Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Memorial to Ravensbruck's Women -- a Story That Was Almost 'Too Horrible' to Write

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Memorial to Ravensbruck's Women -- a Story That Was Almost 'Too Horrible' to Write

Article excerpt


IF THIS IS A WOMAN: INSIDE RAVENSBRUCK: HITLER'S CONCENTRATION CAMP FOR WOMEN by Sarah Helm (Little, Brown, PS25) IF THIS is a Woman adapts the title of Primo Levi's famous account of his time interned in Auschwitz: If This is a Man. The difference is that while almost everyone has heard of Auschwitz, the fate of around 130,000 female prisoners at the Ravensbruck concentration camp, north of Berlin, has remained largely unexplored. Sarah Helm theorises that largely male historians of the Third Reich have ignored Ravensbruck. Whether the omission is deliberate is questionable. More likely it suffered from being a relatively small camp (45,000 detainees at its peak and between 30,000 and 90,000 deaths) by the gruesome metrics of the mass-extermination centres, and the memorialising of Dachau, in the American zone.

Located in what became East Germany, Ravensbruck was treated to the ideological aspic of the communist era, where curiosity about the systematic rapes at the camp by the liberating Soviet soldiers was discouraged. As a student in East Germany in the mid-1980s, I was taken on a brief visit to Sachsenhausen and Ravensbruck. Statistics were plentiful: more detailed questions were brushed off. Helm's extraordinarily dogged research and commitment to tracking down survivors reminds us of the scale of inhumanity meted out in a place whose prisoners were exclusively women. Most were not Jewish but Polish, Russian and French, swept up in the conquest and Lebensraum rampage, or political prisoners, religious undesirables and prostitutes.

Degradation was purposeful.

Doctors at the camp experimented on the "Ravensbruck rabbits", women selected for brutish experiments, deliberately infected to see whether new anti-bacterial drugs might improve gangrene treatment at the battlefront.

From the outset, Helm faces the difficulty of our squeamishness about the camps forthrightly. A tough female veteran of Special Operations, interned at Ravensbruck, discourages her from the book, saying simply: "It is too horrible. …

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