Elizabeth Campbell Karlsgodt is an Associate Professor of History at DU, currently on sabbatical and doing research for a book on the recovery and restitution of art looted by the Nazis in World War II. The book will focus on case studies in France, the Netherlands, and Belgium.
When I was planning this trip, I knew I wanted to visit Ravensbrück, a Nazi concentration camp that primarily held women. Around 133,000 women and children were detained there, including political prisoners, Roma and Sinti, and Jews. There were also around 20,000 male inmates who carried out hard labor, including continual expansion of the camp grounds. As at Sachsenhausen, it’s difficult to know the exact number of victims, but the museum estimates that tens of thousands of people were killed there, from disease, starvation, exhaustion and medical experiments. Though Ravensbrück was not designed as an extermination camp, between five and six thousand prisoners were murdered in a gas chamber built in late 1944. (See museum website and guide http://www.ravensbrueck.de/mgr/neu/english/index.htm.)
Getting to the memorial for the tour was a challenge, partly because the rail line to the nearest town, Fürstenberg, was closed for construction work. Even if the train had been running, the trip still would have required a combination of rail and bus transit and good amount of walking. I had received mostly accurate bus information at the train station in Berlin, but “mostly accurate” really isn’t good enough when you’re travelling in an area with limited public transit.
The camp is a 25-minute walk from Oranienburg, where Sachsenhausen is located. I had learned in Berlin that buses run to Ravensbrück, so I decided to try public transit, relying on friendly advice from local Germans along the way. From Fürstenberg, I was the only person on a full-size city bus and the very kind driver thought we would do me a favor by going off the main road and showing me a short cut to the camp. He gave me vague directions, “Go straight, go straight!” and in a chipper voice said in English, “Have fun!” I didn’t plan to have fun, really, but I knew he was merely being polite. I stepped off the bus and found myself in the German countryside, following a dirt path, no one else in sight.
|Mothers, Fritz Cremer (1965)|
I was visiting in early May, on a gorgeous spring day. The area surrounding the camp is beautiful, pastoral. Forests with lots of pine and birch trees. Wild flowers dotted the clearings. It seemed like a wonderful place for a leisurely picnic. After a 5-minute walk, I could see the camp’s visitor center. But first, I stopped at a memorial that stands at a fork in the road about a mile from the camp, Müttergruppe (Mothers) by sculptor Fritz Cremer (unveiled 1965).This is easily the most heartbreaking memorial I’ve ever seen. Three emaciated female figures with shaved heads carry a child—apparently dead—on a stretcher. An older child clutches the thigh of one figure. Ravensbrück is filled with this kind of homage to mothers and children.
As visitors, our reactions to these camps are informed by our own experiences, memories, stories we’ve heard, what we bring to them. As a mother of two young kids, I felt a deeper emotional connection to the memorial and museum than at other camps, and yet wondered whether I should. Perhaps because I’m Christian with German and Czech ancestry, it was easier for me to create a plausible narrative in my mind, how I might have ended up there—I’d like to think that as a wife and mother in 1930s Germany, I would have had the courage to oppose Nazism. I like to think we would have been bold enough to hide Jewish friends, perhaps the family of my younger son’s best friend. What if we had been denounced by a fearful neighbor, and the kids and I ended up at Ravensbrück. I found myself personalizing the experience there more than at other camps. Yet I also wondered how I would have reacted to the memorial if I weren’t a mother; perhaps it would seem too focused on families and children, diminishing memory of the women without children who suffered there.
The camp sits on a small lake and one has a nice view of Oranienburg on the other side, with a church steeple typical of many European towns. It’s a lovely scene, and yet unspeakable horrors were committed on the other side of the camp walls. There’s a sculpture at the edge of the lake, Tragende (Burdened Woman) by Will Lammert (1957, unveiled at memorial in 1959), a stoic Pietà figure. It appears to depict a mother gazing out toward the town, holding the limp body of an older child.
There weren’t many visitors while I was there, but I was pleasantly surprised to find extensive, recently developed displays that together created an impressive and unforgettable museum. Most of the displays have English translations. Outside the camp walls, one can see the crematorium installed in 1943 and a commemorative stone where the gas chamber operated from late 1944 to April 1945. Inside the camp, the prison building is used as an exhibition hall. The individual cells contain national displays organized by the victims’ countries of origin, including Poland, Germany, Austria, France, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Greece. The French display is very artfully presented, with a large wooden sphere representing motherhood. The Belgian display lists the victims' names and ages at the time of death. The Polish display is understated and somber, the Austrian more stridently patriotic with flags and colorful banners.
A couple cells are used to describe the use of female prisoners as prostitutes, with a collection of the women’s personal accounts available in binders. I was impressed by the attention paid to this relatively obscure aspect of Nazi camp life. The SS considered Jewish women too racially inferior even for prostitution, but Slavs and imprisoned women from “higher” ethnicities were granted the privilege. Some had openly opposed the Nazis, others had been labeled “asocial” by them—women afflicted by alcoholism, depression, and mental illness. In some ways, these women were indeed privileged—they had adequate food and shelter and better medical care than other prisoners. The SS offered male prisoners time with a prostitute as a reward for hard labor. For those women who survived the ordeal, many continued to face exclusion in the postwar period and were denied victims’ benefits by their national governments due to their “collaboration” with the Nazis.
Back outside, visitors can see where the barracks stood, through indentations in the gravel. About 100 yards from the prison stands a building where the inmates were forced laborers during mostly textile work. This space is still being developed as an exhibition hall but one could imagine hundreds of people toiling away there.
After two or three hours at the camp, I worked my way to the bus stop, about half a mile from the museum. The bus driver who had dropped me off picked me up again, and once again, I was the only person on the bus. We didn’t chat on the return trip to Fürstenberg; perhaps he sensed the tour was more emotional than “fun.” But I thanked him for his kindness.
While I was waiting to catch another bus to Oranienburg, I gazed at the well-kept homes around the bus stop with manicured little lawns, potted spring flowers, azaleas and lace curtains. I wondered what it was like to live so close to a Nazi camp. But my view is that of a “memory-tourist,” using James Young’s phrase, whereas the residents of Fürstenberg and Oranienburg are working, raising families, carrying on with daily life, as did their ancestors while thousands of prisoners perished nearby.
Next and finally, Treblinka, an extermination camp outside Warsaw…