Sarah Helm’s If This is A Woman: Inside Ravensbruck: Hitler’s Concentration Camp for Women is the most important and best history book I have read in a long while. It is a gruelling read full of horror and evil, redeemed in part by extraordinary acts of courage, compassion, heroism, solidarity and generosity. But it would be foolish to pretend that it is anything other than tragic both in its detail and in its overall effect. Quite apart from the strengths of the book’s narrative however, there is the central vital fact that what matters most is that at long last, and just in time, the extraordinary story of these women is being told in English.
What I want to comment on here is the issue of why the history has not been written, and how it was distorted and is still distorted today. For this purpose a very short summary of the history is necessary and Helm provides it in the epilogue…
At Nuremberg Robert H. Jackson said the Nazi conspiracy ‘set one goal then, having achieved it, moved on to a more ambitious one’. Ravensbrück, which spanned the war years, is a useful prism through which to watch those goals evolve. The camp helped Hitler achieve some early aims: elimination of ‘asocials’, criminals, Gypsies and other useless mouths, including those unable to work; the first such group of women were gassed at Bernburg, an atrocity which the world today knows almost nothing of. The camp played a small part too in the more ‘ambitious goal’ – the annihilation of the Jews, not least by providing women guards and Kapos for Auschwitz’s women’s camp. Then, in the final weeks of the war, Ravensbrück moved centre stage, becoming the scene of the last major extermination by gas carried out in the Nazi camps before the end of the war.
as she writes….
just as Auschwitz was the capital of the crime against Jews, so Ravensbrück was the capital of the crime against women.
So why has it been so little written about and remembered? Helm suggests some reasons for this in the Epilogue….
There have been many excuses for marginalising this camp: it was smaller scale than many others; it didn’t fit easily into the central narrative; camp documents had been destroyed; it was hidden behind the Iron Curtain; the prisoners were only women. And yet it is precisely because this was a camp for women that Ravensbrück should have shaken the conscience of the world. Other camps showed what mankind was capable of doing to man. The Jewish death camps showed what mankind was capable of doing to an entire race. Ravensbrück showed what mankind was capable of doing to women. The nature and scale of atrocity done here to women had never been seen before. Ravensbrück should never have had to fight ‘on the margins’ for a voice: it was – and is – a story in its own right.
I just want to unpick and comment on these reasons….
- when we say small Ravensbruck was small compared to Auschwitz-Birkenau or other later camps. But some 130000 women passed through Ravensbruck of whom Helm estimates 40-50,000 died. That is a human tragedy on a massive scale.
- the ‘central narrative’ is of course that of the Holocaust; as Helm writes in the Introduction…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.It is difficult to write about this because insisting on the importance of Ravensbruck does not mean that one wishes to downplay the central fact of Nazi genocide of the Jewish people. However a ‘central fact’ does not mean that other facts – other people – should be written out of history, which is what has occurred here. And as we shall see Ravensbruck in some ways asks much more difficult questions than the ‘central narrative’.
- certainly the destruction of documents was important but this occurred at other camps and a lot of the camps were behind the Iron Curtain.
- ‘the prisoners were only women’ – I would judge that this is the most important reason Ravensbruck has been overlooked and marginalised. If there was ever a book which proved the need for Women’s History, for feminist history and for women historians this is the one. Helm does not say so in the book (or I have lost the reference) but she has in interviews cited the fact that most historians are men.
It is with this last point that the title of this piece starts to come into focus. Who writes history determines the narratives that are told, the perspectives which are advanced and the understandings which become normative. Ravensbruck did not fit with the historiographic construction of the narrative of the Concentration Camps. But it is possible to advance this argument further.
To do this we have to go back to Ravensbruck’s beginnings in 1939. It is here that I found the biggest gaps in my personal knowledge and found the material Helm presents especially revelatory. To start at the beginning….
