Sarah Helm | Ravensbrück: Life and Death in Hitler’s Concentration Camp for Women | Nan A. Talese | March 2015 | 48 minutes (13,071 words)

Below is a chapter excerpted from Ravensbrück, by Sarah Helm, as recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky.

* * *

From Berlin’s Tegel airport it takes just over an hour to reach Ravensbrück. The first time I drove there, in February 2006, heavy snow was falling and a lorry had jack-knifed on the Berlin ring road, so it would take longer.

Heinrich Himmler often drove out to Ravensbrück, even in atrocious weather like this. The head of the SS had friends in the area and would drop in to inspect the camp as he passed by. He rarely left without issuing new orders. Once he ordered more root vegetables to be put in the prisoners’ soup. On another occasion he said the killing wasn’t going fast enough.

Ravensbrück was the only Nazi concentration camp built for women. The camp took its name from the small village that adjoins the town of Fürstenberg and lies about fifty miles due north of Berlin, off the road to Rostock on Germany’s Baltic coast. Women arriving in the night sometimes thought they were near the coast because they tasted salt on the wind; they also felt sand underfoot. When daylight came they saw that the camp was built on the edge of a lake and surrounded by forest. Himmler liked his camps to be in areas of natural beauty, and preferably hidden from view. Today the camp is still hidden from view; the horrific crimes enacted there and the courage of the victims are largely unknown.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons
Photo via Wikimedia Commons

* * *

Ravensbrück opened in May 1939, just under four months before the outbreak of war, and was liberated by the Russians six years later – it was one of the very last camps to be reached by the Allies. In the first year there were fewer than 2,000 prisoners, almost all of whom were Germans. Many had been arrested because they opposed Hitler – communists, for example, and Jehovah’s Witnesses, who called Hitler the Antichrist. Others were rounded up simply because the Nazis considered them inferior beings and wanted them removed from society: prostitutes, criminals, down-and-outs and Gypsies. Later, the camp took in thousands of women captured in countries occupied by the Nazis, many of whom had been in the resistance. Children were brought there too. A small proportion of the prisoners – about 10 percent – were Jewish, but the camp was not formally designated a camp for Jews.

At its height, Ravensbrück had a population of about 45,000 women; over the six years of its existence around 130,000 women passed through its gates, to be beaten, starved, worked to death, poisoned, executed and gassed. Estimates of the final death toll have ranged from about 30,000 to 90,000; the real figure probably lies somewhere in between, but so few SS documents on the camp survive nobody will ever know for sure. The wholesale destruction of evidence at Ravensbrück is another reason the camp’s story has remained obscured. In the final days, every prisoner’s file was burned in the crematorium or on bonfires, along with the bodies. The ashes were thrown in the lake.

* * *

I first learned of Ravensbrück when writing an earlier book about Vera Atkins, a wartime officer with the British secret service’s Special Operations Executive. Immediately after the war Vera launched a single-handed search for British SOE women who had been parachuted into occupied France to help the resistance, many of whom had gone missing. Vera followed their trails and discovered that several had been captured and taken to concentration camps.

I tried to reconstruct her search, and began with her personal papers, which were filed in brown cardboard boxes and kept by her sister-in-law Phoebe Atkins at her home in Cornwall. The word ‘Ravensbrück’ was written on one of the boxes. Inside were handwritten notes from interviews with survivors and with SS suspects – some of the earliest evidence gathered about the camp. I flicked through the papers. ‘We had to strip naked and were shaved,’ one woman told Vera. There was ‘a column of choking blue smoke’.

Vera Atkins. Photo via Wikimedia Commons
Vera Atkins. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

A survivor talked of a camp hospital where ‘syphilis germs were injected into the spinal cord’. Another described seeing women arrive at the camp after a ‘death march’ through the snow from Auschwitz. One of the male SOE agents, imprisoned at Dachau, wrote a note saying he had heard about women from Ravensbrück being forced to work in a Dachau brothel.

Several of the interviewees mentioned a young woman guard called Binz who had ‘light, bobbed hair’. Another guard had once been a nanny in Wimbledon. Among the prisoners were ‘the cream of Europe’s women’, according to a British investigator; they included General de Gaulle’s niece, a former British women’s golf champion and scores of Polish countesses.

I began to look for dates of birth and addresses in case any of the survivors – or even the guards – might still be alive. Someone had given Vera the address of a Mrs. Chatenay, ‘who knows about the sterilisation of children in Block 11’. A Doctor Louise Le Porz had made a very detailed statement saying the camp was built on an estate belonging to Himmler and his private Schloss, or château, was nearby. Her address was Mérignac, Gironde, but from her date of birth she was probably dead. A Guernsey woman called Julia Barry lived in Nettlebed in Oxfordshire. Other addresses were impossibly vague. A Russian survivor was thought to be working ‘at the mother and baby unit, Leningrad railway station’.

Towards the back of the box I found handwritten lists of prisoners, smuggled out by a Polish woman who had taken notes in the camp as well as sketches and maps. ‘The Poles had all the best information,’ the note said. The woman who wrote the list turned out to be long dead, but some of the addresses were in London, and the survivors still living.

I took the sketches with me on the first drive out to Ravensbrück, hoping they would help me find my way around when I got there. But as the snow thickened I wondered if I’d reach the camp at all.

Among the prisoners were ‘the cream of Europe’s women’…; they included General de Gaulle’s niece, a former British women’s golf champion and scores of Polish countesses.

Many tried and failed to reach Ravensbrück. Red Cross officials trying to get to the camp in the chaos of the final days of war had to turn back, such was the flow of refugees moving the other way. A few months after the war, when Vera Atkins drove out this way to start her investigation, she was stopped at a Russian checkpoint; the camp was inside the Russian zone of occupation and access by other Allied nationals was restricted. By this time, Vera’s hunt for the missing women had become part of a bigger British investigation into the camp, resulting in the first Ravensbrück war crimes trials, which opened in Hamburg in 1946.

In the 1950s, as the Cold War began, Ravensbrück fell behind the Iron Curtain, which split survivors – east from west – and broke the history of the camp in two.

Out of view of the West, the site became a shrine to the camp’s communist heroines, and all over East Germany streets and schools were named after them.

Meanwhile, in the West, Ravensbrück literally disappeared from view. Western survivors, historians, journalists couldn’t even get near the site. In their own countries the former prisoners struggled to get their stories published. Evidence was hard to access. Transcripts of the Hamburg trials were classified ‘secret’ and closed for thirty years.

‘Where was it?’ was one of the most common questions put to me when I began writing about Ravensbrück, along with: ‘Why was there a separate women’s camp? Were the women Jews? Was it a death camp? Was it a slave labour camp? Is anyone still alive?’

Photo via Wikimedia Commons
Photo via Wikimedia Commons

* * *

In those countries that lost large numbers in the camp, survivors’ groups tried to keep memories alive. An estimated 8000 French, 1000 Dutch, 18,000 Russians and 40,000 Poles were imprisoned. Yet, for different reasons in each country, the story has been obscured.

In Britain, which had no more than twenty women in the camp, the ignorance is startling, as it is in the US. The British may know of Dachau, the first concentration camp, and perhaps of Belsen because British troops liberated it and the horror they found there, captured on film, for ever scarred the British consciousness. Otherwise only Auschwitz, synonymous with the gassing of the Jews, has real resonance.

After reading Vera’s files I looked around to see what had been written on the women’s camp. Mainstream historians – nearly all of them men – had almost nothing to say. Even books written on the camps since the end of the Cold War seemed to describe an entirely masculine world. Then a friend, working in Berlin, leant me a hefty collection of essays mostly by German women academics. In the 1990s, feminist historians had begun a fightback. This book promised to ‘release women from the anonymity that lies behind the word prisoner’. A plethora of further studies had followed as other authors – usually German – carved off sections of Ravensbrück and examined them ‘scientifically’, which seemed to stifle the story. I noticed mention of a ‘Memory Book’, which sounded far more interesting, and tried to contact the author.

