The Nazi concentration camps – official referred to as ‘protective custody camps’ – on German soil were populated almost exclusively by male prisoners, with only a few notable exceptions. The most significant, and largest, being the Ravensbrück women’s camp constructed in 1939 on the banks of the lake Schwedt near Fürstenburg an der Havel.
Despite the pronounced difference in the gender of prisoners, Ravensbrück would still possess the same signifiers of National Socialist persecution as the brother camps, such as Sachsenhausen and Dachau, elsewhere – rudimentary housing the form of penal barracks, a slave labour system that would excel both in spite of and because of the expendable nature of the camp population – and from mid-1944, a gas chamber designed to expidite the murder of prisoners.
As with other Nazi camps, prisoners would come from certain persecuted groups – mainly political prisoners, but also jehovas witnesses, roma and sinti, jews, and so-called race traitors (Rassenschande) accused of relations with impure non-Aryans. Although the camp was located only 90km north of the Nazi capital of Berlin, the largest national group of prisoners would eventually not be German – but Polish. Including many members of the Polish Home Army.
As a well-known health resort in the 1920s, the peaceful town of Fürstenberg – now in the northern German state of Mecklenburg Vorpommern – was advertised for its three lakes and manor house transformed into a sanatorium popular with Berliners.
In the 1930s, the Nazi party would find popular support in the town and by 1939 open the Ravensbrück ‘protective custody camp’ opposite the town centre, on the banks of the lake Schwedt. The first prisoners, from Germany and Austria, arrived on May 8th 1939 – followed by a large group of so-called Gypsy women from the Burgenland in Austria in the summer of 1939.
No secret was made of the camp’s existence to the local population, as not only would businesses profit from the concentration camp’s presence but prisoners would also be marched through the town to provide slave labour in Fürstenburg. Around 130,000 women prisoners would be incarcerated at Ravensbrück – with an estimated 28,000 perishing. Similarly to other Nazi camps, Ravensbrück would serve as the centre for other subcamps – in this instance around 70 of them – housing forced labourers for different purposes – including and 20,000 male prisoners. Contrary to the popular belief that it existed exclusively for the detention of female prisoners.
As a reprisal for the assassination of SS leader Reinhard Heydrich in 1942, the village of Lidice in Czechoslovakia was destroyed with 199 men and youths executed. The remaining 196 women and children would be deported to Ravensbrück Concentration Camp.
However, not only were the prisoners at the camp female, but so were many of the guards – or overseers (Aufseherinnen) as they were classified as at Ravensbrück. At peak some 150 female overseers would work at the camp policing the prisoners, but in total around 4,000 would receive training at Ravensbrück – to be posted to other camps elsewhere. Among them women such as Elfriede Muller – the ‘Beast of Ravensbrück – and Irme Grese, future Rapportführerin at Auschwitz-Birkenau, who would participate in prisoner selections for the gas chambers.
Unlike their male colleagues, these female guards – although benefitting from being state employees – were not official members of the SS (SchutzStaffel) – the organisation headed by Heinrich Himmler and tasked with maintaining the concentration camp system. But civil employees within a paramilitary organisation. And while male guards would be allowed access to the camp to patrol – the female Aufseherinnen would often see their positions restricted to escorting prisoners from the main gate to supervise their work details.
Despite the reduced role and position of these overseers, Ravensbrück would remain the only Nazi camp where the female guards were in the majority. The former accomodation for these women is the central set of apartment blocks visible when arriving at the current concentration camp memorial – now used as a youth hostel for visiting school classes.
Life at Ravensbrück for the thousands of women imprisoned here would not differ greatly from the casual savagery inflicted upon male prisoners elsewhere – the policy of ‘annihilation through labour’ would apply here too. Companies such as Siemens and Halske would utilise camp labour to produce telephones, prisoners would be forced to make components for V2 rockets, but most significantly in the Texled factories textile factories of Ravensbrück female prisoners would produce the prisoner uniforms for all other SS camps.
Like with other camps, prisoners would be subjected to medical experiments – at Ravensbrück some 89 prisoners, including 74 Poles, would serve as human test subjects for various sulphonamide drugs. Infected with gangrene, with wounds later opened and reinfected, these women would come to be known as the ‘Ravensbrück Rabbits’.
No title is given to those women, around 200 of them, who sought an escape from the camp by being transferred elsewhere to work in any of the ten brothels established by the SS – for use by male prisoners – to improve prisoner morale.
Another horrifying chapter in the catalogue of traumas justified by National Socialist policy and inflicted on the women imprisoned in the largest Nazi concentration camp for female prisoners on German soil.