Ravensbrück: Week 5

Last week I continued examining primary sources. Lund University in Sweden houses a large Holocaust archive, including a plethora of information on Ravensbrück. In the final year of the war, the Swedish Red Cross attempted to rescue concentration camp prisoners. Using a database on camps in northern Germany provided by an underground resistance group, the Red Cross was able to secure rescues. Heinrich Himmler, Nazi official and director of the concentration camp system negotiated with Count Folke Bernadotte, Sweden’s representative, and agreed to allow the release of a number of prisoners from various camps across northern Germany. By the last months of the war, Himmler recognized that the Nazis would not be victorious, and he believed that releasing prisoners to the Red Cross would save face and help convince the Allies to negotiate a separate peace. In February, the Red Cross began their rescue of Scandinavian prisoners, driving down through Denmark into Germany and then bringing inmates back to Sweden for medical treatment and convalescence. By March, over 100 buses had transported inmates from various camps to their freedom. In April, Himmler met with Bernadotte again and agreed to extend the rescue program to prisoners of all nationalities. On April 25, a convoy of 20 buses arrived at Ravensbrück and transported over 900 women to safety in Sweden. Multiple Rabbits arrived in Sweden at the end of the war. Professors and researchers at Lund spoke with former prisoners, gathered any materials prisoners brought with them from the camps, and recorded testimonies from those willing to share their experiences. The resulting archive, added to over the years, contains an abundance of information on various concentration camps in Germany.

I had originally planned to travel to Lund and visit the physical archive at the university for my research. After exploring their website and database in depth, however, I realized that much of the information on Ravensbrück that I was interested in is available digitally through their database. While I had read a bit about the Red Cross rescues—also known as the White Bus Operation for the distinctive buses that picked up prisoners—from secondary sources, I learned more about the negotiations the negotiations, the process of taking inmates from the camps, and their recovery in Sweden from the digital archive. The archive contains lists of those transported to Lund, drawings and photographs (including maps of camp layouts), notebooks and work journals, and witness testimonies. By cross-listing Lund’s list of women evacuated from Ravensbrück with my own compiled list of the Rabbits, I determined which women ended up in Sweden and was able to pick out their specific testimonies. These women discuss their specific experiences in the camp hospital, relationships with other inmates, and survival in the camp after the operations. While the words of the Rabbits are most useful for my research, multiple testimonies from other prisoners mention the medical experiments and offer an outside perspective and broader picture of camp life. As these testimonies were recorded either in German or Polish, my efforts to translate and read through them is a project that will likely extend into next semester.

Aside from the testimonies, the other materials from Lund that I found useful were a series of letters. Last week, I discussed some of my research on the secret correspondence between prisoners and their families back in Poland, through which information about the medical experiments reached the outside world. The Lund archive contains five letters written by Janina Iwanska to her family. In an envelope used for one of the letters, Janina wrote a secret message in urine, asking her father to secretly send her a compass, map of Germany, and money, hidden in other items in the parcel, for an escape.