Ravensbruck: Life and Death in Hitler's Concentration Camp for Women

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9780385520591: Ravensbruck: Life and Death in Hitler's Concentration Camp for Women

A masterly and moving account of the most horrific hidden atrocity of World War II: Ravensbrück, the only Nazi concentration camp built for women
 
On a sunny morning in May 1939 a phalanx of 867 women—housewives, doctors, opera singers, politicians, prostitutes—was marched through the woods fifty miles north of Berlin, driven on past a shining lake, then herded in through giant gates. Whipping and kicking them were scores of German women guards.
     Their destination was Ravensbrück, a concentration camp designed specifically for women by Heinrich Himmler, prime architect of the Holocaust. By the end of the war 130,000 women from more than twenty different European countries had been imprisoned there; among the prominent names were Geneviève de Gaulle, General de Gaulle’s niece, and Gemma La Guardia Gluck, sister of the wartime mayor of New York. 
     Only a small number of these women were Jewish; Ravensbrück was largely a place for the Nazis to eliminate other inferior beings—social outcasts, Gypsies, political enemies, foreign resisters, the sick, the disabled, and the “mad.” Over six years the prisoners endured beatings, torture, slave labor, starvation, and random execution. In the final months of the war, Ravensbrück became an extermination camp. Estimates of the final death toll by April 1945 have ranged from 30,000 to 90,000.
     For decades the story of Ravensbrück was hidden behind the Iron Curtain, and today it is still little known. Using testimony unearthed since the end of the Cold War and interviews with survivors who have never talked before, Sarah Helm has ventured into the heart of the camp, demonstrating for the reader in riveting detail how easily and quickly the unthinkable horror evolved. 
     Far more than a catalog of atrocities, however, Ravensbrück is also a compelling account of what one survivor called “the heroism, superhuman tenacity, and exceptional willpower to survive.” For every prisoner whose strength failed, another found the will to resist through acts of self-sacrifice and friendship, as well as sabotage, protest, and escape. 
     While the core of this book is told from inside the camp, the story also sheds new light on the evolution of the wider genocide, the impotence of the world to respond, and Himmler’s final attempt to seek a separate peace with the Allies using the women of Ravensbrück as a bargaining chip. Chilling, inspiring, and deeply unsettling, Ravensbrück is a groundbreaking work of historical investigation. With rare clarity, it reminds us of the capacity of humankind both for bestial cruelty and for courage against all odds.

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About the Author:

Sarah Helm is the author of A Life in Secrets: Vera Atkins and the Missing Agents of WWII and the play Loyalty, about the 2003 Iraq War. She was a staff journalist on the Sunday Times (London) and a foreign correspondent on the Independent, and now writes for several publications. She lives in London with her husband and two daughters.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter 1

Langefeld

‘The year is 1957. The doorbell of my flat is ringing,’ writes Grete Buber-Neumann, a former Ravensbrück prisoner. ‘I open the door. An old woman is standing before me, breathing heavily and missing teeth in the lower jaw. She babbles: “Don’t you know me any more? I am Johanna Langefeld, the former head guard at Ravensbrück.” The last time I had seen her was fourteen years ago in her office at the camp. I worked as her prisoner secretary . ⁠. ⁠. She would pray to God for strength to stop the evil happening, but if a Jewish woman came into her office her face would fill with hatred . ⁠. ⁠.

‘So she sits at the table with me. She tells me she wishes she’d been born a man. She talks of Himmler, whom she sometimes still calls “Reichsführer”. She talks for many hours, she gets lost in the different years and tries to explain her behaviour.’

* * *

Early in May 1939 a small convoy of trucks emerged from trees into a clearing near the tiny village of Ravensbrück, deep in the Mecklenburg forest. The trucks drove on past a lake, where their wheels started spinning and axles sank into waterlogged sand. People jumped down to dig out the vehicles while others unloaded boxes.

A woman in uniform – grey jacket and skirt – also jumped down. Her feet sank into the sand, but she pulled herself free, walked a little way up the slope and looked around. Felled trees lay beside the shimmering lake. The air smelt of sawdust. It was hot and there was no shade. To her right, on the far shore, lay the small town of Fürstenberg. Boathouses sprawled by the shore. A church spire was visible.

