Ravensbruck: Life and Death in Hitler's Concentration Camp for Women

Ravensbruck: Life and Death in Hitler's Concentration Camp for Women

by Sarah Helm


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780307278715
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 03/22/2016
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 784
Sales rank: 102,265
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.98(h) x 1.52(d)

About the Author

Sarah Helm is the author of A Life in Secrets: Vera Atkins and the Missing Agents of WWII and the play Loyalty, about the 2003 Iraq War. She was a staff journalist on the Sunday Times (London) and a foreign correspondent on the Independent, and now writes for several publications. She lives in London with her husband and two daughters. 

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1


‘The year is 1957. The doorbell of my flat is ringing,’ writes Grete Buber-Neumann, a former Ravensbrück prisoner. ‘I open the door. An old woman is standing before me, breathing heavily and missing teeth in the lower jaw. She babbles: “Don’t you know me any more? I am Johanna Langefeld, the former head guard at Ravensbrück.” The last time I had seen her was fourteen years ago in her office at the camp. I worked as her prisoner secretary . ⁠. ⁠. She would pray to God for strength to stop the evil happening, but if a Jewish woman came into her office her face would fill with hatred . ⁠. ⁠.

‘So she sits at the table with me. She tells me she wishes she’d been born a man. She talks of Himmler, whom she sometimes still calls “Reichsführer”. She talks for many hours, she gets lost in the different years and tries to explain her behaviour.’

Early in May 1939 a small convoy of trucks emerged from trees into a clearing near the tiny village of Ravensbrück, deep in the Mecklenburg forest. The trucks drove on past a lake, where their wheels started spinning and axles sank into waterlogged sand. People jumped down to dig out the vehicles while others unloaded boxes.

A woman in uniform – grey jacket and skirt – also jumped down. Her feet sank into the sand, but she pulled herself free, walked a little way up the slope and looked around. Felled trees lay beside the shimmering lake. The air smelt of sawdust. It was hot and there was no shade. To her right, on the far shore, lay the small town of Fürstenberg. Boathouses sprawled by the shore. A church spire was visible.

At the opposite end of the lake, to her left, a vast grey wall about sixteen feet high loomed up. The forest track led towards towering iron-barred gates to the left of the compound. There were signs saying ‘Trespassers Keep Out’. The woman – medium height, stocky, brown wavy hair – strode purposefully towards the gates.

Johanna Langefeld had come with a small advance party of guards and prisoners to bring equipment and look around the new women’s concentration camp; the camp was due to open in a few days’ time and Langefeld was to be the Oberaufseherin – chief woman guard. She had seen inside many women’s penal institutions in her time, but never a place like this.

For the past year Langefeld had worked as a senior guard at Lichtenburg, a medieval fortress near Torgau, on the River Elbe. Converted into a temporary women’s camp while Ravensbrück was built, Lichtenburg’s crumbling chambers and wet dungeons were cramped and unhealthy; unsuitable for women prisoners. Ravensbrück was new and purpose-built. The compound comprised about six acres, big enough for the first 1000 or so women expected here, with space to spare.

Langefeld stepped through the iron gates and strode around the sandy Appellplatz, the camp square. The size of a football pitch, it had room enough to drill the entire camp at once. Loudspeakers hung on poles above Langefeld’s head, though the only sound for now was the banging of nails. The walls blocked everything outside from view, except the sky.

Unlike male camps, Ravensbrück had no watchtowers along the walls and no gun emplacements. But an electric fence was fixed to the interior of the perimeter wall, and placards along the fence showed a skull and crossbones warning of high voltage. Only beyond the walls to the south, to Langefeld’s right, did the ground rise high enough for treetops to be visible on a hill.

Hulking grey barrack blocks dominated the compound. The wooden blocks, arranged in a grid, were single-storey with small windows; they sat squat around the camp square. Two lines of identical blocks – though somewhat larger – were laid out each side of the Lagerstrasse, the main street.

Langefeld inspected the blocks one by one. Immediately inside the gate, the first block on the left was the SS canteen, fitted out with freshly scrubbed chairs and tables. Also to the left of the Appellplatz was the camp Revier, a German military term meaning sickbay or infirmary. Across the square, she entered the bathhouse, fitted with dozens of showerheads. Boxes containing striped cotton clothes were stacked at one end and at a table a handful of women were laying out piles of coloured felt triangles.

