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Ravensbruck Women's Concentration Camp

by Rochelle G. Saidel

Ravensbrück, the concentration camp that the Nazis created to incarcerate women, received its first transport of prisoners in the spring of 1939. While not created as a camp specifically for Jewish women, they were among the camp’s inmate population for nearly all of its six-year existence. Of the total of some 132,000 women and children who were imprisoned in the camp, some twenty percent were Jewish. The others were political prisoners (some of whom were also Jewish), Jehovah’s Witnesses, criminals, and those deemed “asocial”—a category that included both lesbians and Gypsies. At least one of the women who was imprisoned and ordered murdered at the camp, Henny Schermann, was arrested as both a lesbian and a Jew. Like the term “asocial,” the term “criminal” has to be taken in its Nazi context. While it might refer to a woman who fits our own concept of a criminal, for example a thief or a murderer, it also included women who broke Nazi-imposed laws. Even the term “political prisoner” was broad, including resistance fighters, those who helped Jews, members of the Soviet Army, and a small number of women (one of whom was Jewish) held as hostages because they had powerful relatives. Each category had its own colored triangle, sewn on the women’s uniforms: red for political, purple for Jehovah’s Witnesses, black for asocial, green for criminal, and yellow for Jews. If Jewish prisoners were also classified as political, they wore both a red and a yellow triangle, arranged as a Star of David. Jewish women were always set apart by their “race” on camp lists, even when they were also in another category.

Ravensbrück concentration camp was located about fifty miles from Berlin near the town of Fürstenberg, and is today an official memorial site of the state of Brandenburg. When the camp was inaugurated, it was intended as a model concentration camp for female political prisoners. The first transport of 867 women arrived in May 1939. They were mostly German anti-fascists, either Social Democrats or communists (some coincidentally Jewish), as well as Jehovah’s Witnesses. The prisoners arrived from Lichtenburg in Saxony, a fortress that had been used as a women's camp from March 1938 until May 1939. Before that, from October 1933 until March 1938, the first women’s camp was located in a workhouse in Moringen, near Hanover, but women were generally incarcerated in prisons during the early years. While there were Jewish prisoners in the camp from its first days, no Jewish woman who was there during its first three years survived.

In addition to incarcerating and punishing female political and other prisoners, in its early days the camp began to use the women as slave laborers as Germany prepared for war. After the invasion of Poland initiated World War II in September 1939, transports arrived every day from the countries that became occupied by the Nazis. The imprisoned women were forced to work at many kinds of slave labor, from heavy outdoor physical labor to eventually building V-2 rocket parts for the Siemens Electric Company. The camp also had a courtyard with factories to make and repair clothing, and other related industries.

The “Bunker,” a building of cellblocks completed in 1939, served as the camp prison, where solitary confinement and torture soon became routine. During the entire time of its existence, Ravensbrück also served as a centralized training camp for newly hired female SS-employed guards and overseers who were then transferred to other camps, such as Auschwitz or Majdanek. Although the camp is not generally classified as a death camp, women died there of overwork, starvation, disease, shooting, poisoning, “medical” experiments, lethal injections, deliberately incited dog bites, beatings, and torture. Some women were sent to euthanasia facilities to be gassed. For a short time during the camp’s last months, there was a functioning gas chamber at Ravensbrück.

One cannot present a monolithic picture of conditions at Ravensbrück because they continued to worsen with time. By May 1940, a year after the camp opened, the number of inmates already exceeded the original capacity of three thousand. By the summer of 1941 there were about five thousand women, and in April 1942 about 6400 female inmates were listed in the ledger counts. The increased population caused a dramatic worsening of camp conditions. In mid-1942 and afterward the camp was enlarged several times, with the women prisoners doing much of the construction. As the population grew to more than ten times the originally planned number of women, the living conditions and treatment rapidly deteriorated. Between May 1939 and June 1944, forty-three thousand women were brought to Ravensbrück. Throughout the camp’s history, Jewish women generally were singled out for harsher work and fewer, if any, privileges. (For example, other prisoners could sometimes send and receive mail.)

The only exception to the growth of the camp’s population was between February and April 1942, because about 1500 prisoners, including at least 700 to 800 Jewish women, were sent to Bernberg, a euthanasia facility, and murdered by gassing in the so-called “14 F 13” project. There was also a transport of one thousand Jewish women to Auschwitz on March 26, 1942, and another 522 Jewish women were sent there on October 6, 1942. These actions were part of Himmler’s command to make camps in the territories within the German Reich free of Jews. However, this judenrein situation did not last long, and in a matter of weeks, or two months at most, there were again Jewish prisoners in the camp. Camp records account for about ten thousand (Jewish and non-Jewish) new arrivals in 1943, and in 1944 more than seventy thousand inmate numbers were given out.

