On the morning of July 26, 1942, a group of 75 female prisoners at the Ravensbrück concentration camp were told to report to the infirmary. In front of a doctor they were asked to raise their skirts and show their legs. They had no idea what this was about. Some wondered if they were being selected for manual labour which required strong physiques.
From the group, six were told to stay, the rest were sent back to their barracks. These six lay down on a gurney, their legs were shaven and they were given an injection that made them sleepy. When they woke, their legs were in plaster. By nightfall they were writhing on their beds, moaning out loud in excruciating pain. Over the next few days, their legs swelled up, brown liquid seeped on to their sheets, the foul smell of pus filled the air.
Later, the women discovered that while anaesthetised, the doctors had sliced open their legs and inserted various objects: shards of glass, slivers of wood and dirty nails. The object of this “experiment” was to establish whether anti-bacterial drugs might improve the treatment of gangrene at the battlefront. The women quickly became known in Ravensbrück as “the Rabbits” and, over the next few months, more than 80 others would suffer at the hands of the camp surgeons.
The story of the Ravensbrück Rabbits is recounted by Sarah Helm inIf This is a Woman. A British journalist, she chronicles the history of the Ravensbrück camp from its construction in 1939 to its liberation by the Soviets at the war’s end. While women were held in many of the concentration camps, Ravensbrück was unusual in that it was purpose-built for women. It also became a training facility for female guards, including some of the most notorious such as Irma Grese, who later found notoriety as “the Hyena of Auschwitz”.
Sixty miles north of Berlin, Ravensbrück was built close to the village of Fürstenberg, next to a lake and in a quiet wooded area. At its height, the camp held more than 45,000 people, and more than 130,000 women passed through its gates over the six years. Between 30,000 and 90,000 people lost their lives at the camp, including at least 1,000 children. Unlike Auschwitz, Treblinka and Chelmno, Ravensbrück was not primarily operated as an extermination camp for Jews. At its height, no more than 10 per cent of the camp population was Jewish. Instead, Ravensbrück was built for political prisoners. Later it held prostitutes, homeless people, Gypsies, criminals, and prisoners of war.
The workings of the camp were shrouded in secrecy. When prisoners were told to line up for “special transports” they had no idea where such a journey might end. One small group of inmates, seeing that the clothes of those who were sent away were later returned to the camp, decided that they would hide messages in their clothes if they were dispatched. A few days later, another transport drove off from the camp and when the clothes were returned a note was found — “The last town was Dessau. They make us undress. Not badly treated. Goodbye.”
One of Helm’s successes is revealing the people who lived and worked at Ravensbrück. Gerda Quernheim, for instance, had been arrested for carrying out illegal abortions and was now a prisoner. She assisted in the infirmary, including helping doctors with abortions, which ironically were permitted in the camp. Once the mother had been induced, Quernheim strangled the foetus or drowned it in a bucket. She would then be seen carrying a pail covered with a woollen cloth to the camp boiler. Quernheim earned the privilege of sleeping on a bed in the infirmary — which was preferable to the squalor of the barracks — as well as eating with the guards and wearing clean clothes. When Quernheim became pregnant, by a camp doctor, she too had an abortion, and preserved the foetus in alcohol, keeping it in a bottle in the infirmary.
At the start of her book, Helm explains the purpose for her writing. She says that she was surprised that “mainstream historians — nearly all of them men — had almost nothing to say” about Ravensbrück. To explain this “marginalisation”, she points to a list of reasons: the camp’s relative small size, extermination not being its primary purpose, its location behind the Iron Curtain, the destruction of many of its documents, and the prisoners being “only women”.
While acknowledging that many women were killed in other camps, Helm asserts that “just as Auschwitz was the capital of the crime against Jews, so Ravensbrück was the capital of the crime against women . . . by treating the crime that happened here as marginal, history commits a further crime against the Ravensbrück women, and against the female sex”. In her passion to tell this story, Helm slips into a false equivalence. In terms of numbers, more than half a million women were murdered in Auschwitz, roughly ten times those that perished in Ravensbrück. More than this, the inmates of Ravensbrück, were not murdered because they were women, but because they were Jews or Gypsies or had the wrong political beliefs or were regarded as morally degenerate.
The author’s prodigious effort is further undermined by a looseness of writing. I lost count of the number of times that the lake outside the camp was said to be “shimmering” and in a subject that requires no hyperbole, Helm frequently deploys the words “every”, “all” and “everyone” (for example, “But all Ravensbrück survivors would remember the trauma of their arrival; all would recall their own silence.”) And there are nagging slip-ups: Rudolf Höss is said to have supervised the construction of the Ravensbrück gas chambers because he was “out of a job”, whereas he was at the time head of the D Section of the Inspectorate for Concentration Camps.
While the book is, at times, frustrating and, at more than 700 pages, requires stamina, nonetheless for those who wish to learn about life, and death, in a Nazi women’s camp, it is worth picking up, especially for the power of the testimonies Helm has collected.
The title If This Is A Woman is a play, or perhaps a statement on If This Is A Man, Primo Levi’s account of his time in Auschwitz. At the start of Levi’s book is a poem, of the same name, which instructs us to “carve them in your hearts”. As for this one reader, Ravensbrück is now firmly carved into my heart.
Thomas Harding is the author of Hanns and Rudolf: The German Jew and the Hunt for the Kommandant of Auschwitz
If This Is A Woman: Inside Ravensbrück, Hitler’s Concentration Camp for Women by Sarah Helm, Little, Brown, 768pp, £25. To buy this book for £22.50, visitthetimes.co.uk/bookshop or call 0845 2712134