I had also come across a handful of prisoners’ memoirs, mostly from the 1950s and 1960s, hanging around in the back shelves of public libraries, often with sensationalised jackets. The cover for a memoir by a French literature teacher, Micheline Maurel, showed a voluptuous Bond-girl lookalike behind barbed wire. A book about Irma Grese, one of the early Ravensbrück guards, was titled The Beautiful Beast. The language of these memoirs seemed dated and, at first, unreal. One writer talked of ‘lesbians with brutish faces’ and another of the ‘bestiality’ of German prisoners, which ‘gave much food for thought as to the fundamental virtue of the race’. These texts were disorientating; it was as if nobody knew quite how to tell the story. In a preface to one memoir, the French writer François Mauriac wrote that Ravensbrück was ‘an abomination that the world has resolved to forget’. Perhaps I should write about something else. I went to see Yvonne Baseden, the only survivor I was then aware was still living, to ask her view.

Yvonne was one of Vera Atkins’s SOE women, captured while helping the resistance in France, then sent to Ravensbrück. Yvonne had always willingly talked about her resistance work, but whenever I had broached the subject of Ravensbrück she had said she ‘knew nothing’ and turned away.

This time I told her I was planning to write a book on the camp, hoping she might say more, but she looked up in horror.

‘Oh no,’ she said. ‘You can’t do that.’

I asked why not. ‘It is too horrible. Couldn’t you write about something else? What are you going to tell your children you are doing?’ she asked.

Didn’t she think the story should be told? ‘Oh yes. Nobody knows about Ravensbrück at all. Nobody ever wanted to know from the moment we came back.’ She looked out of the window.

As I left she gave me a small book. It was another memoir, with a particularly monstrous cover, twisted figures in black and white. Yvonne hadn’t read it, she said, pushing it on me. It was as if she wanted it out of her sight.

When I got home the sinister jacket fell off the book to reveal a plain blue cover. I read it without putting it down. The author was a young French lawyer called Denise Dufournier who had written a simple and moving account of endurance against all odds. The ‘abomination’ was not the only part of the Ravensbrück story that was being forgotten; so was the fight for survival.

Denise Dufournier's book, via
Denise Dufournier’s book, via

A few days later a French voice spoke out of my answering machine. It was Dr. Louise Le Porz (now Liard), the doctor from Mérignac whom I’d assumed was dead. Instead, she was inviting me to stay with her in Bordeaux, where she now lived. I could stay as long as I liked as there was much to talk about. ‘But you’d better hurry. I’m ninety-three years old.’

Soon after this I made contact with Bärbel Schindler-Saefkow, the author of the ‘Memory Book’. Bärbel, the daughter of a German communist prisoner, was compiling a database of the prisoners; she had travelled far afield gathering up lists of names hidden in obscure archives. She sent me the address of Valentina Makarova, a Belorussian partisan, who had survived the Auschwitz death march. Valentina wrote back, suggesting I visit her in Minsk.

The cover for a memoir… showed a voluptuous Bond-girl lookalike behind barbed wire… These texts were disorientating; it was as if nobody knew quite how to tell the story.

* * *

By the time I reached Berlin’s outer suburbs the snow was easing. I passed a sign for Sachsenhausen, the location of the men’s concentration camp, which meant I was heading the right way. Sachsenhausen and Ravensbrück had close contacts. The men’s camp even baked the women’s bread; the loaves were driven out on this road every day. At first each woman got half a loaf each evening. By the end of the war they barely received a slice and the ‘useless mouths’ – as the Nazis called those they wanted rid of – received none at all.

SS officers, guards and prisoners were frequently moved back and forth between the camps as Himmler’s administrators tried to maximise resources. Early in the war a women’s section opened at Auschwitz – and later at other male camps – and Ravensbrück provided and trained the women guards. Later in the war several senior SS men from Auschwitz were sent to work at Ravensbrück. Prisoners were also sent back and forth between the two camps. As a result, although Ravensbrück had a distinctive female character it also shared a common culture with the male camps.

Himmler’s SS empire was vast: by the middle of the war there were as many as 15,000 Nazi camps, which included temporary labour camps and thousands of subcamps, linked to the main concentration camps, dotted all over Germany and Poland. The biggest and most monstrous were those constructed in 1942, under the terms of the Final Solution. By the end of the war an estimated six million Jews had been exterminated. The facts of the Jewish genocide are today so well known and so overwhelming that many people suppose that Hitler’s extermination programme consisted of the Jewish Holocaust alone.

People who ask about Ravensbrück are often surprised that the majority of the women killed there were not Jews.

Today historians differentiate between the camps but labels can mislead. Ravensbrück is often described as a ‘slave labour’ camp, a term that lessens the horror of what happened and may also have contributed to its marginalisation. It was certainly an important place of slave labour – Siemens, the electrical giant, had a factory there – but slave labour was only a stage on the way to death. Prisoners at the time called Ravensbrück a death camp. The French survivor and ethnologist Germaine Tillion called it a place of ‘slow extermination’.

* * *

Photo via PPCC Antifa
Photo via PPCC Antifa

Leaving Berlin, the road north cut across white fields before plunging into trees. From time to time I passed abandoned collective farms, remnants from communist times.

Deep into the forest the snow had drifted and it became hard to find the way. Ravensbrück women were often sent out through the snow to fell trees in the woods. The snow stuck to their wooden clogs so that they walked on snow platforms, their ankles twisting as they went. Alsatian dogs held on leashes by women guards pounced on them if they fell.

The names of forest villages began to seem familiar from testimony I’d read. Altglobsow was the village where the guard with the bobbed hair – Dorothea Binz – came from. Then the spire of Fürstenberg church came into view. From the centre of the town the camp was quite invisible, but I knew it lay just the other side of the lake. Prisoners talked about seeing the spire when they came out of the camp gates. I passed Fürstenberg station, where so many terrible train journeys had ended. Red Army women arrived from the Crimea one February night, packed inside cattle wagons.

Dorothea Binz at the first Ravensbrück trial, 1947, via Wikimedia Commons
Dorothea Binz at the first Ravensbrück trial, 1947, via Wikimedia Commons

* * *

On the other side of Fürstenberg a cobbled forest road – built by the prisoners – led to the camp. Houses with pitched roofs appeared on the left; from Vera’s map I knew these were the houses where the guards lived. One had been converted into a youth hostel, where I would spend the night. The original guards’ decor had long since been stripped away, to be replaced by pristine modern fittings, but the previous occupants still haunted their old rooms.

The lake opened out on to my right, vast and frozen white. Up ahead was the commandant’s headquarters and a high wall. A few minutes later I stood at the entrance to the compound. In front lay another vast white expanse, dotted by trees – linden trees, I later learned, planted when the camp was first built. All of the barracks that once sat under the trees had vanished. During the Cold War the Russians used the camp as a base for a tank regiment, and removed most of the buildings. Russian soldiers played football on what had once been the camp Appellplatz, where prisoners stood for roll call. I had heard about the Russian base, but hadn’t expected this much destruction.

The Siemens camp, a few hundred yards beyond the south wall, was overgrown and hard to reach, as was the annex, called the Youth Camp, where so much killing had happened. I would have to imagine what they were like, but I didn’t have to imagine the cold. The prisoners stood out here on the camp square for hours in their cotton clothes. I sought shelter in the ‘bunker’, the stone prison building, its cells converted during the Cold War period into memorials to the communist dead. Lists of names were inscribed on shiny black granite.

In one room workmen were taking the memorials down, and redecorating. Now the West had taken over again, camp historians and archivists were working on a new narrative and new memorial exhibition.

Outside the camp walls I found other memorials, more intimate ones. Near the crematorium was a long dark passage with high walls, known as the shooting alley. A small bunch of roses had been placed here; they would have been dead if they weren’t frozen. There was a label with a name.

There were three little posies of flowers in the crematorium, lying on the ovens, and a few roses scattered on the edge of the lake. Since the camp had become accessible again, former prisoners were coming to remember their dead friends. I needed to find more survivors while there was still time.

I understood now what this book should be: a biography of Ravensbrück beginning at the beginning and ending at the end, piecing the broken story back together again as best I could. The book would try to throw light on the Nazis’ crimes against women, showing, at the same time, how an understanding of what happened at the camp for women can illuminate the wider Nazi story.

So much of the evidence had been destroyed, so much forgotten and distorted. But a great deal had survived, and new evidence was becoming available all the time. The British trial transcripts had been opened long ago and contained a wealth of detail; papers from trials held behind the Iron Curtain were also becoming available. Since the end of the Cold War the Russians had partially opened up their archives, and testimony never examined before was coming to light in several European capitals. Survivors from East and West were beginning to share memories. Children of prisoners were asking questions, finding hidden letters and hidden diaries.

