In ‘If This Is a Woman,’ Sarah Helm goes inside Germany’s Ravensbrück, where up to 90,000 women perished during the Holocaust.
LONDON — Lying 50 miles north of Berlin, Ravensbrück was the only concentration camp the Nazis built with the sole intention to house female political prisoners. Opening up its gates in May 1939, just four months before the outbreak of World War II, it was liberated by the Russians six years later.
Over 130,00 women passed through its gates. During its busiest period, towards the end of the war, the camp had a population of 45,000. Estimates of the final death toll are debatable, ranging from 30,000 to 90,000.
Why, therefore, is so little known about a camp that eliminated tens of thousands of women on German soil?
The wholesale destruction of evidence partially explains for this historical vacuum. In Ravensbrück’s final days, before the liberation by the Soviet Red Army, most prisoner’s files were burned by the Nazis and then thrown in the lake beside the camp.
If Auschwitz was the capital of crimes against Jews, under the Third Reich, Ravensbrück, it seems, was the capital of crimes against women.
At least that’s the argument British freelance journalist and author Sarah Helm makes with compelling conviction in her latest book, “If This Is a Woman — Inside Ravensbrück: Hitler’s Concentration Camp for Women.”
Backed up by a vast undertaking of research and interviews — including historical sources that were once locked behind the Iron Curtain — Helm’s book shows how one dedicated writer really can rescue history from the dustbin.
Paradoxically, though, says Helm, when we begin chatting, the emergence of the Holocaust as a proper cultural global discussion, during the 1960s, was a contributing factor that ensured Ravensbrück became sidelined as a subject in the dominant historical discourse around Nazi Germany and its heinous crimes.
“Obviously people had known about the Holocaust before [the 1960s],” says Helm. “But the consciousness had not taken a proper hold until after the Eichmann trial in 1961.”
Understandably, then, says Helm, the sheer scale and horror of the Jewish Holocaust totally took over the narrative.
“And so the story of the non-Jewish groups [that were exterminated] were treated as secondary.”
Moreover, because these prisoners in Ravensbrück were all women, this important epoch of Nazi history was neatly dusted aside for decades hence, Helm explains. “Most mainstream historians at the time were men, so inevitably this subject was neglected.”
It really wasn’t until the mid-1990s that female historians began to explore the stories of Ravensbrück with proper analysis. Before that, most women who passed through the camp were lucky if they got even a paragraph in the main history of the Holocaust, says Helm.
Especially the German “asocials”: the homeless, the prostitutes, and the down and outs.
“These women were sent off to gas chambers and were of no real interest to historians,” says Helm.
Perhaps what’s most fascinating about the history of Ravensbrück is the way it transformed, over time, from an institution that housed political prisoners only, to eventually become the cruelest of Nazi death camps.
“In the beginning Ravensbrück was very small,” says Helm. “It consisted largely of German women, who were either asocials or political prisoners. Basically anyone who openly opposed Hitler.”
Read the Remainder at Times of Israel