Ravensbrück: Week 4

Last week I turned to examining primary sources. I focused on Wanda Symonowicz’s Beyond Human Endurance: The Ravensbrück Women Tell Their Stories, which provides a selection of reminiscences from twenty former prisoners, all of whom were experimented on during their time in the camp. Published in 1970, Symonowicz’s book was the first to relate the experiences of Ravensbrück women to an English-language audience. It begins with an introduction by former inmate Wanda Kiedrzynska, including a brief overview of camp history and a short section focused on the Nazi medical experiments that occurred in concentration camps across the Reich. Twenty chapters follow, each containing the words of a different inmate, reflecting on some aspect of her experience in Ravensbrück.

One of the most useful pieces of information I gained from this text is a look into the relationships between the victims of experiments, and the other prisoners, and SS doctors. Many recollections mention the sympathy and help from other prisoners in the camp – smuggling food and medicine into their hospital ward and offering small gifts and smiles to cheer the women up. When a decree went out in February 1945 that the Rabbits were to be liquidated, the other prisoners rallied around the women and helped them to hide throughout the camp to avoid execution. Leokadia Kwiecinska says that “there wasn’t a single case of a prisoner denouncing a woman who had had an operation and had gone into hiding.” And Stanislawa Mlodkowska-Bielawska mentions that women of many nationalities joined in protesting against the operations. These recollections demonstrate the widespread sympathy for this specific group of prisoners.

The book also provided more information on the doctors involved in the experiments. Dr. Gebhardt is described by the women as “the hangman” and a “criminal.” The image of Dr. Oberheuser is interestingly mixed. Some women included acts of kindness shown by the doctor, such as permitting the women to stay in their barrack rather than go outside each morning and evening for roll-call after their operations. Others stress her cruelty; for example, hitting victims so that they would not lose consciousness, and refusing medicine to women suffering various side effects. Oberheuser was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment for her involvement in the experiments. Her sentence was commuted to five years and after her release in 1952 she began practicing medicine again.

In most of the chapters, the victims explain the experiments and their time in the ward recovering, and then life in the barrack until liberation. Krystyna Czyz-Wilgat’s text reflects on very different aspect of the Rabbits’ history – she describes a secret correspondence with families back in Poland. Four Rabbits, Czyz-Wilgat included, devised a method of getting information about the operations back to Poland, where they hoped it could be broadcast through the underground resistance movements to the governments of the Allied nations. Ravensbrück prisoners were allowed to write one letter each month back to their families. These, of course, were strictly censored by SS personnel. The four Rabbits penned explanations of the operations and listed the names of the victims in between the lines of their letters and on the envelopes, all written in urine, which remained invisible until pressed with a hot iron. It was through this correspondence that information of the criminal experiments reached the outside world. Cyzy-Wilgat reprints portions of various letters sent back to Poland.