Most important for this book would be the voices of the prisoners themselves; they would be my guide as to what really happened. A few months later, in the spring, I returned for the anniversary ceremony to mark the liberation and met Valentina Makarova, the survivor of the Auschwitz death march who had written to me from Minsk. She had blue-white hair and a face as sharp as flint. When I asked how she survived she said, ‘Because we believed in victory,’ as if this was something I should have known.

* * *

The sun broke through briefly as I stood near the shooting gallery. Wood pigeons were hooting at the tops of the linden trees, competing with the sound of traffic sweeping past. A coach carrying French schoolchildren had pulled in and they were standing around smoking cigarettes.

I was looking straight across the frozen lake towards the Fürstenberg church spire. In the distance workmen were moving around in a boatyard; summer visitors take the boats out, unaware of the ashes lying at the bottom of the lake. The breeze was blowing a red rose across the ice.

* * *

‘The year is 1957. The doorbell of my flat is ringing,’ writes Grete Buber-Neumann, a former Ravensbrück prisoner. ‘I open the door. An old woman is standing before me, breathing heavily and missing teeth in the lower jaw. She babbles: “Don’t you know me any more? I am Johanna Langefeld, the former head guard at Ravensbrück.” The last time I had seen her was fourteen years ago in her office at the camp. I worked as her prisoner secretary . . . She would pray to God for strength to stop the evil happening, but if a Jewish woman came into her office her face would fill with hatred . . .

‘So she sits at the table with me. She tells me she wishes she’d been born a man. She talks of Himmler, whom she sometimes still calls “Reichsführer”. She talks for many hours, she gets lost in the different years and tries to explain her behaviour.’

* * *

Early in May 1939 a small convoy of trucks emerged from trees into a clearing near the tiny village of Ravensbrück, deep in the Mecklenburg forest. The trucks drove on past a lake, where their wheels started spinning and axles sank into waterlogged sand. People jumped down to dig out the vehicles while others unloaded boxes.[ad]

A woman in uniform – grey jacket and skirt – also jumped down. Her feet sank into the sand, but she pulled herself free, walked a little way up the slope and looked around. Felled trees lay beside the shimmering lake. The air smelt of sawdust. It was hot and there was no shade. To her right, on the far shore, lay the small town of Fürstenberg. Boathouses sprawled by the shore. A church spire was visible.

At the opposite end of the lake, to her left, a vast grey wall about sixteen feet high loomed up. The forest track led towards towering iron-barred gates to the left of the compound. There were signs saying ‘Trespassers Keep Out’. The woman – medium height, stocky, brown wavy hair – strode purposefully towards the gates.

Johanna Langefeld had come with a small advance party of guards and prisoners to bring equipment and look around the new women’s concentration camp; the camp was due to open in a few days’ time and Langefeld was to be the Oberaufseherin – chief woman guard. She had seen inside many women’s penal institutions in her time, but never a place like this.

For the past year Langefeld had worked as a senior guard at Lichtenburg, a medieval fortress near Torgau, on the River Elbe. Converted into a temporary women’s camp while Ravensbrück was built, Lichtenburg’s crumbling chambers and wet dungeons were cramped and unhealthy; unsuitable for women prisoners. Ravensbrück was new and purpose-built. The compound comprised about six acres, big enough for the first 1000 or so women expected here, with space to spare.

Langefeld stepped through the iron gates and strode around the sandy Appellplatz, the camp square. The size of a football pitch, it had room enough to drill the entire camp at once. Loudspeakers hung on poles above Langefeld’s head, though the only sound for now was the banging of nails. The walls blocked everything outside from view, except the sky.

Unlike male camps, Ravensbrück had no watchtowers along the walls and no gun emplacements. But an electric fence was fixed to the interior of the perimeter wall, and placards along the fence showed a skull and crossbones warning of high voltage. Only beyond the walls to the south, to Langefeld’s right, did the ground rise high enough for treetops to be visible on a hill.

Hulking grey barrack blocks dominated the compound. The wooden blocks, arranged in a grid, were single-story with small windows; they sat squat around the camp square. Two lines of identical blocks – though somewhat larger – were laid out each side of the Lagerstrasse, the main street.

Langefeld inspected the blocks one by one. Immediately inside the gate, the first block on the left was the SS canteen, fitted out with freshly scrubbed chairs and tables. Also to the left of the Appellplatz was the camp Revier, a German military term meaning sickbay or infirmary. Across the square, she entered the bathhouse, fitted with dozens of showerheads. Boxes containing striped cotton clothes were stacked at one end and at a table a handful of women were laying out piles of coloured felt triangles.

Next to the bathhouse, under the same roof, was the camp kitchen, which glistened with huge steel pots and kettles. The next building was the prisoners’ clothes store, or Effektenkammer, where large brown paper bags were piled on a table, and then came the Wäscherei, laundry, with its six centrifugal washing machines – Langefeld would have liked more.

Nearby an aviary was being constructed. Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS, which ran the concentration camps and much else in Nazi Germany, wanted his camps to be self-sufficient as far as possible. There was to be a rabbit hutch, chicken coop and vegetable garden, as well as an orchard and flower garden. Gooseberry bushes, dug up from the Lichtenburg gardens and transported in the trucks, were already being replanted here. The contents of the Lichtenburg latrines had been brought to Ravensbrück too, to be spread as fertiliser. Himmler also required his camps to pool resources. As Ravensbrück had no baking ovens of its own, bread was to be brought here daily from Sachsenhausen, the men’s camp, fifty miles to the south.

The Oberaufseherin strode on down the Lagerstrasse, which started at the far side of the Appellplatz and led towards the back of the camp. The living blocks were laid out, end-on to the Lagerstrasse, in perfect formation so that the windows of one block looked out onto the back wall of the next. They were to be the prisoners’ living quarters, eight on each side of the ‘street’. Red flowers – salvias – had been planted outside the first block; linden tree saplings stood at regular intervals in between the rest.

As in all concentration camps, the grid layout was used at Ravensbrück mainly to ensure that prisoners could always be seen, which meant fewer guards. A complement of thirty women guards were assigned here and a troop of twelve SS men, all under overall command of Sturmbannführer Max Koegel.

Johanna Langefeld believed she could run a women’s concentration camp better than any man, and certainly better than Max Koegel, whose methods she despised. Himmler, however, was clear that Ravensbrück should be run, in general, on the same lines as the men’s camps, which meant Langefeld and her women guards must be answerable to an SS commandant.

On paper neither she nor any of her guards had any official standing. The women were not merely subordinate to the men, they had no badge or rank and were merely SS ‘auxiliaries’. Most of them were unarmed, though some guarding outside work parties carried a pistol and many had dogs. Himmler believed that women were more frightened than men of dogs.

Nevertheless, Koegel’s authority here would not be absolute. He was only commandant-designate for now, and he had been refused certain powers. For example there was to be no camp prison or ‘bunker’ in which to lock up troublemakers, as there was at every male camp. Nor was he to have authority for ‘official’ beatings. Angered by these omissions, he wrote to his SS superiors requesting greater powers to punish prisoners, but his request was refused.

Langefeld, however, who believed in drill and discipline rather than beating, was content with the arrangements, especially as she had secured significant concessions on day-to-day management. It had been written into the camp’s comprehensive rule book, the Lagerordnung, that the chief woman guard would advise the Schutzhaftlagerführer (deputy commandant) on ‘feminine matters’, though what these were was not defined.

Johanna Langefeld believed she could run a women’s concentration camp better than any man.

Prisoners in Ravensbrück. Photo via Wikimedia Commons
Prisoners in Ravensbrück. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Stepping inside one of the accommodation barracks, Langefeld looked around. Like so much else here, the sleeping arrangements were new to her; instead of shared cells, or dormitories, as she was used to, more than 150 women were to sleep in each block. Their interiors were identically set out, with two large sleeping rooms – A and B – on either side of a washing area, with a row of twelve basins and twelve lavatories, as well as a communal day room where the women would eat.

The sleeping areas were filled with scores of three-tiered bunks, made of wooden planks. Every prisoner had a mattress filled with wood shavings and a pillow, as well as a sheet and a blue and white check blanket folded at the foot of the bed.