Next to the bathhouse, under the same roof, was the camp kitchen, which glistened with huge steel pots and kettles. The next building was the prisoners’ clothes store, or Effektenkammer, where large brown paper bags were piled on a table, and then came the Wäscherei, laundry, with its six centrifugal washing machines – Langefeld would have liked more.

Nearby an aviary was being constructed. Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS, which ran the concentration camps and much else in Nazi Germany, wanted his camps to be self-sufficient as far as possible. There was to be a rabbit hutch, chicken coop and vegetable garden, as well as an orchard and flower garden. Gooseberry bushes, dug up from the Lichtenburg gardens and transported in the trucks, were already being replanted here. The contents of the Lichtenburg latrines had been brought to Ravensbrück too, to be spread as fertiliser. Himmler also required his camps to pool resources. As Ravens­brück had no baking ovens of its own, bread was to be brought here daily from Sachsenhausen, the men’s camp, fifty miles to the south.

The Oberaufseherin strode on down the Lagerstrasse, which started at the far side of the Appellplatz and led towards the back of the camp. The living blocks were laid out, end-on to the Lagerstrasse, in perfect formation so that the windows of one block looked out onto the back wall of the next. They were to be the prisoners’ living quarters, eight on each side of the ‘street’. Red flowers – salvias – had been planted outside the first block; linden tree saplings stood at regular intervals in between the rest.

As in all concentration camps, the grid layout was used at Ravensbrück mainly to ensure that prisoners could always be seen, which meant fewer guards. A complement of fifty-five women guards were assigned here and a troop of forty SS men, all under overall command of Hauptsturmführer Max Koegel.

Johanna Langefeld believed she could run a women’s concentration camp better than any man, and certainly better than Max Koegel, whose methods she despised. Himmler, however, was clear that Ravensbrück should be run, in general, on the same lines as the men’s camps, which meant Langefeld and her women guards must be answerable to an SS commandant.

On paper neither she nor any of her guards had any official standing. The women were not merely subordinate to the men, they had no badge or rank and were merely SS ‘auxiliaries’. Most of them were unarmed, though some guarding outside work parties carried a pistol and many had dogs. Himmler believed that women were more frightened than men of dogs.

Nevertheless, Koegel’s authority here would not be absolute. He was only commandant-designate for now, and he had been refused certain powers. For example there was to be no camp prison or ‘bunker’ in which to lock up troublemakers, as there was at every male camp. Nor was he to have authority for ‘official’ beatings. Angered by these omissions, he wrote to his SS superiors requesting greater powers to punish prisoners, but his request was refused.

Langefeld, however, who believed in drill and discipline rather than beating, was content with the arrangements, especially as she had secured significant concessions on day-to-day management. It had been written into the camp’s comprehensive rule book, the Lagerordnung, that the chief woman guard would advise the Schutzhaftlagerführer (deputy commandant) on ‘feminine matters’, though what these were was not defined.

Stepping inside one of the accommodation barracks, Langefeld looked around. Like so much else here, the sleeping arrangements were new to her; instead of shared cells, or dormitories, as she was used to, more than 150 women were to sleep in each block. Their interiors were identically set out, with two large sleeping rooms – A and B – on either side of a washing area, with a row of twelve basins and twelve lavatories, as well as a communal day room where the women would eat.

The sleeping areas were filled with scores of three-tiered bunks, made of wooden planks. Every prisoner had a mattress filled with wood shavings and a pillow, as well as a sheet and a blue and white check blanket folded at the foot of the bed.

The value of drill and discipline had been instilled in Langefeld from her earliest years. The daughter of a blacksmith, she was born Johanna May, in the Ruhr town of Kupferdreh, in March 1900. She and her older sister were raised as strict Lutherans; their parents drummed into them the importance of thrift, obedience and daily prayer. Like any good Protestant girl Johanna already knew that her role in life would be that of dutiful wife and mother: ‘Kinder, Küche, Kirche’ – children, kitchen, church – was a familiar creed in the May family home. Yet from her childhood Johanna yearned for more. Her parents also talked to her of Germany’s past. After church on Sundays they would hark back to the humiliation of the French occupation of their beloved Ruhr under Napoleon and the family would kneel and pray for God’s help in making Germany great again. She idolised her namesake, Johanna Prohaska, a heroine of the liberation wars, who had disguised herself as a man to fight the French.

