfer to the Auschwitz-Birkenau killing center or through lethal injection. In 1945, the killing method and transfer to killing centers changed after the SS built a gas chamber near the camp’s crematorium. In this crematorium, around 6,000 prisoners were gassed by the Germans before the camp was freed by Soviet troops in April 1945(United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 2014).

The selection of the weak and ill women to be transported to Mittweida for death was done after every two or three weeks by the SS commandant (Suhren) and the SS doctors (Pflaumand Schwarzhuber). The selection process was a very surprising process. The women had to run in front of the guards and the doctors with their skirts lifted over their hips so that any women with scars, swollen feet, injuries, or found too weak and ill to run fit in the selected group. The selected women were argued to be taken to a ‘recovery period’ that involved jailing in sealed barracks without food and medical care until death saved them. Most of the women in the selected groups did not arrive at Uckermark Youth Camp because they were gassed on the way in special vans that served as mobile gas chambers. The engine’s exhaust pipe was directly linked to the freight compartment of the van with gassing done for 15-20 minutes(United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 2014).

Life for the children was very hard. So many children were confined in the camp. However, the sadism and cruelty against them did not have limits and their fate was awful. In fact, most children were sentenced to their deaths before they were born. The newborn babies were separated from their mothers immediately after birth and thrown into a sealed room or drowned to death. The murdering of these innocent souls was mostly done in the presence of their mothers. There are evidences provided that most children were thrown to the crematory alive, were buried alive, or were drowned, strangled, or poisoned in Ravensbrück. Other children suffered as research subjects with young girls at the age of eight sterilized as a result of direct exposure to X-rays on their genitals. In the initial days, children were killed immediately after birth. However, this changed when Rosenthal, the SS doctor, together with his fiancée, GerdaQuernheim, forced women to abort their pregnancies through bestial methods. Later, the children were allowed to survive but died soon after as a result of very poor sanitary conditions and lack of food (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 2014). 

The prisoners in the camp were also subjected to unethical medical experiments by the SS medical doctors at around August 1942. This included experimenting the use of a number of chemical substances including sulfanilamide in treatment of wounds to prevent infections. The SS doctors also experimented various transplanting methods such as amputations experiments. In these experiments, around 80 women (generally Polish) were selected by the SS doctors for the experiments and many of them died in the process. The survivors were left with permanent physical damages. In order to develop an efficient sterilization method, the SS doctors conducted sterilization experiments on both women and children mostly from Roma (Gypsies)(United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 2014).

The SS opened brothels in 1942 in most of the concentration camps. The camp authorities wanted to reward make prisoners who exceeded the production quotas to be rewarded by female prisoners who were working on the brothels. Most of the women who suffered this fate of working in the brothels were from RavensbrückCamp with around 100 women selected. Most of the women working in the brothels were forced to do so. However, other few numbers volunteered after the SS authorities promised them that they would receive special treatment and might be released from the camp after a span of six months. None of these promises were made and no releases were made. In short, life for the prisoners in the concentration camps and especially at Ravensbrückcamp was terribly unbearable(United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 2014).

It is notable that over 132,000 prisoners, both women and children were confined in the concentration camp. However, around 92,000 of these prisoners died out of starvation, weakness for hard labor, and executions. Towards the end of the war and as a result of rapid advance of the Russian Army, the SS authorities had a decision to eliminate as many prisoners as it was possible. This was to avoid provision of testimonies by the surviving prisoners regarding the happenings in the camp. In order to achieve their goal of killing as many prisoners as possible, 130 pregnant women and children were killed through gassing in March 1945. Before April 1945, the SS authorities transferred the camp machines and archives to a safer place. All this was meant to destroy evidence. On 27th and 28th April 1945, all women who could walk were ordered vacate the camp in a death march. By this time, around 300 men and 3,000 ill and exhausted women prisoners could not leave the camp(United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 2014).   

RavensbrückSubcamps

The SS authorities forced prisoners from the Ravensbrückcamp to unpaid and hard labor mostly in local industries and agricultural projects. By 1944, most of the German producers relied on free and forced labor from the camp prisoners in the production of armaments. In order to conduct their practices effectively, Ravensbrückcamp was made the administrative center for more than 40 sub-camps with more than 70,000 prisoners, mostly women prisoners. The sub-camps were constructed next to the factories that produced armaments, near the famous place known as Greater German Reich, which is located in the south of Austria and north of Baltic Sea. Some of the sub-camps were also used in provision of prisoner labor required in construction projects as well as labor required to clear city rubbles from Allied air attacks. The SS authorities also established a number of factories dealing with production of electrical components and textiles near Ravensbrück where they could get free labor. The largest of these sub-camps required for provision of free and forced labor held more than 1,000 prisoners each. Some of these sub-camps are Rechlin/ Retzow, Neustadt-Glewe, Malchow, Altenburg, Gruneberg, Magdeburg, Neubrandenburg, Leipzig-Schonefeld, Karlshagen I, and Barth(United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 2014).

References

American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise. (2015). Ravensbrück Concentration Camp: History and overview. Retrieved from http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Holocaust/Ravensbruck.html

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.(2014). Ravensbrück.Retrieved from http://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10005199.