Within hours of their arrival, on 15 May 1939, the first of the 867 prisoners to be transferred from Lichtenburg to Ravensbrück had been stripped, washed, checked for lice, and in many cases shaved, as the Oberaufseherin would allow no vermin here. The prisoners were then issued new camp clothes: blue and white striped cotton dresses and jackets, a white headscarf, socks and rough wooden shoes, like clogs. Each was given a number, printed on a small white piece of cloth. It matched the number they were given on arrival at Lichtenburg – from 1 to 867. The women were also given a coloured triangle made of felt. They were handed a needle and thread and told to sew these on to the left shoulder of their jackets. The triangle indicated which category the prisoner had been placed in: black for ‘asocials’ – prostitute, beggar, petty criminal, lesbian; green for habitual criminals; red for political prisoners; lilac for Jehovah’s Witnesses; yellow for Jews. The Jewish women were subdivided, depending on the reason for arrest. All Jews wore a yellow triangle, but those noted as ‘ Pol. Jude’ – arrested for political crimes – wore their yellow triangle on a red background. The political Jews included the largest category, those arrested for Rassenschande, relations with a non-Jew; of these there were ninety-seven. Those Jews arrested as asocials wore their yellow triangle on a black background.
There are a number of things to comment on here. All of these 867 women were German – this was well before the War had started. Only a small minority were Jewish and although they were picked out they were not here for being Jewish but for some other reason (although you could argue that those arrested for ‘Rassenchande’ were there for being Jewish). I knew of course that the very first people Hitler had gone for were political opponents – socialists and communists, men who were sent to the first Concentration Camp at Dachau in 1933. Most of these had been released by this time, utterly broken. It was no surprise to me therefore to read of the red triangles. The two big surprises to me were the Jehovah’s Witnesses – so large a group they got a separate colour – and the ‘asocials’ particularly sex workers. I was not aware that either of these groups had been specifically persecuted by the Nazi regime.
Now I think it probably goes without saying for anyone who is likely to read this blog that I hold no brief for religions or religious sects! However if you read Helm’s book, even if you are a militant atheist like me, the heroism of the Jehovah’s Witness women was quite extraordinary. They held together as a group and took the hardest of lines in refusing to do anything which would contribute to the war effort. It was this group in the early years of the camp most frustrated those running it and who were subjected to the worst beatings, torture and treatment. In the end most were murdered. This is all the more extraordinary given the complicity of the mainstream churches, both Lutheran and Catholic, with the Nazi regime (yes I know there are wonderful individual exceptions but the general statement stands). The lilac triangle (as happened until comparatively recently with the pink triangle) has been written out of history.
Even more astonishing to me however was the case of the sex workers. I knew that the Nazis forced women to work in brothels for soldiers (in the most tragic and horrible irony some of the sex workers at Ravensbruck, along with other women, were forced to go and work in brothels set up at male slave labour camps, which would function as an ‘inducement’ to the inhabitants of those camps). What I had no idea of was that the Nazis rounded up German sex workers in the 1930’s and sent them to prison and hence on to Ravensbruck. These women have suffered a particular obliteration from history. Not only have they been part of the general forgetting of Ravensbruck, but such accounts as were written ignored them too. In particular in East Germany and the Soviet Union accounts were written by the Communist women who followed a particular ideological line and emphasised their own part. This is not to say these women were not heroic and Helm allows full measure for this (her ability to be impartial in some complex judgements is admirable) but it is a history which distorts by admission.
This same distortion and omission continues today as the Wikipedia article on Ravensbruck fully demonstrates ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ravensbr%C3%BCck_concentration_camp ) – there is no mention at all of either Jehovah’s Witnesses or sex workers (the article is completely deficient and misleading in many more ways as anyone who reads Helm’s book will quickly realise). Helm herself had the greatest difficulty with the ‘asocials’ and sex workers as she explains….
