In ‘If This Is a Woman,’ Sarah Helm goes inside Germany’s Ravensbrück, where up to 90,000 women perished during the Holocaust
LONDON — Lying 50 miles north of Berlin, Ravensbrück was the only concentration camp the Nazis built with the sole intention to house female political prisoners. Opening up its gates in May 1939, just four months before the outbreak of World War II, it was liberated by the Russians six years later.
Over 130,00 women passed through its gates. During its busiest period, towards the end of the war, the camp had a population of 45,000. Estimates of the final death toll are debatable, ranging from 30,000 to 90,000.
Why, therefore, is so little known about a camp that eliminated tens of thousands of women on German soil?
The wholesale destruction of evidence partially explains for this historical vacuum. In Ravensbrück’s final days, before the liberation by the Soviet Red Army, most prisoner’s files were burned by the Nazis and then thrown in the lake beside the camp.
If Auschwitz was the capital of crimes against Jews, under the Third Reich, Ravensbrück, it seems, was the capital of crimes against women.
At least that’s the argument British freelance journalist and author Sarah Helm makes with compelling conviction in her latest book, “If This Is a Woman — Inside Ravensbrück: Hitler’s Concentration Camp for Women.”
Backed up by a vast undertaking of research and interviews — including historical sources that were once locked behind the Iron Curtain — Helm’s book shows how one dedicated writer really can rescue history from the dustbin.
Sarah Helm, author of ‘If This Is a Woman — Inside Ravensbrück: Hitler’s Concentration Camp for Women’ (Courtesy)
Paradoxically, though, says Helm, when we begin chatting, the emergence of the Holocaust as a proper cultural global discussion, during the 1960s, was a contributing factor that ensured Ravensbrück became sidelined as a subject in the dominant historical discourse around Nazi Germany and its heinous crimes.
“Obviously people had known about the Holocaust before [the 1960s],” says Helm. “But the consciousness had not taken a proper hold until after the Eichmann trial in 1961.”
Understandably, then, says Helm, the sheer scale and horror of the Jewish Holocaust totally took over the narrative.
“And so the story of the non-Jewish groups [that were exterminated] were treated as secondary.”
Moreover, because these prisoners in Ravensbrück were all women, this important epoch of Nazi history was neatly dusted aside for decades hence, Helm explains. “Most mainstream historians at the time were men, so inevitably this subject was neglected.”
‘Most mainstream historians at the time were men, so inevitably this subject was neglected’
It really wasn’t until the mid-1990s that female historians began to explore the stories of Ravensbrück with proper analysis. Before that, most women who passed through the camp were lucky if they got even a paragraph in the main history of the Holocaust, says Helm.
Especially the German “asocials”: the homeless, the prostitutes, and the down and outs.
“These women were sent off to gas chambers and were of no real interest to historians,” says Helm.
Perhaps what’s most fascinating about the history of Ravensbrück is the way it transformed, over time, from an institution that housed political prisoners only, to eventually become the cruelest of Nazi death camps.
“In the beginning Ravensbrück was very small,” says Helm. “It consisted largely of German women, who were either asocials or political prisoners. Basically anyone who openly opposed Hitler.”
Many women in that particular group were Jewish says Helm. Although it appears they hadn’t at this early stage been placed there because of their racial status, but simply because of their political activity.
By autumn 1944, Ravensbrück had become overcrowded. The vast numbers coming into the camp were the result of the enormous evacuation process in the East, where the Russians had begun liberating numerous camps, such as Auschwitz.
Consequently, Hitler took the rather bizarre decision to take all the survivors out of these camps, and march them back to Germany.
“Essentially, hundreds of thousands of destitute prisoners were being marched westwards,” Helm explains.
The Hungarian exodus impacted massively on Ravensbrück too, especially the Jews of Hungary, many of whom were sent to Auschwitz. By October 1944 the Horthy government in Budapest had fallen, and Allied bombs had destroyed train lines.
Thus transportation of people across Eastern Europe had become a major problem. Still, Hitler insisted that every last Jew be removed from Hungary before the Red Army arrived.
Auschwitz was no longer operating after November 1944, so many [prisoners] began to be marched towards Germany,” Helm explains.
“In this climate, [the Nazis] began taking the view that the only way to solve this problem was to kill more people.”
Crucially, though, Helm makes clear, the killing that began at Ravensbrück during this time meant gassing ceased to be an ideological process of extermination. Instead, in the view of warped Nazi ideology at any rate, it became a practical way of controlling population numbers in horrifically overcrowded work camps.
“The killing had to go up by 2,000 a month at Ravensbrück during this time,” says Helm. A way had to be found to speed up the killing process too. So a gas chamber was set up.
