Ravensbrück: Life and Death
in Hitler’s Concentration Camp
by Sarah Helm
Geoffrey W. Sutton, Ph.D.
Ravensbrück offers an organized collection of women’s voices documenting the diverse ways individuals and tribal groups of European women responded to Nazi enslavement, violence, and murder.
The collection of stories is organized chronologically. But themes emerge because policies and war events change. Changes in policy sometimes mean changes in leaders. But changes in policy also reflect changes in the war, which in turn, result in changes in the size and character of the camp’s victims.
We have heard stories of the brutality of Nazi leaders in the death camps focused on the extermination of Jews. But at Ravensbrück we learn that Nazis, governed by superiority myths and emboldened by conquest, systematically destroyed the lives of European women after extracting every ounce of strength as they labored for the Reich on the trail toward oblivion.
Survival was not a result of imbuing constant pain with meaning but rather that curious mix of physicality with willpower, connectedness, and copious amounts of chance events mediated by the capricious death merchants that simply didn’t get to a group before the predatory liberators added rape to the memories of those who lived beyond the Nazi surrender.
We get considerable detail about life in the camp for women assigned to different tasks mostly in support of the war. We also get an insiders’ look at their ever-deteriorating starvation rations, limited sleeping space, tortuous inspections, and constant intimidation.
When there are different perspectives, we get more than one quote to help discover the way horror deferentially impacted these women.
We learn of prisoners as guards promoted to carry out crimes against their fellow prisoners. We learn lessons of plunder, methods of violence, and bizarre biological procedures. We see how creative humans can be when they think of ways to make others suffer before removing the last breath from their bodies.
Here and there we learn of small acts of kindness. We see that some bravely find ways to communicate their horror to the outside world, hoping that someone somewhere will hear their cry. We feel disgusted by the impotence of the Red Cross and cheer when the Swedes find ways to bring about a dramatic rescue in the face of orders to hide all evidence, including people who are barely alive.
Then we cheer when the Russian liberators arrive. We see the caring response of hardened soldiers faced with the emaciated remnants of Nazi terror. But then a wave of disgust arises as these liberators become sexual predators attacking vulnerable prey like wolves in sheep’s clothing.
Ravensbrück is not for the faint of heart, but it is an important read to understand the lack of boundaries when it comes to violence against women.
Notes: Ravensbrück was liberated 30 April 1945. The number of deaths is unknown. Reports range from 30,000 to 90,000 died or killed.
Helm, S. (2016). Ravensbrück: Life and death in Hitler’s concentration camp. New York: Penguin Random House.
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