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A concentration camp for women

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A concentration camp for women

From 1939
to 1945 Ravensbrück, a hundred kilometres north of Berlin, was the location of
a concentration camp for women. The camp which, in the beginning held 2,000
women, all political prisoners of Germany and Austria, eventually held more
than 45,000. Except for several moments, especially towards the end, most were
political prisoners, social outcasts, gypsies and women accused of having
relationships with Jews, thereby contaminating the race. The number of Jewish
women never exceeded 10 percent. Beginning in the fall of 1944, when
Auschwitzs gas chambers closed, the
camp was equipped with one, perhaps two, similar chambers and began functioning
as an extermination camp. The camp also held important detainees who were
generally treated better than the others as they were considered possible
hostages. Such prisoners included Gemma La Guardia, a Jew and the sister of the
Mayor of New York, and the niece of General De Gaulle, Geneviève. The number of women who perished varies according to
historians, but typically falls between 30,000 and 90,000; and the number of
women who were detained reached more than 100,000.

The women
in the camp came from many different countries, including those occupied by the
Nazis. Many of them were Russian, soldiers from the Red Army, as well as Polish
and French. There were also ten English women who were secret service agents
arrested in France and approximately a thousand Italian women who were mostly
political prisoners. Ravensbrück was
liberated on 30 April 1945 by the Red Army.

Written by
British journalist Sarah Helm, Ravensbruck:
Life and Death in Hitlers Concentration Camp for Women tells the both
terrifying and fascinating story of this concentration camp and its women. The
author writes in a narrative style that makes this 700-page book a pleasure to
read despite its subject and size. She scrupulously weaves together historic
documents and oral sources, many of whom she interviewed herself. Names rather
than numbers are at the heart of the book and Helm is clearly interested in
restoring life to these women and describing the way they lived, where they died, and their endless stories of
strength, heroism, pain and death.

in 1942 medical experiments were performed on the prisoners in the camp. Most
of their test subjects – approximately 100 – were Polish and many of the
“rabbits, as they were called in the camp, died. Some, however, survived and
were able to send messages to Poland and then the Allies with detailed news of
the experiments and calls for help.

Attempts to
end the Red Cross non-intervention were to no avail, due to the strong
influence of Ernst Grawitz, president of the German Red Cross and a friend of
Karl Gebhardt, medical director of experiments in Ravensbrück, who impeded
every intervention until 1945. Grawitz committed suicide after the Reich fell
and Gebhardt, who was also part of Himmlers medical personnel, was charged
during the Nuremberg trials and then was hanged in 1948. Yet another tassel in
the Nazi doctors cap in the extermination.

Anna Foa


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