Terror of a Nazi Camp, Stories of Survival

Tornell, Glenn. "Terror of a Nazi Camp, Stories of Survival." Forum, 29 October 2000, sec. 1B & 8B.

"Friendships and little acts of kindness made the difference," says Jack G. Morrison, whose book, "Ravensbruck: Everyday Life in a Women’s Concentration Camp 1939-45" was recently released by Markus Weiner Press of Princeton, N.J.

"Their courage and enterprise surprised me."

In fact, he said, Ravensbruck inmates displayed strength and survival skills unique to female prisoners. "Women have always been better than men at sharing, not just things, but themselves," he said.

Morrison, a Wheaton, Minn., native and 1962 Minnesota State University Moorhead graduate, helped establish the archives of Ravensbruck after the Russian Army abandoned the former concentration camp in 1994.

The Russians liberated Ravensbruck in the spring of 1945, maintaining it for nearly a half century as a military post.

Morrison, who recently retired after a 32-year career as a history professor at Shippensburg (P.A.) University, first visited the Ravensbruck Memorial in 1993 while attending a convention in Berlin. He asked German historians there if they needed help reconstructing the history of the camp when the Russians left.

"They accepted my offer and I arrived in August of 1994, just days after the Russians moved out," he said. "There I was on the doorstep of history, with no idea what to do. For 50 years, the Russians never allowed a historian to do work there."

He returned to Ravensbruck in 1997 and again in 1998 to sift through the memoirs and oral histories.

"My main sources were anecdotal," he said. "The SS destroyed virtually all of the official records as the war came to a close, burning them in the crematoriums as the Russians and Americans advanced."

Fortunately, he said, someone had the good sense to contact the women at the end of the war, encouraging them to write about their experiences. "They were called Reports of Experience, and there were hundreds of them. Some as short as a single page; some more than 40 pages."

While Morrison’s book isn’t the first about Ravensbruck, it is the first detailed look of the daily lives in this unique camp that began as a detention center and evolved into a brutal, overcrowded concentration camp for slave-laborers.

"Historians sometimes tend to juggle the numbers up," Morrison said. "Some suggest that more than 132,000 women were incarcerated in the camp during its six-year history and that more than 92,000 of them died from starvation, executions or weakness. I’d guess that no more than 100,000 women were interred there, and that maybe 20,000 to 25,000 died."

Nevertheless, he said, the horror was extreme, ranging from cruel medical experiments (sterilizing Gypsies and trying to harvest spare body parts for German soldiers) to outright slaughter (hangings, shootings and gas chambers).

"Once an inmate escaped and was missing for three days," Morrison said. "The SS guards made everyone in the escapee’s barracks stand at attention for all three days without food. When the Germans did find the woman, they beat her mercilessly. They then threw her back in her barracks, where the fellow inmates beat her to death."

Despite endless oppressions and hardships, Morrison said he came away from his research uplifted by the way these women managed to survive. "It reaffirmed their humanity," he said.

Ravensbruck is located across a scenic lake from the secluded resort village of Furstenburg, about 55 miles north of Berlin. It was originally established by SS Chief Heinrich Himmler as a protective custody camp for criminals and enemies of the state. It was surrounded by a 12-foot wall topped with electrically charged barbed wire.

"By the time Ravensbruck opened in 1939, the Germans already had six major concentration camps in operation," Morrison said. "Ravensbruck was a result of the Nazi state’s growing intolerance to asocial elements and the criminalization of abortion, prostitution, and sexual relations between Germans and non-Germans."

The first transport of 867 female prisoners arrived at Ravensbruck on May 18 – 860 of them German, seven of them Austrians. The majority were Jehovah’s Witnesses, outlawed because they refused to give the German "Heil Hitler" or join the war effort.

By the end of the year, as the war escalated along with Nazi intolerance, the camp population grew to 2,290.

"The Nazis started imprisoning Gypsies, Jews, communists, and a growing number of women captured in occupied territories," Morrison said. "The goal was to purge German society of undesirables."

Included among Ravensbruck prisoners were special prisoners such as Emma La Guardia Gluck, sister of the mayor of New York City and one of only two known native-born Americans at the camp; Genevieve de Gaulle, granddaughter of the French leader; and Olga Himmler, sister of the SS chief, incarcerated because of her affair with a Polish officer.

In the early years of Ravensbruck, the women concocted a variety of ways to maintain their humanity and find simple pleasures.

On Sundays, they were allowed to promenade, strolling the camp streets with friends. They organized educational programs, with lectures and whole courses. They wrote poetry, and passed it among themselves.

