Ravensbrück concentration camp

Ravensbrück concentration camp

Ravensbrück (IPA2|ʁaːvənsˈbʁʏk) was a notorious women's concentration camp during in World War II, located in northern Germany, 90 km north of Berlin at a site near the village of Ravensbrück (part of Fürstenberg/Havel).

Construction of the camp began in November 1938 by SS leader Heinrich Himmler and was unusual in that it was a camp primarily for women. The camp opened in May 1939. In the spring of 1941, the SS authorities established a small men's camp adjacent to the main camp.

Between 1939 and 1945, over 130,000 female prisoners passed through the Ravensbrück camp system; only 40,000 survived. Although the inmates came from every country in German-occupied Europe, the largest single national group incarcerated in the camp consisted of Polish women.


The first prisoners at Ravensbrück were approximately 900 women. The SS had transferred these prisoners from the Lichtenburg women's concentration camp in Saxony in May 1939. By the end of 1942, the female inmate population of Ravensbrück had grown to about 10,000. In January 1945, the camp had more than 45,000 prisoners, mostly women.

There were children in the camp as well. At first, they arrived with mothers who were Gypsies or Jews incarcerated in the camp or were born to imprisoned women. There were few of them at the time. There were a few Czech children from Lidice in July 1942. Later the children in the camp represented almost all nations of Europe occupied by Germany. Between April and October 1944 their number increased considerably, consisting of two groups. One group was comprised of Roma children with their mothers or sisters brought into the camp after the Roma camp in Auschwitz-Birkenau was closed. The other group included mostly children who were brought with Polish mothers sent to Ravensbrück after the collapse of the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, and Jewish children after the Budapest Ghetto was closed. With a few exceptions all these children died of starvation. Ravensbrück had 70 sub-camps used for slave labour that were spread across an area from the Baltic Sea to Bavaria.

Among the thousands executed by the Germans at Ravensbrück were four female members of the British WWII organization Special Operations Executive (Denise Bloch, Cecily Lefort, Lilian Rolfe, and Violette Szabo) as well as the Roman Catholic nun Élise Rivet, Elisabeth de Rothschild, Russian Orthodox nun St. Maria Skobtsova, the 25-year-old French Princess Anne de Bauffremont-Courtenay, and Olga Benário, wife of the Brazilian Communist leader Luís Carlos Prestes. The largest group of executed women at the Ravensbrück camp, 200 in total, was the Polish group of young patriots, members of the Polish Home Army.

Among the survivors of Ravensbrück camp was Christian author and speaker Corrie ten Boom. Corrie ten Boom and her family were arrested by the Nazis for stealing ration cards, although they were also harbouring Jews in their home in Haarlem, the Netherlands. The ordeal of Corrie and her sister, Betsie ten Boom, in the camp is documented in her book "The Hiding Place" which was also made into a movie. Countess Karolina Lanckoronska, a Polish art historian and author of "Michelangelo in Ravensbruck" also was imprisoned in the camp from 1943-1945.


Besides the male Nazi administrators, the camp staff included over 150 female SS guards assigned to oversee the prisoners at one time during the camps operational period.

Ravensbrück served as a training camp for over 4,000 female overseers. The technical term for a female guard in a Nazi camp was an Aufseherin. The women either stayed in the camp or eventually served in other camps. The female chief overseers ("Lagerfuehrerinnen" and "Oberaufseherinnen") in Ravensbrück were:

* May 1939-1941: Oberaufseherin Emma Zimmer and assistant Johanna Langefeld
* 1941-March 1942: Oberaufseherin Johanna Langefeld
* March-October 1942: Oberaufseherin Maria Mandel
* October 1942-August 1943 Johanna Langefeld who returned from Auschwitz
* August 1943-September 1944 Chef Oberaufseherin Anna Klein-Plaubel, with deputy wardress Dorothea Binz
* September 1944-April 1945 Chef Oberaufseherin Luise Brunner, Lagerfuehrerin Lotte Toberentz (January 1945-April), with deputy wardress (Stellvertrende Oberaufseherin) Dorothea Binz