All this Johanna Langefeld told Grete Buber-Neumann, the former prisoner, at whose Frankfurt door she appeared years later, seeking to ‘try to explain her behaviour’. Grete, an inmate of Ravensbrück for four years, was startled by the reappearance in 1957 of her chief former guard; she was also gripped by Langefeld’s account of her ‘odyssey’ and wrote it down.

In 1914, as the First World War broke out, Johanna, then fourteen, cheered with the rest as the young men of Kupferdreh marched off to pursue the dream of making Germany great again, only to find that she and all German women had little part to play. Two years later, when it was clear the war would not end soon, German women were suddenly told to get out to work in mines, factories and offices; there on the ‘home front’, women had a chance to prove themselves doing the jobs of men, only to be expelled from those same jobs again when the men came home.

Two million Germans did not return from the trenches, but several million did, and Johanna now watched as Kupferdreh’s soldiers came back, many mutilated and all humiliated. Under the terms of surrender, Germany was to pay reparations, which would cripple the economy, fuelling hyperinflation; in 1924 Langefeld’s beloved Ruhr was reoccupied yet again by the French, who ‘stole’ German coal, in punishment for reparations unpaid. Her parents lost their savings and she was penniless and looking for a job. In 1924 she found a husband, a miner called Wilhelm Langefeld, who died two years later of lung disease.

Johanna’s ‘odyssey’ then faltered; she ‘got lost in the years’, wrote Grete. The mid-1920s were a dark period that she could not account for other than to say there was a liaison with another man, which left her pregnant, dependent on Protestant aid groups.

While Langefeld and millions like her struggled, other German women found liberation in the 1920s. With American financial support, the socialist-led Weimar Republic stabilised the country and set out on a new liberal path. Women had the vote, and for the first time German women joined political parties, particularly on the left. Inspired by Rosa Luxemburg, leader of the communist Spartacus movement, middle-class girls, Grete Buber-Neumann among them, chopped off their hair, watched plays by Bertolt Brecht and tramped through forests with comrades of the Wandervogel, and other youth movements, talking of revolution. Meanwhile, across the country working-class women raised money for ‘Red Help’, joined trade unions and stood at factory gates handing out strike leaflets.

In 1922 in Munich, where Adolf Hitler was blaming Germany’s strife on the ‘bloated Jew’, a precocious Jewish girl called Olga Benario ran away from home to join a communist cell, disowning her prosperous middle-class parents. She was fourteen. Within months the dark-eyed schoolgirl was leading comrades on walks through the Bavarian Alps, diving into mountain streams, then reading Marx around the campfire and planning Germany’s communist revolution. In 1928 she shot to fame after holding up a Berlin courthouse and snatching a leading German communist to freedom as he faced the guillotine. By 1929 Olga had left Germany for Moscow to train with Stalin’s elite, before heading to Brazil to start a revolution.

Back in the stricken Ruhr valley, Johanna Langefeld was by this time a single mother without a future. The 1929 Wall Street Crash triggered world depression, plunging Germany into a new and deeper economic crisis that threw millions out of work and created widespread unrest. Langefeld’s deepest fear was that her son, Herbert, would be taken from her if she fell into destitution. Instead of joining the destitute, however, she chose to help them, turning to God. ‘It was religious conviction that drew her to work with the poorest of the poor,’ so she told Grete all those years later at the Frankfurt kitchen table. She found work with the welfare service, teaching housekeeping skills to unemployed women and ‘re-educating prostitutes’.

In 1933, Johanna Langefeld found a new saviour in Adolf Hitler. Hitler’s programme for women could not have been clearer: German women were to stay at home, rear as many Aryan children as they were able, and obey their husbands. Women were not fit for public life; most jobs would be barred to women and access to university curtailed.