The value of drill and discipline had been instilled in Langefeld from her earliest years. The daughter of a blacksmith, she was born Johanna May, in the Ruhr town of Kupferdreh, in March 1900. She and her older sister were raised as strict Lutherans; their parents drummed into them the importance of thrift, obedience and daily prayer. Like any good Protestant girl Johanna already knew that her role in life would be that of dutiful wife and mother: ‘Kinder, Küche, Kirche’ – children, kitchen, church – was a familiar creed in the May family home. Yet from her childhood Johanna yearned for more. Her parents also talked to her of Germany’s past. After church on Sundays they would hark back to the humiliation of the French occupation of their beloved Ruhr under Napoleon and the family would kneel and pray for God’s help in making Germany great again. She idolised her namesake, Johanna Prohaska, a heroine of the liberation wars, who had disguised herself as a man to fight the French.

All this Johanna Langefeld told Grete Buber-Neumann, the former prisoner, at whose Frankfurt door she appeared years later, seeking to ‘try to explain her behaviour’. Grete, an inmate of Ravensbrück for four years, was startled by the reappearance in 1957 of her chief former guard; she was also gripped by Langefeld’s account of her ‘odyssey’ and wrote it down.

Grete Buber-Neumann's memoir, "Under Two Dictators: Prisoner of Stalin and Hitler"
Grete Buber-Neumann’s memoir, “Under Two Dictators: Prisoner of Stalin and Hitler”
Grete Buber-Neumann’s memoir, “Under Two Dictators: Prisoner of Stalin and Hitler”

In 1914, as the First World War broke out, Johanna, then fourteen, cheered with the rest as the young men of Kupferdreh marched off to pursue the dream of making Germany great again, only to find that she and all German women had little part to play. Two years later, when it was clear the war would not end soon, German women were suddenly told to get out to work in mines, factories and offices; there on the ‘home front’, women had a chance to prove themselves doing the jobs of men, only to be expelled from those same jobs again when the men came home.

Two million Germans did not return from the trenches, but six million did, and Johanna now watched as Kupferdreh’s soldiers came back, many mutilated and all humiliated. Under the terms of surrender, Germany was to pay reparations, which would cripple the economy, fuelling hyperinflation; in 1924 Langefeld’s beloved Ruhr was reoccupied yet again by the French, who ‘stole’ German coal, in punishment for reparations unpaid. Her parents lost their savings and she was penniless and looking for a job. In 1924 she found a husband, a miner called Wilhelm Langefeld, who died two years later of lung disease.

Johanna’s ‘odyssey’ then faltered; she ‘got lost in the years’, wrote Grete. The mid-1920s were a dark period that she could not account for other than to say there was a liaison with another man, which left her pregnant, dependent on Protestant aid groups.

While Langefeld and millions like her struggled, other German women found liberation in the 1920s. With American financial support, the socialist-led Weimar Republic stabilised the country and set out on a new liberal path. Women had the vote, and for the first time German women joined political parties, particularly on the left. Inspired by Rosa Luxemburg, leader of the communist Spartacus movement, middle-class girls, Grete Buber-Neumann among them, chopped off their hair, watched plays by Bertolt Brecht and tramped through forests with comrades of the Wandervogel, a communist youth movement, talking of revolution. Meanwhile, across the country working-class women raised money for ‘Red Help’, joined trade unions and stood at factory gates handing out strike leaflets.

In 1922 in Munich, where Adolf Hitler was blaming Germany’s strife on the ‘bloated Jew’, a precocious Jewish girl called Olga Benario ran away from home to join a communist cell, disowning her prosperous middle-class parents. She was fourteen. Within months the dark-eyed schoolgirl was leading comrades on walks through the Bavarian Alps, diving into mountain streams, then reading Marx around the campfire and planning Germany’s communist revolution. In 1928 she shot to fame after holding up a Berlin courthouse and snatching a leading German communist to freedom as he faced the guillotine. By 1929 Olga had left Germany for Moscow to train with Stalin’s elite, before heading to Brazil to start a revolution.

Olga Benario-Prestes, photo via Wikimedia Commons
Olga Benario-Prestes, photo via Wikimedia Commons

Back in the stricken Ruhr valley, Johanna Langefeld was by this time a single mother without a future. The 1929 Wall Street Crash triggered world depression, plunging Germany into a new and deeper economic crisis that threw millions out of work and created widespread unrest. Langefeld’s deepest fear was that her son, Herbert, would be taken from her if she fell into destitution. Instead of joining the destitute, however, she chose to help them, turning to God. ‘It was religious conviction that drew her to work with the poorest of the poor,’ so she told Grete all those years later at the Frankfurt kitchen table. She found work with the welfare service, teaching housekeeping skills to unemployed women and ‘re-educating prostitutes’.

In 1933, Johanna Langefeld found a new saviour in Adolf Hitler. Hitler’s programme for women could not have been clearer: German women were to stay at home, rear as many Aryan children as they were able, and obey their husbands. Women were not fit for public life; most jobs would be barred to women and access to university curtailed.

Such attitudes could easily be found in any European country in the 1930s, but Nazi language on women was uniquely toxic; not only did Hitler’s entourage openly scorn the ‘stupid’, ‘inferior’ female sex, they repeatedly demanded ‘separation’ of women from men, as if men didn’t see the point of women at all except as occasional adornments and, of course, as childbearers. The Jews were not Hitler’s only scapegoats for Germany’s ills: women who had been emancipated during the Weimar years were blamed for taking men’s jobs and corrupting the country’s morals.

Yet Hitler had the power to seduce the millions of German women who yearned for a ‘steel-hardened man’ to restore pride and order to the Reich. Such female admirers, many deeply religious, and all inflamed by Joseph Goebbels’s anti-Semitic propaganda, packed the 1933 Nuremberg victory rally where the American reporter William Shirer mingled with the mob. ‘Hitler rode into this medieval town at sundown today past solid phalanxes of wildly cheering Nazis . . . Tens of thousands of Swastika flags blot out the Gothic beauties of the place . . . ’ Later that night, outside Hitler’s hotel: ‘I was a little shocked at the faces, especially those of the women . . . They looked up at him as if he were a Messiah . . . ’

The Jews were not Hitler’s only scapegoats for Germany’s ills: women who had been emancipated during the Weimar years were blamed for taking men’s jobs and corrupting the country’s morals.

That Langefeld cast her vote for Hitler seems almost certain. She longed to put right her country’s humiliation. She also welcomed the new ‘respect for family life’ proclaimed by Hitler. And Langefeld had personal reasons to be thankful to the new regime: for the first time she had a secure job. For women, and particularly unmarried mothers, most career paths were barred, except the one Langefeld had chosen. From the welfare service she had been promoted into the prison service. In 1935 she was promoted again to the post of Hausmutter at Brauweiler, a workhouse for prostitutes near Cologne. The job came with a roof over her head and free care for Herbert.

While at Brauweiler, however, it seems that she didn’t take easily to all Nazi methods of helping ‘the poorest of the poor’. In July 1933 the Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring was passed, legalising mass sterilisation as a means of eliminating the weak, idle, criminal and insane. The Führer believed that all these degenerates were a drain on the public purse, and were to be removed from the chain of heredity in order to strengthen the Volksgemeinschaft, the community of pure-bred Germans. The Brauweiler director, Albert Bosse, declared in 1936 that 95 per cent of his women prisoners were ‘incapable of improvement and must be sterilised for moral reasons and for the purpose of maintaining the health of the Volk’.

In 1937 Bosse dismissed Langefeld. One reason given in the Brauweiler records is theft, but this was almost certainly a cover for her opposition to his methods. The records also show that Langefeld had so far failed to join the Nazi Party, a duty required of all prison staff.

Hitler’s ‘respect’ for family life had never fooled Lina Haag, wife of a communist state parliament member in Württemberg. As soon as she heard on 30 January 1933 on the wireless that Hitler had been made chancellor, she felt sure that the new security police, the Gestapo, would come and take her husband: ‘In our meetings we had warned the country against Hitler. We expected a popular rising, it did not come.’

Then, sure enough, on 31 January Lina and her husband were asleep in bed when at five in the morning the thugs came. The roundup of Reds had begun. ‘Chinstraps, revolvers, truncheons. They stamped on the clean linen with repulsive zest. We were not strangers to them – they knew us and we knew them. They were grown-up men, fellow citizens – neighbours, fathers of families. Ordinary common people. And they looked at us now full of hatred with their cocked pistols.’