In January 1944, about 17,300 prisoners were held in Ravensbrück, but by December there were 32,050, according to figures used at the camp memorial. The conditions, with so many women living together, were unimaginable. Some of the barracks built for a maximum of 250 women eventually housed as many as two thousand, with three or four to a bunk. Thousands of women did not even have part of a bunk, but lay on the floor without even a blanket. Already insufficient rations became more and more meager as time went on.

When Jewish women arrived from Hungary in the fall of 1944, there was no place to put them and a big tent with a straw floor was erected. The women lay in their own dirt in the freezing cold, and died in masses. The tent, “housed” Hungarian Jews as well as women evacuated from Auschwitz, and up to three thousand women were left to perish with virtually no water, food, or blankets.

Because of the changes in the situation at the camp during its six years of existence and the destruction of many records by the Nazis as the Soviet Army approached, it is difficult to present a complete and accurate picture. This is particularly true regarding the fate of the Jewish victims, because thousands of them arrived during the camp’s chaotic last months and often were not accounted for.

Among the Jewish women who survived and recorded their recollections on Ravensbrück (Saidel, 2004), no one arrived before the end of 1942. It is rare to find a Jewish survivor who arrived before 1943 or even during that year. The majority of the camp’s Jewish survivors arrived after Auschwitz was evacuated in January 1945. Most were sent on to satellite camps, and some remained at the main camp until liberation by the Soviet Army at the end of April. The Red Cross rescued about a thousand Jewish women from the camp toward the end of the war and brought them to Sweden to recuperate.

Jewish prisoners were among those women who eased their comrades’ and their own psychological suffering by sharing small homemade gifts, educational sessions, poems, dramatizations, and recipes. Early Jewish political prisoners Olga Benário Prestes (a German communist) and Dr. Käthe Pick Leichter (an Austrian Social Democrat) even collaborated on a clandestine newsletter. Leichter also wrote poetry and Prestes made a secret atlas to accompany her geography lessons. Creating recipe books or cookbooks was a form of resistance unique to women, because it enabled them to use their homemakers’ skills to cook in words and remember better times at home. Often the recipes were shared orally, but sometimes the women were able to write down their remembered recipes. Despite the harsher conditions for Jewish prisoners, at least two recipe books compiled by Jewish women survived.

Ravensbrück and the story of its Jewish female victims have not received sufficient recognition in Holocaust memorialization. Many of the camp’s Jewish victims did not live to tell their stories. The majority of those who survived came to Ravensbrück after Auschwitz was evacuated. Most of them arrived extremely weak and ill, and Auschwitz is the focus of their memories. Furthermore, the camp’s location in the German Democratic Republic and the communist survivors’ leadership in commemorations and writings before the reunification of Germany gave the impression that this camp was not part of the Nazis’ attempt to achieve the Final Solution of the Jewish people. However, an estimated 26,000 Jewish women passed through or were murdered at this camp. Hundreds of Jewish survivors from the United States, Israel, and elsewhere joined others at the camp memorial for the fiftieth anniversary of its liberation in 1995, and awareness of the camp’s Jewish victims has gradually grown.

SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY

Anthonioz, Genevieve De Gaulle. The Dawn of Hope: A Memoir of Ravensbrück. New York: 1999; Bernstein, Sara Tuval. The Seamstress. New York: 1997; Buber-Neumann, Margarete. Under Two Dictators. London: 1949; Buber-Neumann, Margarete. Milena, New York: 1988; Delbo, Charlotte. Auschwitz and After. New Haven: 1995; Dunfurnier, Denise. Ravensbrück: The Women’s Camp of Death. London: 1948 (1970); Feig, Konnilyn. Hitler’s Death Camps: The Sanity of Madness (chapter on Ravensbrück). New York: 1979; Gluck, Gemma LaGuardia, edited by S. L. Shneiderman. My Story. New York: 1961; Herbermann, Nanda. The Blessed Abyss: Inmate #6582 in Ravensbrück Concentration Camp for Women, edited by Hester Baer and Elizabeth Baer. Detroit: 2000; Langley-Dános, Eva. Prison on Wheels: From Ravensbrück to Burgau. Einsiedeln: 2000; Maurel, Michelene. An Ordinary Camp. New York: 1958; Morais, Fernando. Olga: Revolutionary and Martyr. New York: 1990; Morrison, Jack. Ravensbrück: Everyday Life in a Women’s Concentration Camp 1939–1945. Princeton: 2000; Póltawska, Wanda. And I Am Afraid of My Dreams. New York: 1987; Saidel, Rochelle G. The Jewish Women of Ravensbrück Concentration Camp. Madison, Wisconsin: 2004; Saidel, Rochelle G. “Ravensbrück Women’s Concentration Camp: Before and after Liberation.” In Remembrance, Repentance Reconciliation: The 25th Anniversary Volume of the Annual Scholars Conference on the Holocaust and the Churches, edited by Douglas F. Tobler. Lanham: 1998, 165–175; Saidel, Rochelle G. “Integrating Ravensbrück Women’s Concentration Camp into Holocaust Memorialization in the United States.” In Women in the Holocaust: Responses, Insights and Perspectives: Selected Papers from the Annual Scholars’ Conference on the Holocaust and the Churches, 1990–2000, edited by Marcia Sachs Littell, Merion: 2001, 63–74; Saidel, Rochelle G. “Ravensbrück Concentration Camp and Rescue in Sweden.” In Remembering for the Future: The Holocaust in an Age of Genocide, Volume Three, edited by John K. Roth and Elisabeth Maxwell. London: 2001, 172–188; Saidel, Rochelle G., Curator. Women of Ravensbrück, Portraits of Courage: Art by Julia Terwilliger (exhibit catalogue, The Florida Holocaust Museum). Saint Petersburg: 2001; Shelley, Lore, ed. Auschwitz: The Nazi Civilization. Lanham: 1992; Sommer-Lefkowitz, Elizabeth. Are You In This Hell Too? London: 1995; Symonowicz, Wanda, ed. Beyond Human Endurance: The Ravensbrück Women Tell Their Stories. Warsaw: 1970; Ten Boom, Corrie. The Hiding Place. New York: 1971, 1983; Tillion, Germaine. Ravensbrück. New York: 1975.

14 Comments

me to

im doing a research project and i need more information as well.

1. eating schedules 2. rankings of officers in the camp

hi, im doing a history project on ravensbruck camp and i would need more information on: 1.the structure of the camp 2.the factory that the women worked in... please

im making a report and need info on children of ravensbruck.....

I am looking for any information about my grandmother AMEALIE DANIELCZYK, born Sorsky in Laurahuette on 5.2.1912, lived in Beuthen, Ober Slesien.

I`m looking for information about Maria Stefaniak. Like where she was born etc.

My farther Robert DEPESSEMIER, born 2nd November 1923, was deported as Compulsory Work Service (STO) from Salzinne (Namur) in Belgium to Eberswalde (Berlin, Germany).

DEPESSEMIER Robert :

- Born 02/11/1923 in Montsy-Notre-Dame, France - Official address at the time of deportation : Salzinnes, rue de la Chapelle, 74 - Deported for the forced labour service (Reichsarbeitsdienst or RAD, Reich Labour Service) in Germany on 14/12/1942 (Address : Gemeinschaftslager Eberswald Mitte I Ì¢‰â‰ÛÏ Willemstrasse, 13-20 Eberswalde (2) Berlin) - Has worked for the company R.A.W Eisenbahnstrasse 37 Eberswalde from 18/11/1942 until - Repatriated on 06/06/1945 - Back in Namur on 07/06/1945

Although my father was born from Belgian parents, he was born in France and therefore had the double nationality. I donÌ¢‰â‰ã¢t know whether he was recorded as French or Belgian STO even if he was deported from Belgium.

According to the addresses recorded by the Belgian Prisoners of war, I suppose that my father was working for the railway. But what I donÌ¢‰â‰ã¢t know is where he was detained. It could have been in Sachsenhausen, RavensbrÌÄå_ck or one of the sub-camps.

I found out that during World War II, several factories employed forced labourers and inmates of the RavensbrÌÄå_ck concentration camp.

So far, we have contacted:

Ì¢‰âÂå¢ the International Search Service in Bad Arolsen last year without any success so far Ì¢‰âÂå¢ the Archives of Sachsenhausen concentration camp but they told us that almost all the documents of the headquarters of Sachsenhausen including the card index of the detainees and nearly all the files of the detainees were destroyed by the SS in spring 1945 before the liberation of the concentration camp. The little, incompletely preserved files are for the most part in the archives of the Russian Federation. From copies from these archives they are drawing up a card index of the detainees names. Because of the very incomplete material, it is impossible for them to establish all the names of the more than 200.000 detainees of the Sachsenhausen concentration camp.