Such attitudes could easily be found in any European country in the 1930s, but Nazi language on women was uniquely toxic; not only did Hitler’s entourage openly scorn the ‘stupid’, ‘inferior’ female sex, they repeatedly demanded ‘separation’ of women from men, as if men didn’t see the point of women at all except as occasional adornments and, of course, as childbearers.*# The Jews were not Hitler’s only scapegoats for Germany’s ills: women who had been emancipated during the Weimar years were blamed for taking men’s jobs and corrupting the country’s morals.

Yet Hitler had the power to seduce the millions of German women who yearned for a ‘steel-hardened man’ to restore pride and order to the Reich. Such female admirers, many deeply religious, and all inflamed by Joseph Goebbels’s anti-Semitic propaganda, packed the 1933 Nuremberg victory rally where the American reporter William Shirer mingled with the mob. ‘Hitler rode into this medieval town at sundown today past solid phalanxes of wildly cheering Nazis . ⁠. ⁠. Tens of thousands of Swastika flags blot out the Gothic beauties of the place . ⁠. ⁠. ⁠’ Later that night, outside Hitler’s hotel: ‘I was a little shocked at the faces, especially those of the women . ⁠. ⁠. They looked up at him as if he were a Messiah . ⁠. ⁠. ⁠’

Table of Contents

Prologue xvii

Part 1

1 Langefeld 3

2 Sandgrube 24

3 Blockovas 47

4 Himmler Visits 64

5 Stalin's Gift 73

6 Else Krug 88

7 Doctor Sonntag 100

8 Doctor Mennecke 115

9 Bernburg 136

Part 2

10 Lublin 159

11 Auschwitz 179

12 Sewing 193

13 Rabbits 210

14 Special Experiments 221

15 Healing 236

Part 3

16 Red Army 261

17 Yevgenia Klemm 270

18 Doctor Treite 285

19 Breaking the Circle 307

20 Black Transport 325

Part 4

21 Vingt-sept Mille 347

22 Falling 359

23 Hanging On 371

24 Reaching Our 383

Part 5

25 Paris and Warsaw 401

26 Kinderzimmer 411

27 Protest 421

28 Overtures 433

29 Doctor Loulou 440

Part 6

30 Hungarians 459

31 A Children's Party 468

32 Death March 482

33 Youth Camp 489

34 Hiding 510

35 Königsberg 522

36 Bernadotte 534

37 Emilie 544

38 Nelly 562

39 Masur 576

40 White Buses 593

41 Liberation 611

Epilogue 633

Acknowledgements 659

Notes 665

Bibliography 709

Picture Credits 722

Index 724

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Ravensbruck: Life and Death in Hitler's Concentration Camp for Women 4.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 19 reviews.
PatriciaReding More than 1 year ago
I recently finished reading Ravensbruck: Life and Death in Hitler’s Concentration Camp for Women, by Sarah Helm.  I had to put it down for a couple of weeks afterward before I could gather my thoughts sufficiently well to write a review. I found this read both profoundly insightful and deeply disturbing. I’ve read a lot of books about WWII, the Nazi regime in general, and of the concentration camps in particular.  The stories Helm shares, charged with emotion, are real. I could nearly smell death as I worked my way through. I can only wonder how long that stench hung over Europe after the war ended. The sheer number of murders and of the resulting piles of bodies—or in some cases, of ashes—is mind-boggling.  WWII, like all the “great” wars of the 20th century, was an ideological one—not a religious one—witnessed by the fact that the Nazis victimized Jews, Christians, Poles, the French, “a-socials,” gypsies, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and so many, many more . . .  The weapons they used included those expected, as well as those I’d never read of before, namely, the mobile gas chambers.  One of the things that stood out for me with Ravenstruck, is that Helm managed to capture the personalities of some of those in charge in a way that left me shaking my head. When she shared Heinrich Himmler’s fascination with breeding chickens, or the details of his notes with his wife, he sounded so different from the beast that oversaw evil on such an unimaginable scale. When Helm set out the background of “normal” young women, turned to killer guards, I was left speechless.  From whence does such evil come? How could it survive long enough to do what it did during these days? Why did those who knew about it, do nothing about it, rather than take whatever action was necessary to stop it? That “hate” could take root and grow to such levels is shocking. In this regard, Helm also shared the intellectual dishonesty, the irrationality necessary for people to create such a system, to grow it, and to fight for it to continue.  It is a shocking reality that some would repeat those times, as our daily newscasts witness. There are people today who want to wipe out those whose ideas and way of life do not match up ideologically with their own. I recall the famous Edmund Burke quote:  “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”  Therein came the real difficulty for me when I read Ravensbruck—I was left with a deep appreciation for how much we require strength and truth and moral clarity in leadership though, I daresay, the world is struggling to find it.
cowsrmom More than 1 year ago
