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Book Review of: Ravensbruck

Life and Death in Hitler's Concentration Camp for Women

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Review of Ravensbruck, by Sarah Helm (Softcover, 2015)

(You can print this review in landscape mode, if you want a hardcopy)


Exhaustively researched, compassionately written, this book sheds light on a killing camp that has been obscured and hidden in the historical record. I won't get into discussing which factions suppressed the accounts of the atrocities at this horrible place, as the author does that quite well in the Epilogue. I do want to say something about the topic in general.

When I came across this book, I was surprised at the subtitle. Hitler had a concentration camp for women? Who knew? Apparently, not many people. And that has been the results of deliberate cover-ups and suppression by various factions. Their only real interest in the topic seems to have been keeping the survivors quiet (many were harassed by their own governments, after the war) was in their best interests. Yet, this camp was on par with Auschwitz. That view is supported by several facts, such as:

  • Most of the female guards at Auschwitz came from Ravensbruck; in fact, all of them initially did when Auschwitz set up a female section.
  • Prisoners from Auschwitz were sent to Ravensbruck to be gassed, then cremated.
  • The head psychopaths at Auschwitz fled to Ravensbruck to continue their depravities there, after Auschwitz was closed down by Himmler.
  • From Ravensbruck's early days, barbaric medical "experiments" were conducted on Ravensbruck prisoners. These "experiments" involved such mutilations as surgery to remove bones (collar bones, leg bones, etc.) and injecting women's legs with toxins that caused immense pain, suffering, and even loss of the legs.
  • Women were flogged at Ravensbruck, just as men were flogged at Auschwitz. The flogging would consist of 25 lashes on their bare buttocks, often removing all of the skin. Later modifications of the procedure "improved" the brutality.
  • Women were made to stand naked in freezing temperatures for hours at a time; those who fell were flogged or beaten, if they hadn't already died.
  • Starvation was used as a killing method; the survivors were mere walking skeletons (one woman was noted as weighing 35 kilos, which is about 78 lbs). If you saw the Auschwitz film footage, you know what the Ravensbruck survivors looked like.

Some people harbor the delusion that Hitler's concentration camps (overseen by Himmler) were just labor camps and the prisoners didn't really suffer. This delusion contradicts the overwhelming evidence that these were torture sites and killing camps. Yes, some prisoners were used as labor in factories run by German corporations. But they were not well-fed and when they couldn't keep up with the heavy demands they were sent back to their prison camp and a new slave was sent in his or her place. The exhausted slave was classified as a "useless mouth" and usually shot. Sometimes, the slave would be beaten to death or poisoned or gassed, but a shot to the back of the neck was the most common method until late in the war.

The information in the preceding paragraph is beyond dispute. Anyone challenging it simply has not viewed the evidence. And that evidence is overwhelming. Arguments contradicting what we know about the prison camps are ignorant in the extreme, and they are as idiotic as arguing against the existence of gravity.

All of the factions on the Allied side agree that the prison camps were places of horror, torture, and death. The vast majority of German citizens also agree, and they consider it a national disgrace that this happened in their own country. What many in the USA do not know is that these camps were also places were regular German citizens, even those not considered Jews, were put into these camps. In many cases, the "reason" for their arrest and imprisonment was not even known.

Just as the Cheney-ites used "extraordinary rendition" to kidnap and torture American citizens, without formal arrest or a trial, so did the Nazis do this to their own people. But instead of flying them to a Turkish prison, they put them on trains and trucks to go to prisons on their own soil or in conquered nations under Nazi occupation. In both cases, rule of law was absent. And absent rule of law, evil flourishes.

And now, thanks to Sarah Helm and a vast number of contributors, the facts surrounding the horrors at Ravensbruck are beyond dispute and now have been brought into the light of day.

What do I mean by "vast number of contributors?" Normally in any scholarly work, and make no mistake this work adheres to high scholarly standards, you can gloss over the Acknowledgements. There's the typical fluff about thanking "my publisher, my wonderful editor," etc. And maybe there are a few people whose "invaluable help" made the book better and the whole thing takes up a page or two.

Not with this book. The acknowledgements take up six pages. Ms. Helm had quite a bit of input from quite a few people, many of whom apparently took a deep interest in the story this book had to tell. With all of those voices, it is hard to imagine how any factual errors or fiction posing as fact could make it into this book. The author obviously felt a sense of responsibility to get it right.

Not only did she have input from a wide array of subject matter experts, she also traveled and interviewed survivors in person. Her initial goal was to get to them all, but that proved impractical. She did get to many, and the number is impressive.

Then there's the backnotes section, which runs 43 pages (there are also notes at the bottom of many pages). Many of the quoted sources are actual Nazi files. Many are war crimes trial files and transcripts; keep in mind, those recorded actual witness testimony in court. She also gleaned information from Eastern nation government files, original personal letters and diaries, and reports from various reports and other sources. I did not find a single disreputable source; no references to the New York Times or other disinformation outlet.

The main body of the book runs 629 pages. I'd like to say, "I couldn't put it down," but actually I had to. It's the subject matter, not any defect in the book. And, of course, reading that many pages means more than one sitting.

The main body reads in chronological order, which is an amazing feat in itself. The author had to put hundreds of disparate bits together and get them in the right sequence. The process would be analogous to correctly solving a dozen 5,000 piece jigsaw puzzles that had been dumped into a single heap. The detail is rich, so the material is absorbing. But again, the subject matter requires taking breaks; it's just horrific stuff. It's reality, and what really happened was so bad. The author didn't sugar coat it. It is what it is. It needs to be read by a very wide audience. I think the ugliness is part of what makes this so compelling. It instructs us in our civic responsibilities, and in understanding how just how horribly wrong things can go when a people let a "leader" usurp rule of law.

I won't provide any type of synopsis of the body of the book, other than to say it described the hell that was Ravensbruck. While it's difficult emotionally to read this stuff, it's worse to simply ignore it. And the problem of ignoring it has existed for Ravensbruck for decades. Not because people didn't care, but because certain parties went to great lengths to suppress exposing what happened. And now Ms. Helm has exposed it.

In addition to the main body are the Prologue (8 pages, and very much worth reading) and the Epilogue (25 pages). Many times, an epilogue is just a wrap-up that ties up a few loose ends. It's often a yawner. That is not the case with this one. This Epilogue ties together what preceded it, and you'd expect that. But it also is a chapter in its own right. It is the only chapter that isn't part of the narrative of the events during the war. It covers the period after the war, including the author's own journey in exposing those war-time events.

In the Epilogue, the author makes several quotable points. Rather than repeat them all here, I will refer to just one (it was hard to pick one). The context is the author is discussing the absence of markers and memorials at a place where about 6,000 of the Ravensbruck women were murdered. She says, "What happened on this forsaken patch of land was Ravensbruck's most abominable crime. Yet, nobody passing by would ever know."


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