There was a Nazi concentration camp built just for women. Ravensbrück sits on the shore of a picturesque lake in northern Berlin, the beauty of the scenery belying the horror that once reigned there.
Unlike other camps, Ravensbrück was not built specifically for Jewish prisoners. It was built to hold about 6,000 female prisoners deemed “undesirable” for being communists, members of the resistance, prostitutes, or simply dissidents whose views challenged those of the all-encompassing Third Reich.
In its six years of operation, about 130,000 women from 30 different countries walked from the train station at the resort town of Fürstenberg, through the woods, beyond the cottages where the female guards lived with views of Lake Schwedt, to the hell of Ravensbrück.
Between 30,000 and 90,000 of those women would never leave the camp. Their ashes dumped into the lake along with the records of the camp, which were burned before the Soviets liberated what was left of Ravensbrück on April 29, 1945.
I visited Ravensbrück twice to research a book I’m writing. Each time I learned about new stories of horror and resilience on the sprawling grounds converted into a memorial.
Here are a few stories that struck me. (To skip straight to visiting logistics, click here.)
I am consistently struck on my visits to Ravensbrück by the beauty of the surroundings. As I walk from the train station to the camp, tracing the footsteps of the prisoners who were force-marched through the town, I imagine that the wooded paths, the quaint cottages, and the boats on the lake, must have given those terrified women some hope.
The guards with their vicious dogs would have quickly dispelled this hope, of course. But even that would have been confusing since many of the guards were female.
As the unimaginable reality set in, though, it must have been infuriating to see the steeple of the town church across the sparkling lake. It is just visible from the square where they stood for torturous and deadly hours during every type of weather for seemingly unending roll call sessions.
Ravensbrück was built for 6,000 people but may have held as many as 45,000 prisoners at one time. That kind of overcrowding led to horrific sanitary conditions. At one point a large tent was erected to hold newly arrived prisoners because the barracks were too crowded even by the barbarous standards of concentration camp guards.
The overcrowding led to deadly conditions and disease, but the resulting chaos also led to some stories that are unheard of in other camps.
Like that of the Children’s Christmas Party of 1944 in which an actual party and play were hosted for the kids of the camp by the prisoners.
The fact that there were children at the camp is another oddity of Ravensbrück. There was even a baby boom during the height of the overcrowded chaos when pregnant prisoners were actually allowed to give birth. The mortality rate of the children is devastating but children were there and some did survive.
It was here at Ravensbrück where the infamous medical experiments on Polish women were conducted, such as inserting debris into their legs to learn how best to treat German soldiers suffering from shrapnel wounds.
The women earned the nickname Rabbits because of the way they hopped or hobbled around camp. In an example of light emerging from darkness, the prisoners were fiercely protective of the rabbits and risked their own lives to save as many of the Rabbits as possible.
Johanna Langefeld supervised Ravensbrück and, for a while, the female camp at Auschwitz. History still can’t define her. Though she was in charge of selections at Auschwitz and oversaw beatings at Ravensbrück, she also fought against the implementation of beatings and took on the patriarchal system, insisting that a female should be in charge of camps for women.
In the end, the Nazis deemed her too sympathetic to the prisoners, especially the Polish prisoners, and she was removed from her post.
After her arrest by the Allies, former prisoners wrote a letter in her defense. While it is unclear whether the letter was the reason, Langefeld was released from the post-war prisons.
History is more definitive on some of the other guards like Dorothea Binz who grew up in a village near Ravensbrück. Like the surroundings of the camp, her beauty belied her cruelty and was executed at the age of 22 for war crimes.
Reichsfuhror Heinrich Himmler liked to visit Ravensbrück, which was five miles from where his mistress lived. There is a fascinating story about how he would sometimes release prisoners upon his visits.
It is from Ravensbrück where the Nazis selected women to be prostitutes at the brothels of other concentration camps in the system.
Ravensbrück is part of my #neverforget series of places that we should all visit in order to remember what happened during the Holocaust. Something that we should never forget is the participation of business in the Holocaust.
Near Ravensbrück, Siemens had a factory where prisoners labored. Like the brothels, physical conditions of the factory were often better than some of the arduous outdoor work units, but the conditions were still harsh. And the daily walk between the factory and the camp could be deadly for weakened prisoners.
Siemens has acknowledged wrongdoing and the company worked in collaboration with the Ravensbrück memorial site to frankly and factually address their participation in the Holocaust.
What brought me to Ravensbrück was the overarching story of female friendship and its power. There is a story of a train that left France in 1943 containing 230 French women deported for their part in the resistance. They were sent to Auschwitz and then to Ravensbrück. Of the 230 women, 49 survived the camps.
That horrifying rate of survival is actually high for concentration camp odds. Carolyn Moorehead who wrote “A Train in Winter” about the women of that fateful train suggests that it is the bonding of the women and the strength of their friendships that helped them endure and, in 49 cases, survive.
Located in the small town of Fürstenberg/Havel in northern Germany, the camp is just an hour north of Berlin by train or car.
The easiest way to get to Fürstenberg is by train. RE5 trains leave every hour from Berlin Hauptbahnhof to the Fürstenberg/Havel station. The camp is a 30-minute walk from the train station. It is an interesting walk through the quaint town and it’s the very walk that the prisoners took to get to the camp.
The memorial grounds are open from 9 to 5 and later in the summer months. The site is closed on Mondays.
Touring the museum and memorial is free. Audio guides are three euros and a necessary part of any visit that does not include a guided tour. Guided tours can be arranged in advance for an extra cost, though the tours are aimed primarily at groups (and I had some difficulty getting a response regarding an individual tour).
I have visited Ravensbrück twice and, on my first visit, I scheduled an individual tour through Gablinger Tours when I was unable to schedule a tour through the visitor center. It was expensive (200 euros) and, though the guide was very nice, I got more out of my later visit when I simply used the audio guide and wandered around in reflection.
I have twice tried to visit the archives and found them closed. I advise scheduling this months in advance if that’s your interest.
The former female guards’ houses are actually set up as a Youth Hostel, which is interesting. I opted to use Airbnb where I was able to book a room at the train station – the very same station where prisoners arrived. It was an interesting group home with the train buzzing past the window and a patio space literally on the platform. Once, using Airbnb, I also stayed in a private and cozy unit above the café in town.
Most people stay in Berlin and take the train for a day trip to the memorial. Make sure to take an early train because it takes a long time to absorb everything on the sprawling grounds.
The site is mostly outdoors, so dress for the weather. It’s an intense day, so prepare for that, too.
Fuel up at a coffee shop in town before making the walk to the memorial site.
If you’re on foot, the walk back to town and the train station is absolutely beautiful during daylight hours but wooded and a little dark during evening hours.
It’s not easy to visit sites like these. But it’s necessary. Even if you’ve seen other camps you should visit this camp built for women and, in large part, run by female guards.
It’s a dark place to visit but there is light. There are stories of female friendship that bonded women together in love, death, and survival.
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