This is a book that will capture your heart and soul. It will put you right in the middle of the Ravensbrück camp for women and you will witness first hand, as though you had been there, what courage and will to live the women had; those who survived and those who did not. You'll cheer for them; you will marvel at their strength and ingenuity and kindness when kindness seems as though it would be forgotten. You will cry for them and you will have to close the book sometimes for a while. I have read quite a few historical books on the people involved in the work camps and extermination camps including books about the monster who was Hitler and about the doctor who masterminded the many disgusting experiments which human beings had to bear. I have never read a book about the bravery of the women in this war; the volunteers, the underground, the military women, the ordinary people who became extraordinary heroines. I understand fully why some do not want to read about the horrors that occurred in WWII and I have, myself experienced nightmares after reading of them yet the stories and the women, as you read, will encourage your own daily endeavors to make our world a better place and to raise your children to combat war, prejudice, stereotyping, misogyny, sadistic, immoral practices and terrorist activities. This knowledge has to be passed on from generation to generation and when the last of the victims of the camps has died, the learning must never end.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
In my opinion, this book is a "Must Read!" It shows, in candid terms, what people are capable of doing, to other people. I could not put it down, though it was, what I call, "A tough read." The book wasn't hard to read; it was the subject matter. I believe everyone should know the depth, the extremity and the lengths that people can reach when hatred, prejudice and blind acceptance run amok. It, also, led me to read another of Helm's books, "A Life In Secrets," about Vera Atkins and her search for her missing agents (and about Vera, herself). Again, I believe that this should be required reading, for everyone.
miclaughlin More than 1 year ago
An important new work on the depths of the Nazi Holocaust. Sarah Helm finds sources newly available following the fall of the Iron Curtain. She's even managed to locate a few survivors whose memories of their time in Ravensbruck remained clear. For anyone who asks the question Why? to the genocides of the 20th century, this book is a must read. Sarah Helm is a gifted researcher and writes with authority and compassion. An important and impressive piece of work.
BrandyGirl More than 1 year ago
This is a very long book, it is not one you will breeze through. I found it very interesting and learned a lot about the types of people in the camp. I would recommend this if you are interested in learning more about the camps during the holocaust.
Anonymous 9 months ago
Excellent information that everyone should know. However, the writing was hard to follow chronologically.
SharynR More than 1 year ago
This was one of the best books about WW2 that I have read. It is very, very sad and moving as you see those who suffered in this prisoner of war camp. I did like the fact that the book went on to tell the story of some of the people after the war as they try to survive. This was a story that made me amazed at the way people reacted to what was going on around them.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
We must learn from the past and about other cultures or history will repeat itself.
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kell0398 More than 1 year ago
This should be a must read for anyone interested in not only the Holocaust, but also women's history. We all have heard for Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Dachau, and many other infamous Nazi Concentration Camps, but until I saw this book and started to read it, I had no idea there was a women's only camp. As I started reading this book and read about the beginning of the Nazi regime and the rise to power of Hitler and his cronies, I could not help but notice the many similarities to certain politicians in the United States. This was also the first time that I learned that there were Americans held in camps. I had known that there were other religious groups held, but I was unaware of the other nationalities other than eastern European nations, Germany, and the handful of western European countries. I was also filled with horror, anger, disgust, and many other emotions as I read that the Red Cross refused to get involved with the treatment of the people held at the concentration camps. All the atrocities that were committed to the women in the camp are unspeakable. By the end of the book and learning that many of the guards for the camp were never tried I was mad, no, angry and beyond angry. Where they not tried because the camp they worked at was strictly for women prisoners? If this was a male camp, would the guards be treated differently in the courts?
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Excellent, 800 pages felt like 200
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efm More than 1 year ago
Awfully concise account of the brutal and barbaric conditions of the concentration camp, the medical experiments. I almost stopped reading it at page 150 but was compelled to complete it to see if things ever got better for them and they did not.
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