The ashes of dead women are at the bottom of a German lake that shines smooth and clear in the spring sunshine. Birds twitter as they perch in the large linden trees planted at Ravensbrück more than 75 years ago by the Nazis.
The wind is chill and tastes salty. Back then, many women who arrived here at night thought that they were at the seaside. In fact, they were on the banks of Lake Schwedt in the northeastern state of Brandenburg. The lake was no longer visible once they were behind the walls of the concentration camp.
On Sunday, survivors, their descendants and government representatives gathered to commemorate the liberation of Ravensbrück 70 years ago. The governor of the state of Brandenburg, Dietmar Woidke, stood in front of the camp walls amid a youth orchestra clad in back. He called Nazis’ concentration camp system “the greatest crime ever committed by human beings against other human beings.”
What kind of a place was Ravensbrück, the largest concentration camp for women?
“As a child, my deepest wish was to have wings and to fly over these walls,” Irene Fainman-Krausz said as she sat only a few meters from her former prison. “It was pure luck that my mother and I survived.” Now, 70 years after the liberation of the camp by the Red Army, she has come back, with her son at her side.
Between 1939 and 1945, 132,000 women and children from throughout Europe entered the gates of the Ravensbrück concentration camp. The SS guards murdered between 30,000 and 90,000 of them, or maybe more. The rest were forced to perform harsh labor and were beaten, humiliated and tortured.
Only a minority of the women were Jewish. Many were political prisoners, Social Democrats and Communists, prostitutes, petty criminals and later, the longer the war went on, more and more Czech, Polish and Russian women.
“If Auschwitz showed what human beings can do to a people, Ravensbrück showed what human beings can do to women,” author Sarah Heim wrote in her book about Ravensbrück.
Since it was liberated, Ravensbrück has received only marginal attention. The women’s camp was overshadowed by the horrors at Auschwitz, Treblinka, Belzek and Sobibor. The images that have burned themselves into our collective memory come from those camps.
“As a child, my deepest wish was to have wings and to fly over these walls. It was pure luck that my mother and I survived.”
“Right down to today, Ravensbrück receives only cursory attention. The image of the concentration-camp inmate is masculine,” said Insa Eschebach, director of the memorial at Ravensbrück, where many of the prisoners were from Poland.
Sunday’s commemoration was also attended by Germany’s education minister, Johanna Wanka, and Anna Komorowska, the wife of Poland’s president.
But Ravensbrück is frequently mentioned only as a minor footnote in the history of the Holocaust. Ravensbrück is tightly linked to the men’s concentration camp at Sachsenhausen, where on Sunday the liberation was likewise commemorated, again in the presence of Mr. Woidke, along with Germany’s foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier. In 1939, prisoners from Sachsenhausen built the walls and barracks of the women’s concentration camp.
Right up to the end, the bread for Ravensbrück was baked at Sachsenhausen and transported to the women’s concentration camp each day. Ravensbrück was the training site for guards who were then used at concentration camps from Sachsenhausen to Auschwitz. The killing began more than 75 years ago not far from Ravensbrück’s central square, where the commemoration service took place.
The first murder witnessed by survivors occurred in the punishment block bordering the square. A Roma woman had begun to rampage and scream after her six-week-old baby had been taken away from her. She “screamed like a madwoman,” a witness recalled. The male and female concentration-camp guards then dragged her into the punishment block. The cries became a whimper that finally ceased. A little later, the woman’s bloody body was carried out.
Tens of thousands of deaths followed, at first through overwork, emaciation and disease, later through mass shootings and gas chambers. Ms. Fainman-Krausz recalled how her mother protected her by laying her hands over her daughter’s face and putting her thumbs in Ms. Fainman-Krausz’s ears.
At roll-call, the women had to stand without moving, often for hours ― and in icy cold during the winter. Whoever moved was beaten or bitten by dogs. “Of course I heard the screams anyway,” Ms. Fainman-Krausz said.
Then there was hunger. Toward the end of the war, the women’s only meal of the day was watery soup made of rutabaga, beetroot and carrot skins. “I stopped growing. I wore the same child’s coat the entire time,” the 79-year-old said. The scanty food, harsh labor and constant harassment were deliberately designed to slowly drive the concentration camp’s inhabitants to death.
Ravensbrück included a barracks called “the station.” It was actually a clinic. SS doctor Carl Clauberg sterilized 200 Roma children there in December 1944. The doctor told the mothers of the children that they would be released if the women allowed their children to be sterilized. The Roma women believed him. A liquid was injected into the uteruses of the girls, many of whom were not even 10 years old, that caused such pain they were still screaming two hours after the procedure.
“After the operation, we took the children out of the X-ray room and put them on a bed in the treatment room, where they lay and bled out of their uterus,” a witness reported. Shortly after the treatment, two girls died in horrible pain.
Directly alongside was the children’s room. Here they were laid like newborn infants in rows of five. At the beginning, the women at Ravensbrück were forced to have abortions, but between 1943 and 1944 more and more pregnant women arrived, so the Nazis allowed the births to take place ― only to then systematically starve the babies to death.
Video: A tour in Ravensbrück women’s concentration camp.
The mothers were too starved to nurse their babies, and the SS soon refused to give the mothers larger rations of food. At night, the mothers were forced to leave their children alone in the children’s room, where they lay squeezed next to each other, frequently without blankets. The German nurses insisted the windows remained open, even in winter.
One prisoner described the room as she remembers it: “When I turned on the light, I saw bugs everywhere: on the beds, and even in the noses and ears of the babies. Many of the children were naked, because their blankets had slid off.” Of the 600 children recorded in the birth-book of the concentration camp between September 1944 and April 1945, only 40 survived.
Ingelore Prochnow was born at Ravensbrück in April 1944. “It was a miracle that I survived here for a year,” she said.
The shy woman sat in the visitors’ center of the memorial and told of an ordeal she recalls only in fragments. Her mother abandoned her in a refugee camp on New Year’s Eve 1947. It was only decades later that she found her mother ― who didn’t want to talk, especially about Ravensbrück. Only one thing is clear: Her mother must have had help with her child from other inmates at the concentration camp.
A former prisoner once said to Ms. Prochnow: “You had many mothers here.” It was the solidarity of the women at Ravensbrück that saved her life. The women were like a protective cocoon. But after the concentration camp, they could no longer help the young girl, and later her actual mother didn’t want to have anything to do with her.
When Ms. Fainman-Krausz was freed and went out of the gate in 1945 together with her mother, she asked herself again and again: “Is it true? Is it really true?” After three years in the concentration camp, she could not imagine that the horror had come to an end. Her mother answered:
“You don’t have to fly. We can leave.”
This article first appeared in the newspaper Die Tagesspiegel. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org