Quite a few of these women went on to serve as chief wardresses in other camps. Several dozen block overseers (Blockfuehrerin), accompanied by dogs, SS men and whips oversaw the prisoners in their living quarters in Ravensbrück, at roll call, and during food distribution. These women were usually described as inhumane and sadistic. At any single time, a report overseer (Rapportfuehrerin) handled the roll calls and general discipline of the internees. Rosel Laurenzen originally served as head of the labor pool at the camp (Arbeitdienstfuehrerin) along with her assistant Gertrud Schoeber. In 1944 Greta Boesel took over this command. Other high ranking SS women included Christel Jankowsky, Elisabeth Kammer, and head wardress at the Uckermark death complex of Ravensbrück was Ruth Closius (January 1945-March 1945). Regular Aufseherinnen were not usually granted access to within the internee's compound unless they supervised inside work details. Most of the 'SS' women met their prisoner work gangs at the gate each morning and returned them later in the day. The treatment by the SS women in Ravensbrück was normally brutal. Elfriede Muller, an SS Aufseherin in the camp was so harsh that the prisoners nicknamed her "The Beast of Ravensbrück." Prison wardress (Waechterin) Margarete Mewes was accused during the first postwar proceedings against Ravensbrueck personnel of mistreating women in the camp jail known as the 'bunker'.

In 1973 the United States government extradited Hermine Braunsteiner, for trial in Germany for war crimes. {See below}

In 2006 the United States government expelled Elfriede Rinkel, an 84 year-old woman who had resided in San Francisco since 1959. It was discovered that she had been a guard at Ravensbrück from 1944 to 1945 [http://www.mercurynews.com/mld/mercurynews/news/local/states/california/northern_california/15560425.htm] .

Life in the camp

When a new prisoner arrived at Ravensbrück they were required to wear a color-coded triangle (a "Winkel") that identified them by category, with a letter sewn within the triangle indicating the prisoner's nationality. Polish women wore a red triangle, red denoting a political prisoner, with a letter "P". By 1942, Polish women became the largest national component at the camp. Jewish women wore yellow triangles, but sometimes, unlike the other prisoners, they wore a second triangle for the other categories or for "race defilement". Some transports had their hair shaved, such as from Czechoslovakia and Poland, but "Aryan" transports did not. For instance, in 1943 a group of Norwegian women came to the camp. (Norwegians/Scandinavians were ranked by the Nazis as the purest of all Aryans.) None had their hair shaved. Between 1942 and 1943 almost all Jewish women from the Ravensbrück camp were sent to Auschwitz in several transports following Nazi policy to make Germany "Judenrein" (cleansed of Jews). Common criminals wore green triangles, Soviet prisoners of war, German and Austrian Communists had red triangles and members of the Jehovah's Witnesses were labeled with lavender triangles. Classified separately with black triangles were prostitutes, Gypsies, lesbians, or women who refused to marry.

Based on the Nazis incomplete transport list "Zugangsliste" consisting 25,028 names of women sent by Nazis to the camp, it is estimated that inmates of Ravensbrück ethnic structure was the following: Poles 24.9%, Germans 19.9%, Jews 15.1%, Russians 15.0%, French 7.3%, Gypsies 5.4%, other 12.4%. Gestapo categorized the inmates as follows: political 83.54%, anti-social 12.35%, criminal 2.02%, Jehovah Witnesses 1.11%, racial defilement 0.78%, other 0.20%. The list is one of the most important documents, preserved in the last moments of the camp operation by courageous members of the Polish underground girl guides unit "Mury" (The Walls). The rest of the camp documents were burned by escaping SS overseers in pits or in the crematorium.