Lina’s husband began to dress. Why did he have his coat on so fast, Lina wondered. Was he just going to go without a word?

‘What’s up?’ she asked him.

‘Ah well,’ he said, shrugging his shoulders.

‘He’s a member of the state parliament,’ she shouted at the truncheonwielding police. They laughed.

‘Do you hear that? Communist, that’s what you are, but now we’re clearing all you vermin out.’

Lina pulled the couple’s screaming child, Katie, aged ten, away from the window as her father was marched away. ‘I thought the people will not long put up with that,’ said Lina.[ad]

Four weeks later, on 27 February 1933, as Hitler was still struggling to underpin his party’s power, the German parliament, the Reichstag, was set on fire. Communists were blamed, although many suspected the blaze was started by Nazi thugs as a pretext to terrorise every political opponent in the country. Hitler at once enforced a catch-all edict called ‘preventative detention’ which meant that anyone could be arrested for ‘treason’ and locked up indefinitely. Just ten miles north of Munich a brand-new camp was about to open to hold the ‘traitors’.

Opened on 22 March 1933, Dachau was the first Nazi concentration camp. Over the next weeks and months Hitler’s police sought out every communist or suspected communist and brought them here to be crushed. Social democrats were rounded up too, along with trade unionists and any other ‘enemy of the state’.

Some held here, particularly amongst the communists, were Jews, but in the first years of Nazi rule Jews were not locked up in significant numbers; those held in the early concentration camps were imprisoned, like the rest, for resistance to Hitler, not simply for their race. The sole aim of Hitler’s concentration camps in the early days was to crush all internal German opposition; only once this had been done would other objectives be pursued. The crushing was a task assigned to the man most fit for the job: Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS, and soon also to become chief of police, including the Gestapo.

* * *

Heinrich Luitpold Himmler was an unlikely police chief, physically slight and podgy, his face chinless and pallid, gold-rimmed spectacles perched on his sharp nose. Born on 7 October 1900, the second of three boys, he was the son of Gebhard Himmler, an assistant head teacher at a school near Munich. Evenings in the family’s comfortable Munich apartment were spent helping Himmler senior with his stamp collection or listening to tales of the heroic exploits of their soldier grandfather, while their adored mother, a devout Catholic, sewed in the corner.

The young Heinrich excelled at school, but he was known as a swot and was often bullied; in the gym he could barely reach the parallel bars, so instructors forced him instead to perform torturous knee bends, as peers looked on and jeered. Years later, at male concentration camps, Himmler introduced a torture whereby prisoners were chained together in a circle and forced to jump up and down doing knee bends until they collapsed, only to be kicked to their feet until they fell down for good.

On leaving school Himmler’s dream was to be commissioned in the military, but although he served briefly as a cadet, ill health and poor eyesight ruled him out of the officer class. He studied agriculture and bred chickens instead, and became absorbed by another romantic dream, a return to the Heimat – the German homeland – passing his spare time walking in his beloved Alps, often with his mother, or studying astrology and genealogy, while making notes in his diary of every trivial detail of his daily life. ‘Thoughts and worries chase themselves in my head,’ he complained.

By his late teens, Himmler was berating himself for his inadequacies, social and sexual. ‘I’m a wretched prattler,’ he wrote, and when it came to sex: ‘I’m controlling myself with an iron bit.’ By the 1920s he had joined Munich’s all-male Thule Society, which debated the roots of Aryan supremacy and the threat of the Jews. He was welcomed too into Munich’s far-right paramilitary units. ‘It is so nice to be in uniform again,’ he wrote. In National Socialist (Nazi) Party ranks people began to say of him: ‘Heinrich will fix things.’ His organisational skills and attention to detail were second to none and he proved adept at anticipating Hitler’s wishes. It helped, Himmler discovered, to be ‘as crafty as a fox’.

In 1928 he married a nurse called Margarete Boden, seven years his senior. They had a daughter, Gudrun. Himmler’s professional fortunes moved on too, and in 1929 he was made head of the SS (Schutzstaffel), the paramilitary squad first formed as Hitler’s personal bodyguard. By the time Hitler came to power in 1933 Himmler had transformed the SS into an elite force. One of its tasks was to run the new concentration camps.

Hitler proposed the use of concentration camps as places to intern and then crush his opposition, taking as a model the concentration camps used for mass internment by the British during the South African War of 1899–1902. The style of the Nazi camps, however, would be set by Himmler, who personally identified the site for the prototype at Dachau. He also selected the Dachau commandant, Theodor Eicke, who became head of the ‘Death’s Head’ units, as the SS concentration-camp guard squads were called – they wore a skull and crossbones badge on their caps to denote loyalty to death. Himmler charged Eicke with devising a blueprint for terrorising all ‘enemies of the state’.

At Dachau Eicke did just that, creating a school for SS men who called him ‘Papa Eicke’ and whom he ‘hardened’ before they were sent off to other camps. Hardening meant the men should learn never to show weakness to the enemy and should only ‘show their teeth’ – in other words, they should hate. Amongst Eicke’s early recruits was Max Koegel, the future commandant of Ravensbrück, who came to Dachau looking for work after a short spell in jail for embezzlement.

Born in the south Bavarian mountain town of Füssen, famous for lute making and for Gothic castles, Koegel was the son of a mountain shepherd. Orphaned at the age of twelve, he spent his early years shepherding on the Alps before seeking other work in Munich, where he fell in with far-right ‘völkische’ societies and joined the Nazi Party in 1932. ‘Papa Eicke’ quickly found a use for Koegel, now thirty-eight, his hardness already deeply chiselled.

At Dachau Koegel mixed with other SS men like Rudolf Höss, another early recruit, who went on to become commandant of Auschwitz and who also played a role at Ravensbrück. Höss would later remember his Dachau days with affection, talking of an entire cadre of SS men who learned to ‘love’ Eicke and never forgot his rules, ‘which stayed fast and became part of their flesh and blood’.

Such was Eicke’s success that several more camps were soon set up on the Dachau model. But in these early days neither Eicke, Himmler, nor anyone else had contemplated a concentration camp for women; women opponents to Hitler were not taken seriously enough to be viewed as a threat.

In Hitler’s purges thousands of women were certainly rounded up. Many had found liberation during the Weimar years – trade unionists, doctors, lecturers, journalists. Often they were communists or wives of communists. On arrest they were ill-treated but these women were not taken to Dachau-style camps, nor was any thought given to opening women’s sections in the male camps. Instead, they were put in women’s prisons, or converted workhouses where regimes were harsh but not intolerable.

Many of the women political prisoners were taken to Moringen, a converted workhouse near Hanover. The 150 women here in 1935 slept in unlocked dormitories and the guards ran errands for them to buy knitting wool. In the prison hall sewing machines clattered. A table of ‘notables’ sat apart from the rest, among them the grander members of the Reichstag and the wives of manufacturers.

Nevertheless, as Himmler had calculated, women could be tortured in different ways from men; the simple fact that husbands had been killed and children taken away – usually to Nazi foster homes – was for most women pain enough. Censorship ruled out appealing for help.

Barbara Fürbringer, hearing that her husband, a communist Reichstag member, had been tortured to death at Dachau and her children had been taken to a Nazi foster home, tried to alert her sister in America:

Dear Sister,
Unfortunately we are in a bad way. Theodor, my dear husband, died suddenly in Dachau four months ago. Our three children have been put in the state welfare home in Munich. I am in the women’s camp at Moringen. I no longer have a penny to my name.

The censor rejected the letter so she wrote again:

Dear Sister,
Unfortunately things are not going exactly as we might wish. Theodor, my dear husband, died four months ago. Our three children live in Munich, 27 Brenner Strasse, I live in Moringen, near Hanover, 32 Breite Strasse. I would be grateful to you if you could send me a small sum of money.

Himmler also calculated that as long as the crushing of men was terrible enough, everyone else would soon acquiesce. And this proved largely true, as Lina Haag, arrested just weeks after her husband and locked in another prison, would soon observe. ‘Did nobody see where we were heading? Did nobody see through the shameless demagogy of the articles of Goebbels? I could see it even through the thick walls of the prison; yet more and more people outside were toeing the line.’