“Parts of that gas chamber were said to have been brought directly from Auschwitz, which at that time had been dismantled,” says Helm.
The title of Helm’s book may give the impression that the concentration camps in Nazi Germany were entirely Hitler’s brainchild, but almost every aspect of the camps were managed and planned with extraordinary detail by Heinrich Himmler.
In her book Helm writes: “Adolf Hitler showed little interest in the concentration camps, but they lay at the center of Himmler’s empire; whatever went on behind their walls was signed off by his pen.”
“Himmler was also behind the original idea of setting up the women’s camps too,” Helm insists.
Heinrich Himmler at Dachau in 1936. (Friedrich Franz Bauer/Wikimedia Commons/German Federal Archive)
Heinrich Himmler at Dachau in 1936. (Friedrich Franz Bauer/Wikimedia Commons/German Federal Archive)
Although Himmler wasn’t the only person involved in the plans for the Final Solution, Helm claims that he did help oversee much of the process of setting up the camps in the East, which would eventually lead to the death of millions of Jews.
Himmler was also a regular visitor to the camp in Ravensbrück too, says Helm. “He visited the camps because he wanted them to be as self-sufficient as far as possible.”
Nor was Himmler’s decision to put the camps next to areas of natural beauty, such as lakes and trees, merely coincidental. Indeed, German forests played a central role in the mythology of the Heimat, or German soil. Take Buchhenwald, for example, one of the more famous Nazi concentration camps: its literal translation means Beech Forest.
“Many of the camps were [purposely] located in places of great natural beauty,” says Helm.
“Ravensbrück, for example, was located beside a lake. Other camps were similarly located in beautiful wooded areas. Himmler had read the literature on these historic sites. His idea was that nature would purify the German gene, and that the SS, and the Germans, would grow up pure and strong, like the trees in the woods.”
“Himmler believed that the blood would be pure if the seed was planted near these very pure sites of nature,” adds Helm.
‘Himmler believed that the blood would be pure if the seed was planted near these very pure sites of nature’
In the epilogue of this meticulously detailed book — which runs to over 700 pages in length — Helm spends considerable time and ink dissecting at length why those in positions of authority involved in these horrendous atrocities at Ravensbrück were never brought to justice.
The reasons are complicated. But one thing is certain: by 1948 the Allies had lost their appetite for punishing Nazis. Primarily because the Cold War had become the dominant theme on the intentional-political agenda.
And, from 1949 onwards, the main responsibility for investigating Nazi crimes was handed back to German courts, many of whom, presumably, had been Nazis just a few years previously.
Most notable among these perpetrators let off the hook were German industrialists. Especially, Helm argues, since their profits were needed to fight the Cold War.
Siemens, the German electrical manufacturer, which had a factory located just at the edge of Ravensbrück, from 1942 onwards, is one company that notoriously got off scott free for its complicity in knowledge of war crimes. It has never publicly admitted it knew of the exterminations happening at the camp.
“The gassing in Ravensbrück at this time was being kept secret,” says Helm. “But even still, Siemens continued to operate its factory.”
The idea that the killing was being hidden from the Siemens management and guards is laughable, Helm believes. Moreover, the evidence clearly displays that prisoners knew perfectly well that Ravensbrück had become a death camp.
“Siemens knew their own workers were prisoners, who at any given moment could be sent to their deaths,” says Helm.
“And yet, not a single management figure, or director, from Siemens has ever been brought to account for what happened in Ravensbrück.”
‘Siemens knew their own workers were prisoners, who at any given moment could be sent to their deaths’
Years later, though, as the extent of the Holocaust, and atrocities became clearer, there were strong moves — particularly with Jewish survivors based in Israel and international Jewish movements — for compensation to be paid out.
However, the figures are paltry, Helm believes, “especially given the extent to which Siemens was complicit in these crimes, and the way it sided and collaborated with the Nazis.”
The fact that the compensation only applied to Jewish victims too means the compensation paid out is not a true reflection of the crimes themselves either, Helm believes, especially since many of the victims were not Jews.
“It’s unbelievable that Siemens is unable to come out in the open and confront the crimes it was deeply complicit in,” says Helm.
Helm’s narrative concludes on a rather open-ended note. The story of Ravensbrück may have finally come out into the public domain after many years lying dormant, but this particular chapter of Nazi history, it appears, is not entirely complete.
Of the estimated 3,500 women guards who passed through Ravensbrück, only a fraction have ever come under investigation in the German courts, mainly because Germany still doesn’t keep a proper record of the numbers they have charged, says Helm.
“The system did not want to confront this subject. So very few of the guards from Ravensbrück were ever confronted or held to account for their actions,” says Helm.