One of the forms of the resistance were underground education programs organized by prisoners for their fellow inmates. All national groups had some sort of program. The most extensive were among Polish women where various high school level classes were taught by experienced teachers.

Inmates at Ravensbrück suffered greatly. Living in subhuman conditions, thousands were shot, strangled, gassed, buried alive, or worked to death. Periodically, the SS authorities subjected prisoners in the camp to "selections" in which the Germans isolated those prisoners considered too weak or injured to work and killed them. At first, "selected" prisoners were shot. Beginning in 1942, they were transferred to "euthanasia" killing centers or to the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp. The SS staff also murdered some prisoners in the camp infirmary by lethal injection.

Starting in the summer of 1942, medical experiments were conducted without consent on 86 women; 74 of them were Polish inmates. There were two types of the experiments done on the Polish political prisoners. The first type tested the efficacy of sulfonamide drugs. These experiments involved deliberate cutting into and infecting leg bones and muscles with virulent bacteria, cutting nerves, introducing substances like pieces of wood or glass into tissues, and fracturing bones. The second set of experiments studied bone, muscle and nerve regeneration, and the possibility of transplanting bones from one person to another. Out of the 74 Polish victims, called "Króliki", "Kaninchen", "Lapins" or "Rabbits" by the experimenters, five died as a result of the experiments, six with unhealed wounds were executed and the rest survived, with permanent physical damage, due to the help of other inmates in the camp. Four of them -- Jadwiga Dzido, Maria Broel-Plater, Władysława Karolewska and Maria Kuśmierczuk -- testified against Nazi doctors at the Doctors' Trial in 1946.

Between 120 and 140 Gypsy women were sterilized in the camp in January 1945. All of them, unaware of the consequences, signed the consent form after being told by the camp overseers that the German authorities would release them if they agreed to sterilization.

All inmates were required to do heavy labor, ranging from heavy outdoor jobs to building the V-2 rocket parts for the giant German company, Siemens AG. The SS also built several factories near Ravensbrück for the production of textiles and electrical components.

The bodies of those killed in the camp were cremated in the nearby Fürstenberg crematorium until 1943. In that year, SS authorities constructed a crematorium at a site near the camp prison. In the autumn of 1944, the SS constructed a gas chamber near the crematorium. The Germans gassed several thousand prisoners at Ravensbrück before the camp's liberation in April 1945.

Death march and liberation

With the Soviet Army's rapid approach in the Spring of 1945, the SS decided to exterminate as many prisoners as they could in order to avoid leaving anyone to testify as to what had happened in the camp. With the Russians only hours away, at the end of March, the SS ordered the women still physically well enough to walk to leave the camp, forcing over 20,000 prisoners on a death march toward northern Mecklenburg. Shortly before the evacuation, the Germans had handed over 7000 female prisoners, mostly French, to officials of the Swedish and Danish Red Cross. Less than 3,500 malnourished and sickly women and 300 men remained in the camp when it was liberated by the Red Army on April 30, 1945. The survivors of the Death March were liberated in the following hours by a Russian scout unit.

By the time liberation came, tens of thousands (estimates are about 30,000 to 40,000) of women and children had perished there.



* Information on these guards, with the exceptions of Suze Arts and Elisabeth Lupka, was obtained from Daniel Patrick Brown's book, "THE CAMP WOMEN: The Female Auxiliaries Who Assisted the SS in Running the Concentration Camp System".
* [http://www.ushmm.org/wlc/article.php?lang=en&ModuleId=10005199 United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Encyclopedia entry]

ee also

* List of subcamps of Ravensbrück
* List of Nazi-German concentration camps
* Norbert Masur

External links

* [http://isurvived.org/Frameset_folder/-Ravensbruck.html Ravensbrück Women's Concentration Camp]
* [http://www.ravensbrueck.de Homepage Memorial Ravensbrück]
* [http://individual.utoronto.ca/jarekg/Ravensbruck Medical Experiments Conducted on Polish Inmates]

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