Although we learn a lot about what the political prisoners thought of the asocials, we learn nothing of what the asocials thought of them. Unlike the political women, they left no memoirs. Speaking out after the war would mean revealing the reason for imprisonment in the first place, and incurring more shame. Had compensation been available they might have seen a reason to come forward, but none was offered. The German associations set up after the war to help camp survivors were dominated by political prisoners. And whether they were based in the communist East or in the West, these bodies saw no reason to help ‘asocial’ survivors. Such prisoners had not been arrested as ‘fighters’ against the fascists, so whatever their suffering none of them qualified for financial or any other kind of help. Nor were the Western Allies interested in their fate. Although thousands of asocials died at Ravensbrück, not a single black- or green-triangle survivor was called upon to give evidence for the Hamburg War Crimes trials, or at any later trials. As a result these women simply disappeared: the red-light districts they came from had been flattened by Allied bombs, so nobody knew where they went. For many decades, Holocaust researchers also considered the asocials’ stories irrelevant; they barely rate mention in camp histories. Finding survivors amongst this group was doubly hard because they formed no associations, nor veterans’ groups. Today, door-knocking down the Düsseldorf Bahndamm, one of the few pre-war red-light districts not destroyed, brings only angry shouts of ‘Get off my patch.’ Only in the 1990s did researchers begin to appeal for asocial survivors to come forward, but of the handful who responded, none gave real names, and none, they said, had been prostitutes themselves.
Käthe Datz admitted to having been imprisoned as an asocial for being ‘work-shy’; she skipped off from her factory job one day to help her sick mother. They said I was a traitor and committed a crime. Then I was put on a mass transport so I cried. Amongst our group were many working girls – prostitutes. I remember them walking in their high heels across the cobbled streets of Fürstenberg on the way to the camp. I can tell you how they went for those women: ‘You swines. We will teach you a lesson,’ and then came the kicking and the beating.
If anyone can read this without both burning anger and terrible sadness there is something very wrong with them. These women have simply been eradicated from history as they were eradicated in life. And that eradication has not simply been because of patriarchical bias (even if that is where the first eradication occurred) but it has also been political (as in the case of the Communist memoirs) and communal. This is what I meant by Ravensbruck being much more challenging than the dominant Holocaust narrative, even shamefully in 2015. The persecution of Jews and of Poles (the biggest group at Ravensbruck in the end by far and subjected to the very worst treatment), of political prisoners, now thankfully for most people of gays and lesbians is simple, a case of good versus evil; it is. But sex workers and petty thieves – is there not a feeling that they do not ‘fit’ in the narrative? Their stories, never preserved, lost to us, must not even be mentioned.
In my own little act of remembrance I reproduce a small story about Else Krug one of the very few sex workers at Ravensbruck whose name Helm has been able to discover…
Perhaps because of her powerful appearance, or because he noticed her haughty pride, Koegel specifically selected Else Krug as one of the thrashers. Like the others she was offered the chance of release from the Strafblock, but Else said no. Koegel called Else to his office, and Grete got to hear what happened next. Koegel was not used to prisoners opposing his orders, so he was furious and shouted at Else, ordering her to obey. ‘No, Herr Camp Commandant,’ said Else. ‘I never beat a fellow prisoner.’ ‘What, you dirty whore? You think you can pick and choose? That’s refusal to obey an order.’ Else shrugged, but was grimly determined. ‘Take the whore away,’ snorted Koegel. ‘You’ll have cause to remember me, I can tell you.’
Else Krug was among the first to be gassed.
Nameless and voiceless, the sex workers and other ‘asocials’ at Ravensbruck have been erased from history. They still are being.
Quite apart from its immense value and high quality Helm’s book reinforces in the most vivid way possible that we should always question who writes our history and the standpoint they are writing from. When I browse the history section at a station bookshop and see endless works on British monarchs of various degrees of loathsomeness and try to compare them with this book the cultural and intellectual hegemony of those who control our history becomes stark.
But my ending is simple – read this book. It is brilliant and more than brilliant – vitally important.