If This Is A Woman

if this is a woman

If This Is A Woman – Inside Ravensbruck: Hitler’s Concentration Camp for Women

By Sarah Helm

Little, Brown – £25.00

It does indeed make one wonder why Ravensbruck, Hitler’s Concentration Camp for Woman, has continued to remain relatively unnoticed within the ghastly parameters of Nazi genocide. Not least because Heinrich Himmler, one of the prime architects of the term, annihilation, had reason to take an asserted interest in its creation. Reason being, mistress and mother of his two children, Hedwig Potthast, lived a seemingly normal life within very close distance of this vile factory of misery – alongside the small population of the camp’s nearby town of Furstenberg (a mere thirty miles from Berlin).

But then there are so many aspects of the Nazi regime that continue to make one wonder. Their penchant for inexorable sadistic cruelty being just one of them; although the cruelty committed at Ravensbruck was essentially by women, upon women.

Women in the so-called prime, child-bearing years of their late teens and early twenties, were partaking in a behaviour so polar to that of the supposed ‘caring nature,’ to this day, it almost makes one want to relinquish all belief in human nature.

Let alone humanity.

If This Is A Woman (Inside Ravensbruck: Hitler’s Concentration Camp for Women) is somewhat reminiscent of Primo Levi’s compelling 1947 account of his time at Auschwitz, If This Is a Man. The fundamental difference being that Auschwitz was the epicentre of crimes against Jews, while Ravensbruck was the epicentre of crimes against women – only a very small proportion of whom were Jewish.

Apart from many who were deemed ‘inferior beings,’ the camp enabled the Nazis to eliminate an array of social outcasts, gypsies, political enemies, foreign resisters, the sick, the disabled and those considered to be ‘mad.’ Over the six years of its existence, inmates were subjected to beatings, torture, slave labour, starvation and random executions. Let it be said that during the final months of the war, Ravensbruck became an extermination camp. So by the time the Allies arrived in 1945, somewhere between thirty thousand and fifty thousand women had been murdered.

To say that authoress Sarah Helm – former staff writer on The Sunday Times and foreign correspondent with The Independent – has herein written a masterful work of immense, timely redemption, is an understatement. If This Is A Woman is one of those works within the ever increasing canon of Holocaust literature, that really ought to be made essential reading for anyone who has ever doubted what took place within Hitler’s vast network of concentration camps.

Helm’s investigation and factual analysis alone (which spanned across more than twenty countries), warrants a timeless trajectory of resounding applause. One of the reasons being that for decades, the story of Ravensbruck was buried behind the Iron Curtain, where survivors remained resolutely silent, thinking they’d be disbelieved.

They were only women after all.

Women who, prior to their arrival at the aforementioned factory of misery, had been housewives and doctors, academics and opera singers, prostitutes and petty thieves; many of whom showed immense tenacity and inordinate courage while facing the unquantifiable odds of incalculable depravity and heartlessness.

The latter of which is brought to bear throughout the book.

Already in the second chapter ‘Sandgrube,’ Helm writes: ”Sometimes Rabenstein would select a group of women at random, line them up behind a heap of stones, and kick them with her boots. Or she would tell a prisoner to shovel soil from a massive pile by tunnelling from underneath until the pile started caving in. The prisoner had to keep shovelling till eventually the pile collapsed on her and she was buried alive. Rabenstein considered this a game and called it ‘Abdecken‘ – roof falling. Afterwards, the prisoner, bruised and suffering, was pulled out by her friends […]. We know from her later testimony that Doris used to watch through the Revier windows as the work gangs were taken to the gate, led by an SS officer who walked them deliberately through a large pond, so that they’d start work soaking wet.”

While in the tenth chapter ‘Lublin,’ Helm alerts us to the following: ”Each day, under Halina’s (Chorazyna) direction, the women decide to do something, however small, to help each other, perhaps a smile for someone like Grazyna, who worries about her sister Pola, who is sick. Friends notice that neither girl has smiled since learning that their father died. Or another day Halina might say: ‘Befriend another who seems alone.’ On the bunk below her, Stanislawa Michalik finds a new arrival, a Polish farm girl, who is in great distress. On her first night she confides in Stanislawa that she is pregnant, and terrified about what will happen. The next day the young Pole is taken to the Revier. Later that night she returns to the block and weeps in Stanislawa’s arms, saying the baby has been ‘cut out of her’ […]. The abortions were usually carried out by one of the new camp doctors, a former naval surgeon called Rolf Rosenthal. Every prisoner who worked in the Revier recalled his butchery. Hanka Houskova, A Czech prisoner nurse, recalled how on one occasion, Rosenthal cut out a five-month foetus from a woman’s body with a medical saw […]. Quernheim’s crime had now become a duty: she helped Rosenthal induce labour, and then killed the foetus either by strangling or by drowning in a bucket. In return, she earned more privileges […].

Amid this depraved, living nightmare, the camp still nevertheless included countless exemplary heroes. For example, women’s rights activists Rosa Jochmann and Kathe Leichter (the latter of whom wrote a Jewish play that invariably entailed six weeks in the bunker); Elsa Krug, an S&M prostitute from Dusseldorf who adamantly refused to beat her fellow prisoners; and the inspirational Yevgenia Lazarevna Klemm, unofficial leader of five hundred uniformed Red Army women – the teenagers of whom she mothered while maintaining discipline and telling them to learn German to survive.

There are numerous ‘Klemms’ amid these 658 pages (excluding Notes, Bibliography and Maps, one of which, Le bagne nazi de Ravensbruck, is by the French artist France Audoul). This makes the actual reading of If This Is A Woman all the more exceptional and inspirational – especially so far as any belief in the continuation of humanity is concerned. In itself, this really is quite something, as for all of Himmler’s countless thugs and executioners at Ravensbruck, they failed in quenching the human spirit.

And this absolutely stunning book, thankfully, luckily, is a nigh sacrosanct testament to that most beautiful of facts.

David Marx

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4 responses to “If This Is A Woman

  1. Clmentine Koenig

    Dear David,

    Thank you for your brilliant blog.

    I don’t know if you accept suggestions for book reviews but I work at Alma Books and I thought you might be interested in reviewing one of our books, Midnight In Siberia (publication date 19th February) by NPR Morning Edition co-host David Greene.

    If you do, I’d be happy to put a copy in the post.

    Let me know your thoughts.

    All the best,

    Clementine

    Midnight in Siberia: A Train Journey into the Heart of Russia by David Greene, a book that captures an overlooked, idiosyncratic Russia in the age of Putin. Now NY Times best-selling travel book, it got splendid reviews in the main US papers.

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