The story of the Nazis’ only concentration camp for women has long been obscured—partly by chance but also by historians’ apathy towards women’s history. Sarah Helm writes about the camp – where the ‘cream of Europe’s women’ were interned alongside its prostitutes – and members of the French resistance perished alongside Red Army prisoners of war.
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.