Review | Ravensbruck: Life and Death in Hitler’s Concentration Camp for Women – Sarah Helm

About the Book

A groundbreaking, masterful, and absorbing account of the last hidden atrocity of World War II—Ravensbrück—the largest female-only concentration camp, where more than 100,000 women consisting of more than twenty nationalities were imprisoned.

Shortly before the outbreak of World War II, Heinrich Himmler, the head of the SS and the architect of the Holocaust, oversaw the construction of a special concentration camp just fifty miles north of Berlin. He called it Ravensbrück, and during the years that followed thousands of people died there after enduring brutal forms of torture. All were women. There are a handful of studies and memoirs that reference Ravensbrück, but until now no one has written a full account of this atrocity, perhaps due to the mostly masculine narrative of war, or perhaps because it lacks the Jewish context of most mainstream Holocaust history. Ninety percent of Ravensbrück’s prisoners were not Jewish. Rather, they were political prisoners, Resistance fighters, lesbians, prostitutes, even the sister of New York’s Mayor LaGuardia. In a perverse twist, most of the guards were women themselves. Sarah Helm’s groundbreaking work sheds much-needed light on an aspect of World War II that has remained in the shadows for decades. Using research into German and newly opened Russian archives, as well as interviews with survivors, Helm has produced a landmark achievement that weaves together various accounts, allowing us to follow characters on both sides of the prisoner/guard divide. Chilling, compelling, and deeply unsettling, Ravensbrück is essential reading for anyone concerned with Nazi history.

768 pages (hardcover) 
Published on March 31, 2015
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Ravensbruck is… difficult, as you’d imagine. It’s not difficult due to any stylistic issues. It’s difficult because of the subject matter, and likely you’ll already be aware of that going into it. You can’t read about concentration camps without realizing you’re in for some emotional days ahead. This isn’t a book you read if you want to be happy. This is a book you read if you want to know, and sometimes, knowing hurts. 

Ravensbruck is an interesting book. Perhaps it is a bit different than most other books of this nature. It does not follow the story of one person through their time in a World War II concentration camp. Rather, this book is a biography of a different sort. It’s a biography of a concentration camp. The “person” you are following throughout their life, is, in fact, the camp itself. People come, and people go. The camp changes, and ultimately it is liberated and falls into disrepair, but this book tells the story of it all, from its inception to its end. 

This particular perspective was rather unique, and it gave me a very different perspective of life inside this camp than I’d likely have if Helm had decided to follow the life of one person in the camp. In this way, where the camp itself is the character we are following, Helm has a bit more liberty to dip into the lives of numerous people over the timeline of Ravensbruck, and therefore, she easily shows the gestation of the camp and its incarnation into various forms of existence, from factory slave work, to horrible medical experiments, even to some women being moved to the front to live in brothels that soldiers could frequent at will. (Himmler believed that soldiers would fight harder if they had easy access to sex whenever they wanted it, so he used women in concentration camps to stuff brothels.) 

There are a few brief detours, for example, Helm follows some of the camp leaders and officers as they are moved to the infamous Auschwitz, to prepare it and get that particular camp ready and operational for the horror that took place there, but aside from a few of those jaunts, Helm really does just stay with Ravensbruck, never shying away from the horror, and using eyewitness accounts and written evidence left behind to tell the story of those who would have been otherwise lost to history. 

What really interested me about the book was not just the eagle-eyed focus Helm had, but how she managed to tell these tragic stories about women who had come from all over Europe, giving the background of the Russian prisoners, for example, as acutely and accurately as the French ones. I never felt that she had a harder time focusing on one group than another, and through her obvious studious effort and her attention to detail, she made all of these different groups of prisoners come to life, and breathed their words into my psyche. The experience at Ravensbruck did differ, depending on where the women came from, and that was likewise interesting. The Russian women, for example, were already hardened to tragedy and starvation, so it was easier for them to focus on acts of rebellion than the French, who were knew and untried regarding all of this. 

The medical experiments that took place were some of the hardest parts of the book for me to read, likely because of the unflinching agony that these women suffered through. However, it was those chapters that not only showed the depths of human depravity, but also the heights of human kindness, as women who had been through pain the likes of which I could not even begin to imagine, and somehow survived, were nursed back to some semblance of health by the women around them, who gave everything they had, often putting themselves at risk, to give to help these people who had suffered so much. 

What surprised me was that most of the prisoners who were taken to this camp were not, in fact, Jews. They were lesbians, and prostitutes, criminals, defectors, conscientious objectors and so much more. And most of the guards were also women. I don’t know why that second fact hit me so hard, but it did. Furthermore, many of the guards had kids, who lived in and around the camp with them. There were schools and daycare facilities for the kids to stay at while their guard parents worked in the camp all day and that… I still feel nauseous even thinking about that. Dropping their kids off at the daycare outside the concentration camp before they go work a full shift subjecting people to unimaginable cruelty, and then picking them up afterwards like this is totally normal… I can’t wrap my head around that AT ALL. 

Perhaps the saddest part of the book was the ending, where the Russian liberators came and, instead of finding a life of freedom, many of these women traded one brand of cruelty for another. The Russian women seemed to suffer the most after liberation. They were not welcomed back as survivors into the arms of their country men and women. Instead, they were treated as defectors, and while many of them survived, many, unfortunately, did not. Stalin was notoriously cruel to those he considered as defectors, and prisoners of war were just that to him. 

I ended up listening to this as an audiobook, and the narration was superb, but I will admit I almost wish I’d picked this up at the library. After I finished the book, I ended up at my local library to flip through the hard cover copy of it, so I could see the pictures that you just don’t get in the audiobook version. So, if that sort of thing matters to you, you might want to track a copy of this book down somewhere. If, however, you feel like you can look pictures up well enough online, thank you very much, I’d suggest the audiobook. The narration, like I said, was superb, and the book itself is captivating and hard to stop listening to. 

It’s not an easy book to read, but I do feel like sometimes history demands a witness, and in reading this book, the lives of those women who suffered so much, are remembered, and that matters.

5/5 stars

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