By 1936 not only was the political opposition entirely eliminated, but humanitarian bodies and the German churches were all toeing the line. The German Red Cross movement had been co-opted to the Nazi cause; at its meetings the Red Cross banner was waved alongside the swastika, while the guardians of the Geneva Conventions, the International Committee of the Red Cross, had inspected Himmler’s camps – or, at least, the show blocks – and given their stamp of approval. Western capitals took the view that Nazi concentration camps and prisons were an internal German affair and not a concern of theirs. In the mid-1930s most Western leaders still believed that the greatest threat to world peace was posed by communism, not by Nazi Germany.

Despite the lack of meaningful opposition, at home or abroad, however, the Führer watched public opinion carefully in the early days of his rule. In a speech at an SS training centre in 1937 he said: ‘I always know that I must never make a single step that I may have to take back. You have to have a nose to sniff out the situation, to ask: “Now what can I get away with and what can’t I get away with?”’

Even the drive against Germany’s Jews proceeded more slowly at first than many in the party wanted. In his first years Hitler passed laws to bar Jews from employment and public life, whipping up hatred and persecution, but it would be some time, he judged, before he could get away with more than that. Himmler had a ‘nose’ to sniff out a situation too.[ad]

In November 1936 the Reichsführer SS, who by now was not only head of the SS but also police chief, had to deal with an international storm which erupted over a German woman communist who was brought off a steamer at Hamburg’s docks into the waiting hands of the Gestapo. She was eight months pregnant. This was Olga Benario. The leggy girl from Munich who ran away from home to become a communist was now thirty-five, and about to become a cause célèbre for communists around the globe.

After training in Moscow in the early 1930s, Olga had been chosen for the Comintern (the Communist International organisation) and in 1935 was sent by Stalin to help mastermind a coup against President Getulio Vargas of Brazil. The leader of the operation was the legendary Brazilian rebel leader Luis Carlos Prestes. The insurrection was intended to bring about a communist revolution in the biggest country in South America, thereby giving Stalin a foothold in the Americas. As a result of a British intelligence tipoff, however, the plot was foiled, Olga was arrested and along with a coconspirator, Elise Ewert, sent back to Hitler ‘as a gift’.

From Hamburg docks, Olga was taken to Berlin’s Barminstrasse jail, where she gave birth to a girl, Anita, four weeks later. Communists across the world launched a campaign to free them. The case drew wide attention, largely because the baby’s father was the famous Carlos Prestes, the leader of the failed coup; the couple had fallen in love and married in Brazil. Olga’s own courage, and her dark, willowy beauty, added to the poignancy of the story.

Such bad publicity abroad was unwelcome, especially as it was the year of the Berlin Olympics and so much had been done to clean up the country’s image. (For example, all Gypsies in Berlin had been rounded up before the Olympics began. In order to remove them from public view they were herded into a vast camp built on a swamp in the Berlin suburb of Marzahn.) Himmler’s Gestapo chiefs first attempted to defuse the row by proposing that the baby be released into the hands of Olga’s Jewish mother, Eugenia Benario, who still lived in Munich, but Eugenia didn’t want the child: she had long ago disowned her communist daughter and now she disowned the baby too. Himmler then gave permission for Prestes’s mother, Leocadia, to take Anita, and in November 1937 the Brazilian grandmother collected the baby from Barminstrasse jail. Olga, now bereft, remained alone in her cell.

Writing to Leocadia, she explained that she had not had time to prepare for the separation: ‘So you have to excuse the state of Anita’s things. Did you receive my description of her routine and her weight table? I put the table together as best I could. Are her inner organs all right? What about the bones – her little legs. Perhaps she suffered from the extraordinary circumstances of my pregnancy and her first year in life.’

By 1936 the number of women in Germany’s jails was beginning to rise. Despite the terror, German women continued to operate underground, many now inspired by the outbreak of the Spanish civil war. Amongst those taken to the women’s ‘camp’ of Moringen in the mid-1930s were more women communists and former Reichstag members, as well as individuals operating in tiny groups or alone, like the disabled graphic artist Gerda Lissack, who designed anti-Nazi leaflets. Ilse Gostynski, a young Jewish woman, who helped print articles attacking the Führer on her printing press, was arrested by mistake. The Gestapo wanted her twin sister Else, but Else was in Oslo, arranging escape routes for Jewish children, so they took Ilse instead.

In 1936 500 German housewives carrying bibles and wearing neat white headscarves arrived at Moringen. The women, Jehovah’s Witnesses, had protested when their husbands were called up for the army. Hitler was the Antichrist, they said; God was the ruler on earth, not the Führer. Their husbands, and other male Jehovah’s Witnesses, were taken to Hitler’s newest camp, Buchenwald, where they suffered twenty-five lashes of a leather whip. Himmler knew that even his SS men were not yet hard enough to thrash German housewives, however, so at Moringen the Jehovah’s Witness women simply had their bibles taken away by the prison director, a kindly retired soldier with a limp.

In 1937 the passing of a law against ‘Rassenschande’ – literally, ‘race shame’ – which outlawed relationships between Jews and non-Jews, brought a further influx of Jewish women to Moringen. Then in the second half of 1937 the women there noticed a sudden rise in the number of vagrants brought in ‘limping, some wearing supports, many others spitting blood’. In 1938 scores of prostitutes arrived.

* * *

Else Krug had been at work as usual when a group of Düsseldorf policemen banged on the door at 10 Corneliusstrasse, shouting to her to open up; it was 2 a.m. on 30 July 1938. Police raids were not unusual and Else had no reason to fear, though of late the raids had been on the increase. Prostitution was legal under Nazi law, but the police could use any excuse; perhaps one of the women evaded her syphilis check, or maybe an officer wanted a lead on a new communist cell on the Düsseldorf docks.

Several Düsseldorf officers knew these women personally. Else Krug was always in demand, either for her own particular services – she dealt in sadomasochism – or for her gossip; she kept her ear to the ground. Else was also popular on the street; she’d always take a girl in if she could, especially if the waif was new in town. Else had arrived on the streets of Düsseldorf like this herself ten years ago – out of work, far from home and without a penny to her name.

It soon turned out, however, that the raid of 30 July was different from any that had gone before in Corneliusstrasse. Terrified clients grabbed what they could and ran out half-dressed into the night. The same night similar raids took place at a nearby address where Agnes Petry was at work. Agnes’s husband, a local pimp, was rounded up too. After a further sweep through the Bahndamm, the officers had pulled in a total of twenty-four prostitutes, and by six in the morning all were behind bars, with no time given for release.

The treatment of the women at the police station was also different. The desk officer – a Sergeant Peine – knew most of the women as regular overnighters in his cells, and taking out his large black ledger, booked them in painstakingly as usual, noting names, addresses, and personal effects. Under the column headed ‘reason for arrest’, however, Peine carefully printed ‘Asoziale’, ‘asocial’, against each name – a word he had not used there before. And at the end of the column, likewise for the first time, he wrote in red: ‘Transport’.

The raids on Düsseldorf brothels were repeated across Germany throughout 1938, as the Nazi purge against its own unwanted underclasses entered a new stage. A programme called ‘Aktion Arbeitsscheu Reich’ (Action Against the Work-shy) had been launched, targeting all those considered social outcasts. Largely unnoticed by the outside world, and unreported within Germany, more than 20,000 so-called ‘asocials’ – ‘vaga bonds, prostitutes, work-shy, beggars and thieves’ – were rounded up and earmarked for concentration camps.

In mid-1938 war was still a year away, but Germany’s war against its own unwanted had been launched. The Führer let it be known that the country must be ‘pure and strong’ as it prepared for war, so such ‘useless mouths’ were to be removed. From the moment Hitler came to power, mass sterilisation of the mentally ill and social degenerates had already been carried out. In 1936 Gypsies were locked in reservations near big cities. In 1937 thousands of ‘habitual criminals’ were sent to concentration camps, with no legal process. Hitler authorised the measures, but the instigator of the crackdown was his police chief and head of the SS, Heinrich Himmler. It was also Himmler who in 1938 called for all ‘asocials’ to be locked in concentration camps.

The timing was significant. Well before 1937 the camps, established at first to remove political opposition, had begun to empty out. Communists, social democrats and others, rounded up in the first years of Hitler’s rule, had been largely crushed, and most were now sent home, broken men. Himmler, who had opposed these mass releases, saw his empire in danger of decline, and looked for new uses for his camps.