Ì¢‰âÂå¢ the Russian archives in Moscow who have promised to help us find any information about when and where our father worked and stayed during his deportation. They have informed me of the following:

a) many children were born within the camps during that period from relations between inmates which makes me believe that my two step-sisters were more than likely born in a camp after a relationship my father had with a female inmate. During my adolescence, I found out that my father could speak Polish which he told me he learnt with a Polish inmate while detained in Germany.

b) the STO deported to Eberswalde were either sent to Sachsenhausen or RavensbrÌÄå_ck or in sub-camps. They told me that even if working in a factory, inmates were still living in the camps and transported to work. So there is little risk (or chance) that inmates could have started and developed a relationship with a female citizen of Eberswalde.

Ì¢‰âÂå¢ the Archives of RavensbrÌÄå_ck concentration camp and IÌ¢‰â‰ã¢m now awaiting their reply.

I have not managed to identify the activity of the so-called RAW in Eberswalde. Could you eventually clarify the exact meaning of RAW and its activities at the time?

Although I donÌ¢‰â‰ã¢t want to complicate matters, I have to add that it is important for us to get as many information as possible because I heard last year that our father had 2 daughters born during that time. Unfortunately, we do not have any information as to what their name, date and place of birth are.

My father's eldest sister (who died last year) told us that the mother of those two girls sent 2 letters with pictures of 2 little blond girls to my grand-mother who destroyed the letters and pictures.

This information has been kept secret for more than 68 years!

We also know that quite a few years ago, a German lady launched an appeal on a Belgian radio program and she was looking for her father called the same name as ours, but at the time we thought it was just a coincidence of name, since we did not suspect that it could have been our father she was actually looking for.

In order to find informations about our two half-sister (they should be in their mid 60' or mid 70' by now), we have contacted:

Ì¢‰âÂå¢ the Belgian Red-Cross who are going to contact their counterpart in Germany to check if our half-sistersÌ¢‰â‰㢠children have launched an appeal as well. Ì¢‰âÂå¢ the German RTL program "Vermist" but they couldn't help us Ì¢‰âÂå¢ Eberswalde Townhall asking them if they indications about where we could investigate further about 2 little girls born from a German mother between 1943 and 1945. If they were born in Eberswalde or its surroundings, where would their birth would have been registered?

Although this is really a last-ditch attempt, we would, of course, understand if this request could not be taken into consideration.

Should anyone reading this message have any information about my father or my step-sisters, please contact me.

Thank you.

Irma Trksak wrote a testimony which has a copyright I have translated it in Italian and would like to put it in my blog, I' would like to get in touch with her and ask her permission. I am also looking for poems to translate in Italian from English.

I need information on the children of Ravensbruck, so if anyone has any information about it please let me know!

Sincerely, Caitlin

Between 19 sep 1944 and 22 April 1945 they were 551 children born at Ravensbruck and entered into the book of Births (Geburtenbuch) a registry kept by a prisoner official, Lisa Ulrich, which has survived into the postwar period. Hope this helps.

Thanks for supplying this information. I'll pass it along to Caitlin, who asked for it originally.

Hello everybody,

I'm looking for information about my great-aunt Alice Schorr. I never met her. According to my grandmother (Margaret Minna, her sister), she was sent to RavensbrÌÄå_ck. Sfter the war, she went to Vienna, get married with a Karl Berger. She supposely died September, 6 1977. I heard she was a kind of sculptor. Any info will be greatly appreciated !

Thanks to all.

Nicolas

I am looking for information on Ada Schoen who may have been murdered at Ravensbruck in 1939-40. Any relatives/friends out there with information? All will be appreciated and kept confidential. Thank-you Gail Morris

My mother was in this camp from 1944-1945. Her number was 9598. She was in block 3. She was only 14 years old. She is now deceased and did not talk much about this. I would like more information. Thank you. Angie Osborne

Ravensbruck Women's Concentration Camp, Germany
Full image

Prisoners being returned to the Ravensbruck Women's Concentration Camp after a day of forced labor.

Institution: Yad Vashem, Jerusalem

How to cite this page

Saidel, Rochelle G.. "Ravensbruck Women's Concentration Camp." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 1 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on April 24, 2017) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/ravensbruck-womens-concentration-camp>.

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