Ravensbrück: Week 6

Ravensbrück

The week of August 5 I traveled to Germany to conduct on-site research at Ravensbrück. After World War II, the Soviets used the camp, which fell on the eastern side of the Iron Curtain, as a military training camp for soldiers. The Soviets destroyed many of the original buildings, including all of the barracks that housed the prisoners, and altered other aspects of the site to make it suitable for their training needs. They did erect a memorial to the camp and the women who were imprisoned there; however, the memorial focused on the Soviet women held in the camp and celebrated their anti-fascist ideals, as well as emphasizing the heroism of Red Army soldiers that liberated Ravensbrück in May 1945. For decades, the experiences of other categories and nationalities of prisoners were obscured by this focus on the Soviets. In the 1980s historians, survivors, and activists made an effort to establish an inclusive memorial to honor all of the prisoners in the camp and educate visitors on all aspects of camp life. New exhibits and a visitor’s center were built in the early 2000s. Efforts at restoring parts of the camp which fell into disrepair after the war continue today.

For the first part of my time at Ravensbrück I worked my way through all of the exhibits and took a tour of the site. The main exhibit is presented in the previous SS central administration building at the front of the camp directly before the entrance gates. Some aspects of the building are original, including the floors and staircases. Pictures throughout the exhibit show how the building looked during the war. The exhibit is separated partially based on chronology and also on various aspects of the camp, such as relationships among prisoners, punishments, and information on the SS personnel. There is a room that focuses entirely on the medical experiments at Ravensbrück and the Rabbits experiences. While I had heard a lot of the information through previous readings and research, there were a couple of valuable bits that added to my knowledge. For example, the exhibit discusses in depth the Rabbits efforts to share news of their operations with the outside world, through secret correspondence with their families and through contacts with Polish soldiers in a nearby prisoner of war camp. While I have read extensively on the former method, I did not know as much about the women’s contacts with the Polish soldiers. Several Polish women were sent occasionally to work further north near Neubrandenburg on a site adjacent to the POW camp. These women made contact with the men and passed letters to them explaining the experiments, as they reportedly believed the men would survive longer than themselves. The POWs buried a glass jar filled with the secret messages to hide it until after the war; the jar was finally uncovered again in 1975. There is also a copy of a report from the Polish underground newspaper Armia Krajowa in August 1943 detailing the operations and revealing the names of the doctors involved.

After viewing the main exhibit, as well as additional exhibits on the SS personnel and textile production at the camp, I toured the site. While only about one third of the original structures remain, those that have been lost are marked with signs and other signifiers. As aforementioned, the barracks where the women lived were torn down after the war, but the sites are still clearly visible due to indentations in the gravel which show the walls of each barrack. One large building complex that still stands today is the production center. Here, women worked long shifts sewing prisoner uniforms, weaving straw shoes for German soldiers, and making fur coats for soldiers in the east – all efforts to support the war and the camp complex. Walking around the site was a sobering and emotional experience. After seeing the places where these women were held and forced to labor, it is easier to understand the conditions and what these prisoners endured.