To date nobody had seriously suggested using the concentration camps for anything other than the political opposition, but by filling them with criminals and social outcasts, Himmler could start expanding his empire again. He saw himself as far more than a police chief; his interest in science – in all forms of experimentation that might help breed a perfect Aryan race – was always the main objective. By bringing these degenerates inside his camps he had begun to secure a central role for himself in the Führer’s most ambitious experiment, which aimed to cleanse the German gene pool. Moreover the new prisoners would provide a ready pool of labour for rebuilding the Reich.

Nobody had seriously suggested using the concentration camps for anything other than the political opposition, but by filling them with criminals and social outcasts, Himmler could start expanding his empire again.

The nature and purpose of the concentration camps would now change. As the number of German political prisoners decreased, social rejects would pour in to replace them. Among those swept up for the first time, there were bound to be as many women – prostitutes, petty criminals, down-and-outs – as men.

A new generation of purpose-built concentration camps was now constructed. And with Moringen and other women’s prisons already overflowing, and costly, Himmler proposed a concentration camp for women. Some time in 1938 he called his advisers together to discuss a possible site. A proposal was made, probably by Himmler’s friend Gruppenführer Oswald Pohl, a senior SS administrator, that the new camp be built in the Mecklenburg lake district, close to a village called Ravensbrück. Pohl knew the area because he had a country estate there.

Rudolf Höss later claimed that he warned Himmler that the site was too small: the number of women was bound to increase, especially when war broke out. Others pointed out that the ground was a bog and the camp would take too long to build. Himmler brushed aside the objections. Just fifty miles north of Berlin, it was convenient for inspections, and he often drove out that way to visit Pohl or to drop in on his childhood friend, the famous SS surgeon Karl Gebhardt, who ran the Hohenlychen medical clinic just five miles from Ravensbrück.

Himmler therefore ordered male prisoners from the concentration camp of Sachsenhausen, on the edge of Berlin, to start building at Ravensbrück as soon as possible. Meanwhile the male concentration camp at Lichtenburg, near Torgau, which was already half empty, was to be cleared and the rest of the men there taken to the new men’s camp of Buchenwald, opened in July 1937. Women earmarked for the new women’s camp could be held at Lichtenburg while Ravensbrück was built.

* * *

Inside a caged train wagon, Lina Haag had no idea where she was heading. After four years in her prison cell, she and scores of others were told they were going ‘on transport’. Every few hours the train would halt at a station, but the names – Frankfurt, Stuttgart, Mannheim – gave little clue. Lina stared at ‘ordinary people’ on the platforms – a sight she hadn’t seen for years – and the ordinary people stared back ‘at these ghostly figures with hollow eyes and matted hair’. At night the women were taken off and put up in local prisons. Lina was horrified by the women guards. ‘It was inconceivable how in the face of all that misery they could gossip and laugh in the corridors. Most are pious, but with a peculiar sort of piety. They seem to me to be hiding behind God in disgust at their own meanness.’

Lina Haag. Photo via Wikimedia Commons
Lina Haag. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Women from the Moringen workhouse joined the train and huddled together in shock. A doctor called Doris Maase was brought on at Stuttgart along with a crowd of Düsseldorf prostitutes. Doris, described in her Gestapo file as a ‘red student’, had half a comb, which she lent to Lina. All around the ‘harlots’ and ‘hags’ cackled, although, as Lina admitted to Doris, after four years in a prison, she probably looked like a ‘harlot’ too.

At Lichtenburg the SS were waiting, wearing buckskin gloves and carrying revolvers. Johanna Langefeld was waiting too. After dismissal from Brauweiler workhouse, Langefeld had been rehired by Himmler’s office and offered a promotion as a guard at Lichtenburg. Langefeld would claim later that she only took the job there in the belief that once again she could fulfill her vocation to ‘re-educate prostitutes’, which was obviously a lie: she had been offered a promotion, more money and accommodation for herself and her child. In any case, Brauweiler had already shown Langefeld that prostitutes and other outcasts were to be eliminated from society, not re-educated.

Dr. Doris Maase. Photo via Wikimedia Commons
Dr. Doris Maase. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Arriving now at Lichtenburg was Helen Krofges, a woman Langefeld probably even remembered from the workhouse. Krofges had first been imprisoned at Brauweiler for failing to keep up payments to support her children. Now she had been sent on to Lichtenburg because she was ‘incapable of improvement’, as her police report noted, and because ‘due to her immoral and asocial way of life, the Volksgemeinschaft [the racially pure community] must be protected from her’.

Even the prison official who registered the women at Lichtenburg could see no sense in locking up such down-and-outs. Agnes Petry, one of the Düsseldorf crew, arrived ‘penniless’, he noted on her registration card. All she carried was a photograph of her husband. The word ‘Stutze’ was noted on her file, which meant she was a person ‘dependent on the state’. ‘Could she be sent back?’ he asked in a letter to the Düsseldorf police chief. ‘Has she anyone in the world who would help her?’

Lina Haag had long ago stopped hoping anyone would help any of them. On 12 March 1938 Austria had been annexed, and soon after that Austrian resisters began arriving at the fortress, including a doctor, an opera singer and a carpenter; all had been beaten and abused. ‘If the world was not protesting even against the brutal annexation of foreign territories, was it likely to protest against the whipping of some poor women who had protested against it?’ asked Lina.

News that Olga Benario, a name from the glory days of communist resistance, was in the fortress gave some women hope. Olga had been brought alone from Berlin in a Gestapo van, and escorted straight down to the Lichtenburg dungeons. Communist comrades managed to make contact and found her heartbroken at the recent separation from her child. They smuggled messages and tiny gifts to her cell. Recalling Olga’s stunning courtroom snatch in 1928, some dreamt of escape, but Lina Haag said there was ‘no sense’ in attempting anything. ‘The Führer always comes out on top and we are just poor devils – absolutely forsaken, miserable devils . . . ’ Then a Gypsy trapeze artist called Katharina Waitz tried to scale the fortress walls. She was captured and beaten. The Lichtenburg commandant, Max Koegel, liked to beat. Lina recalled that on Easter day he beat three naked women ‘until he could go on no longer’.

On 1 October 1938, the day Hitler’s forces took the Sudetenland, Koegel turned hoses on his prisoners. They had all been ordered to the courtyard to hear the Führer’s victory address, but the Jehovah’s Witnesses refused to descend the steps, so guards forced them down, dragging old women by their hair. As Prussian tunes struck up someone whispered ‘war is coming’ and the fortress suddenly erupted. All the Jehovah’s Witnesses started shouting hysterically before sinking to their knees and praying. The guards thrashed and the mob hit back. Koegel ordered fire hoses to be turned on the praying women, who were knocked flying, flattened, bitten by dogs. Clinging to one another, they nearly drowned, ‘like dripping mice’, said Marianne Korn, one of the praying women.

Soon after the riot Himmler visited the fortress to see that order had been restored. The Reichsführer SS inspected Lichtenburg several times, bringing the head of the Nazi women’s movement, Gertrud Scholtz-Klink, to show off his prisoners to. On his visits he sometimes authorised releases. One day he released Lina Haag, on condition she didn’t speak about her treatment.[ad]

Himmler also inspected the women guards. He must have noted that Johanna Langefeld had a certain authority – a knack for quietening prisoners without a fuss – because he marked her down as Ravensbrück’s future chief woman guard.

* * *

It was the local children who first suspected something was about to be built on the northern shore of the Schwedtsee – or Lake Schwedt – but when they told their parents they were ordered to say nothing. Until 1938 the children played on a piece of scrubland near the lake where the trees were thinner and the bathing was good. One day they were told the area was out of bounds. Over the next few weeks locals in the town of Fürstenberg – of which the village of Ravensbrück is a small suburb – watched as barges delivered building materials up the River Havel. The children told parents they’d seen men in striped uniforms, who chopped down trees.

Ravensbrück, fifty miles north of Berlin, on the southern edge of the Mecklenburg lake district, was, as Himmler identified in 1938, a good location for a concentration camp. Rail and water connections were good. Fürstenberg, cradled by three lakes, the Röblinsee, Baalensee and Schwedtsee, sits astride the River Havel, which divides into several channels as it flows through the town.