They drew paintings, made handicrafts, told stories. They wrote letters to families, and in between the lines, they scripted secret invisible ink messages made from their own urine.

Friendships, Morrison said, were their chief survival mechanism.

By 1943, after Ravensbruck turned into a crowded slave labor camp primarily for an SS textile mill and Siemens Corporation (which manufactured electrical components), there was a full-fledged scourge of lice and fleas in the camp, which lasted until liberation.

"They even turned that into something positive," Morrison said.

"Each evening the women would spend time examining each other’s clothes and bodies for lice. Those nightly delousing sessions, where one woman put another’s head in her lap and searched for vermin, were not only valuable for hygiene, but provided both physical contact and a sense of mutual sharing."

While hunger was a constant problem, rape was not.

"The SS soldiers looked at these women as inferior types," Morrison said. "It was part of their code of conduct. There was almost no sexual exploitation of the women by German soldiers."

But nearly all of the Ravensbruck survivors who wrote memoirs commented on the extent of the lesbian activity in the camp, Morrison said.

"It was, by all accounts, extremely widespread," he said, "not unlike in our prison systems today. Maybe it was a means of survival."

"Oddly enough, in reading hundreds of memoirs and articles addressing his subject, none were written by self-acknowledged lesbians. All the information came from non-lesbian women."

As the war progressed, a massive system of over 70 subcamps surrounded Ravensbruck to provide workers for the war effort as the German labor shortage intensified.

By 1942, the camp population increased form 7,000 to 15,000 and the average inmate was working 65 hours a week.

"It was chaos in the block," according to Ravensbruck survivor Rosi Mauskopf, who arrived there in 1944 at the age of 16.

"They (the women prisoners) beat each other for a piece of bread. In this hell it was impossible to remain human. I experienced neither friendship nor solidarity with fellow prisoners."

Yet there were still occasional reports of little acts of kindness, Morrison said – from SS guards allowing the prison’s women and children to host a Christmas celebration to town folks and factory supervisors secretly giving food to inmates.

Eventually, extermination by work began a guiding principle at the camp.

The old, sick and weak were exterminated and replaced by hoards of new inmates being shipped to Ravensbruck daily.

"Feed the women as little as possible, work them as much as possible, and when they could no longer work, push them aside and let them die," Morrison said.

Of the nearly 900 children registered at Ravensbruck from 1939 to 1945, only about 2 or 3 percent survived, Morrison said. The rest all perished, most of them dying or being killed in the last months of the war.

By the beginning of 1945, Ravensbruck’s prison population soared to nearly 46,000 in a camp designed to hold 10,000. The two crematoriums in town and the two at the camp were operating full time, burning two to three bodies at once, according to Morrison.

Then the SS opened a gas chamber at Ravensbruck, which was used for two months and killed a conservative estimate of more than 1,500 women.

By the end of March, prisoners kept pouring into Ravensbruck from occupied territories.

"I think if was because of Hitler’s almost hallucinatory refusal to confront reality," Morrison said.

"The Nazi leaders were in a dream world, thinking they could still win the war."

On the afternoon of April 30, advance units of the Soviet army rolled into Furstenberg. Soon after, the Russian soldiers raped virtually every woman in this town of 5,000.

"Rape was so widespread," Morrison said, "that it seemed to be a semi-official policy of the Russian government to punish their enemies. It lasted only a week; the physical and emotional trauma they inflicted was permanent."

About 3,000 prisoners were still in the camp when the Russians arrived. The previous month, the SS guards were busy exterminating and moving huge numbers of inmates out of the Furstenberg area to erase evidence of their crimes against humanity.

Today, Furstenberg is a quiet resort town and the site of Ravensbruck is a memorial complete with a museum, exhibits, contemplative walkways and a monument that looks over the lake toward the town.

Next year Morrison said he will work as a volunteer English-speaking guide at the memorial.

"Today, Ravensbruck is a monument not only to the suffering and death that took place here," Morrison said, "but also to the human spirit, and particularly to the courage and enterprise of the women whose wills the Nazis could not subdue."

"Ravensbruck funeral" by Aat Breur.
"Forbidden Prayers" by France Audoul.
"Lunch Break" by Helen Ernst.
Jack G. Morrison
"Gypsy Girl" by Aat Breur.
"Roll Call of the Prisoners" by Violette Lecoq.
Nazi Concentration Camps
Untitled drawing by Aat Breur of a sick prisoner being carried to the infirmary on an old coat.

Reprinted with permission of The Forum.

Permission to use any images from the GRHC website may be requested by contacting Michael M. Miller