Ona sunny morning in May 1939 a phalanx of 867 women housewives, doctors, opera singers, politicians, prostitutes was marched through the woods fifty miles north of Berlin, driven on past a shining lake, then herded in through giant gates. Read more...
Ona sunny morning in May 1939 a phalanx of 867 women housewives, doctors, opera singers, politicians, prostitutes was marched through the woods fifty miles north of Berlin, driven on past a shining lake, then herded in through giant gates. Whipping and kicking them were scores of German women guards.
Their destination was Ravensbruck, a concentration camp designed specifically for women by Heinrich Himmler, prime architect of the Holocaust. By the end of the war 130,000 women from more than twenty different European countries had been imprisoned there; among the prominent names were Genevieve de Gaulle, General de Gaulle s niece, and Gemma La Guardia Gluck, sister of the wartime mayor of New York.
Only a small number of these women were Jewish;Ravensbruck was largely a place for the Nazis to eliminate other inferior beings social outcasts, Gypsies, political enemies, foreign resisters, the sick, the disabled, and the mad. Over six years the prisoners endured beatings, torture, slave labor, starvation, and random execution. In the final months of the war, Ravensbruck became an extermination camp. Estimates of the final death toll by April 1945 have ranged from 30,000 to 90,000.
For decades the story of Ravensbruck was hidden behind the Iron Curtain, and today it is still little known. Using testimony unearthed since the end of the Cold War and interviews with survivors who have never talked before, Sarah Helm has ventured into the heart of the camp, demonstrating for the reader in riveting detail how easily and quickly the unthinkable horror evolved.
Far more than a catalog of atrocities, however, Ravensbruckis also a compelling account of what one survivor called the heroism, superhuman tenacity, and exceptional willpower to survive. For every prisoner whose strength failed, another found the will to resist through acts of self-sacrifice and friendship, as well as sabotage, protest, and escape.
While the core of this book is told from inside the camp, the story also sheds new light on the evolution of the wider genocide, the impotence of the world to respond, and Himmler sfinal attempt to seek a separate peace with the Allies using the women of Ravensbruck as a bargaining chip. Chilling, inspiring, and deeply unsettling, Ravensbruck is a groundbreaking workof historical investigation. With rare clarity, it reminds us of the capacity of humankind both for bestial cruelty and for courage against all odds."
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2015-02-02
- Reviewer: Staff
Former journalist Helm (A Life in Secrets) seamlessly combines oral and written accounts of prisoners and female guards in this well-researched, chronological narrative of the “only Nazi concentration camp built for women.” Heinrich Himmler had chosen the forested, lakeside site north of Berlin for its “natural beauty,” and it came to house a variety of female prisoners—only about 10% were Jewish—including Polish countesses, British spies, Gypsies, resistance fighters, and common criminals. Liberated by the Soviets in 1945, Ravensbrück’s location in the new East Germany meant that, for the West at least, it essentially “disappeared from view.” Helm rectifies this historical void, immersing readers in the stories of individuals and groups to capture not only horrific and graphic depictions of torture and murder, but also the humanity of the women and their desire to survive in the midst of dehumanization, factional fighting, and starvation. While some—like the communists—were honored in East Germany, Helms also describes acts of courage from the “asocials and criminals,” now-nameless prostitutes, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. This book deserves significant attention, both for Helm’s notable interviews of aging witnesses and as a beautifully written history of events that offers additional insight into Nazism and those caught in its path. (Apr.)