Another factor that influenced Himmler’s choice was the siting in an area of natural beauty. Himmler believed that the cleansing of German blood should begin close to nature, and the invigorating forces of the German forests played a central role in the mythology of the Heimat – German soil. Buchenwald – meaning Beech Forest – was sited in a famous wooded area close to Weimar and several other camps were deliberately located in beauty spots. Just weeks before Ravensbrück was opened a stretch of water here was declared an ‘organic source for the Aryan race’. Fürstenberg had always been popular with nature lovers who came to boat on the lakes, or visit the baroque Palace of Fürstenberg.

In the early 1930s the town was briefly a communist stronghold, and as the Nazis first sought a foothold there were several street battles, but before Hitler became chancellor, opposition had been eradicated. A Nazi mayor was appointed and a Nazi priest, Pastor Märker, took over in the town’s evangelical church. Hitler’s ‘German Christians’, strong in such rural areas, organised nationalist festivities and parades.

By the late 1930s the Jews of Fürstenberg had largely gone. Eva Hamburger, a Jewish hotelier, resisted expulsion, but after the pogrom of ‘Kristallnacht’, the ‘night of broken glass’, of 9–10 November 1938, she too moved out. In Fürstenberg that night the Jewish cemetery was destroyed and Eva Hamburger’s hotel was smashed up. Soon after the local paper reported that the last Jewish property at Number 3 Röbinsee was sold.

Like most small German towns, Fürstenberg had suffered badly in the slump, so the arrival of a concentration camp meant jobs and trade. The fact that the prisoners were women was not controversial. Valesca Kaper, the middle-aged wife of a shopkeeper, was an effective leader of the local Frauenschaft (Nazi women’s group) who often lectured women on the evils of make-up, smoking and alcohol, and explained the burden that ‘asocials’ placed on the state. Josef Goebbels even made a speech in Fürstenberg telling the townspeople: ‘If the family is the nation’s source of strength, the woman is its core and centre.’

In the spring of 1939, as the date of the camp opening came nearer, women were urged to ‘serve on the home front’ – which included working as concentration camp guards, but nothing official was said about recruitment; in fact, nothing official was said about the camp at all. Only a small reference in the Forest News to ‘an accident near the large construction site’ provided a hint that the concentration camp was even being built.

In early May a concert of music by Haydn and Mozart was performed and the local Gestapo hosted a sporting event of shooting and grenade-throwing. The cinema showed a romantic comedy. The paper reported that, after a hard winter, charitable donations were sought and bankruptcy notices appeared.

All this time, the lock on the river was opening constantly for barges bringing materials and the camp wall became easily visible from the town side of the lake. Several local women put their names down for a job, including Margarete Mewes, a housemaid and young mother. On the first Sunday of May Fürstenberg held its traditional Mother’s Day celebrations. Frau Kaper handed out Mother Crosses to those who had borne more than four children, thereby answering Hitler’s call to multiply the Aryan gene.

On 15 May, a bright sunny morning, several blue buses drove through the town and turned towards the ‘construction site’. Just before dawn that day the same blue buses had pulled up in front of the gates of Lichtenburg Castle, 300 miles to the south. Moments later female figures streamed out over the castle drawbridge, clutching little bags, and climbed into the vehicles. It was a clear night, but inside the buses it was quite dark. No one was sorry to see the black, hulking fortress disappear behind them into the darkness, though none had any idea what awaited them.

Some of the women dared to hope that the journey would lead them somewhere better, and a journey – any journey – was itself a taste of freedom, but the political prisoners warned there was no chance of anything better. Hitler’s next advance into Czechoslovakia was only a matter of time. Husbands, brothers, fathers, sons were dying faster than ever in Buchenwald, Sachsenhausen and Dachau. Several women carried official notifications of such deaths in their bags, along with pictures of children and packages of letters.

Jewish women here thought of those rounded up in the Kristallnacht pogrom – tens of thousands of German-Jewish men were imprisoned in concentration camps after Kristallnacht, but Jewish women had not been rounded up, probably for fear of creating a backlash and because there was not enough room for them behind bars at that time. Yet paradoxically, precisely because they were Jewish, these women had more reason to hope at the moment than many others. The horror of Kristallnacht six months previously had traumatised German Jews and shocked the watching world, not into intervention, but into offering more visas to those now desperate to flee. The Nazis were encouraging Jewish flight so that they could snatch the property and assets of the leavers. Six months after the November pogroms more than 100,000 German Jews had emigrated, and many more were still waiting for papers to do the same.

Jews in prisons and camps had learned that they could emigrate too as long as they had proof of a visa and funds for travel. Amongst those hoping to receive their papers soon was Olga Benario. Although her own mother was estranged, Olga’s Brazilian mother-in-law, Leocadia, as well as Carlos Prestes’s sister Ligia, had been working tirelessly on Olga’s case ever since securing the release of her baby Anita.

Just before leaving Lichtenburg, Olga had written to Carlos in his Brazilian jail. ‘Spring has finally arrived and the light green tips of the trees are looking inquisitively over the tops of our prison yard. More than ever I wish for a little sun, for beauty and luck. Will the day come that brings us together with Anita-Leocadia, the three of us in happiness? Forgive those thoughts, I know I have to be patient.’

As dawn broke over the Mecklenburg countryside, sunlight streamed through the slits in the tarpaulin, and the prisoners’ spirits rose. The Austrians sang. When the buses neared Ravensbrück it was midday and stifling hot. The women were gasping for air. The buses turned off the road and stopped. Doors swung open and those in front looked out on a shimmering lake. The scent of the pine forest filled the bus. A German communist, Lisa Ullrich, noticed ‘a sparsely populated hamlet situated at a small idyllic sea surrounded by a crown of dark spruce forest’.

The hearts of the women ‘leapt for joy’, Lisa recalled, but before all the coaches had drawn to a halt came screaming, yelling and a cracking of whips and barking of dogs. ‘A stream of orders and insults greeted us as we began to descend. Hordes of women appeared through the trees – guards in skirts, blouses and caps, holding whips, some with yelping dogs rushing at the buses through the trees.’

As the prisoners stepped down several collapsed, and those that stooped to help them were knocked flat themselves by hounds or lashed with a whip. They didn’t know it yet, but it was a camp rule that helping another was an offence. ‘Bitches, dirty cow, get on your feet. Lazy bitch.’ Another rule was that prisoners always lined up in fives. ‘Achtung, Achtung. Ranks of five. Hands by your sides.’

Commands echoed through the trees as stragglers were kicked by jackboots. Stiff with terror, all eyes fixed on the sandy ground, the women did their utmost not to be noticed. They avoided each other’s gaze. Some were whimpering. Another crack of a whip and there was total silence.

The well-rehearsed SS routine had served its purpose – causing maximum terror at the moment of arrival. Anyone who had thought of resisting was from now on subdued. The ritual had been performed hundreds of times at male concentration camps, and now it was being enacted for the first time on the banks of the Schwedtsee. It would be worse for those who arrived later, in the dead of night, or in the snow, understanding nothing of the language. But all Ravensbrück survivors would remember the trauma of their arrival; all would recall their own silence.

All Ravensbrück survivors would remember the trauma of their arrival; all would recall their own silence.

* * *

This first group stands silent in the heat for perhaps two hours. As the count begins, Maria Zeh, from Stuttgart, looks up and sees the colza rapeseed is in blossom. She is slapped across the face. ‘Die Nase nach vorne!’ shouts a guard – Nose to the front.

The women are counted again and then again – another lesson to learn: if anyone moves out of line, collapses, or if the counting goes wrong, it starts all over. ‘And before we march a paper is handed to the head guard with the tally,’ recalls Lisa Ullrich. The head guard is Johanna Langefeld. She has been standing apart, and now checks the figures. She signals for the women to march on. The stout figure of Max Koegel is there too.

Heaving forward, the prisoners pass half-built villas to their left, but they are only dimly aware of their surroundings. They come into a vast clearing where every tree and blade of grass has been razed, leaving sand and swamp. In this wasteland stands a massive grey wall. The women pass through a gateway and realise they have entered the new camp.

Achtung, Achtung, ranks of five.’ They are standing on a desolate square of sand, marked out as a parade ground. They smell new wood and fresh paint. Stark wooden barracks are positioned all around. Some notice beds of red flowers. The sun beats down. The gate closes behind them.

* * *

From the book RAVENSBRÜCK: Life and Death in Hitler’s Concentration Camp for Women, by Sarah Helm. Copyright © 2015 by Sarah Helm. Published by arrangement with Nan A. Talese, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.