At the opposite end of the lake, to her left, a vast grey wall about sixteen feet high loomed up. The forest track led towards towering iron-barred gates to the left of the compound. There were signs saying ‘Trespassers Keep Out’. The woman – medium height, stocky, brown wavy hair – strode purposefully towards the gates.

Johanna Langefeld had come with a small advance party of guards and prisoners to bring equipment and look around the new women’s concentration camp; the camp was due to open in a few days’ time and Langefeld was to be the Oberaufseherin – chief woman guard. She had seen inside many women’s penal institutions in her time, but never a place like this.

For the past year Langefeld had worked as a senior guard at Lichtenburg, a medieval fortress near Torgau, on the River Elbe. Converted into a temporary women’s camp while Ravensbrück was built, Lichtenburg’s crumbling chambers and wet dungeons were cramped and unhealthy; unsuitable for women prisoners. Ravensbrück was new and purpose-built. The compound comprised about six acres, big enough for the first 1000 or so women expected here, with space to spare.

Langefeld stepped through the iron gates and strode around the sandy Appellplatz, the camp square. The size of a football pitch, it had room enough to drill the entire camp at once. Loudspeakers hung on poles above Langefeld’s head, though the only sound for now was the banging of nails. The walls blocked everything outside from view, except the sky.

Unlike male camps, Ravensbrück had no watchtowers along the walls and no gun emplacements. But an electric fence was fixed to the interior of the perimeter wall, and placards along the fence showed a skull and crossbones warning of high voltage. Only beyond the walls to the south, to Langefeld’s right, did the ground rise high enough for treetops to be visible on a hill.

Hulking grey barrack blocks dominated the compound. The wooden blocks, arranged in a grid, were single-storey with small windows; they sat squat around the camp square. Two lines of identical blocks – though somewhat larger – were laid out each side of the Lagerstrasse, the main street.

Langefeld inspected the blocks one by one. Immediately inside the gate, the first block on the left was the SS canteen, fitted out with freshly scrubbed chairs and tables. Also to the left of the Appellplatz was the camp Revier, a German military term meaning sickbay or infirmary. Across the square, she entered the bathhouse, fitted with dozens of showerheads. Boxes containing striped cotton clothes were stacked at one end and at a table a handful of women were laying out piles of coloured felt triangles.

Next to the bathhouse, under the same roof, was the camp kitchen, which glistened with huge steel pots and kettles. The next building was the prisoners’ clothes store, or Effektenkammer, where large brown paper bags were piled on a table, and then came the Wäscherei, laundry, with its six centrifugal washing machines – Langefeld would have liked more.

Nearby an aviary was being constructed. Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS, which ran the concentration camps and much else in Nazi Germany, wanted his camps to be self-sufficient as far as possible. There was to be a rabbit hutch, chicken coop and vegetable garden, as well as an orchard and flower garden. Gooseberry bushes, dug up from the Lichtenburg gardens and transported in the trucks, were already being replanted here. The contents of the Lichtenburg latrines had been brought to Ravensbrück too, to be spread as fertiliser. Himmler also required his camps to pool resources. As Ravens­brück had no baking ovens of its own, bread was to be brought here daily from Sachsenhausen, the men’s camp, fifty miles to the south.

The Oberaufseherin strode on down the Lagerstrasse, which started at the far side of the Appellplatz and led towards the back of the camp. The living blocks were laid out, end-on to the Lagerstrasse, in perfect formation so that the windows of one block looked out onto the back wall of the next. They were to be the prisoners’ living quarters, eight on each side of the ‘street’. Red flowers – salvias – had been planted outside the first block; linden tree saplings stood at regular intervals in between the rest.

As in all concentration camps, the grid layout was used at Ravensbrück mainly to ensure that prisoners could always be seen, which meant fewer guards. A complement of thirty women guards were assigned here and a troop of twelve SS men, all under overall command of Sturmbannführer Max Koegel.

Johanna Langefeld believed she could run a women’s concentration camp better than any man, and certainly better than Max Koegel, whose methods she despised. Himmler, however, was clear that Ravensbrück should be run, in general, on the same lines as the men’s camps, which meant Langefeld and her women guards must be answerable to an SS commandant.

On paper neither she nor any of her guards had any official standing. The women were not merely subordinate to the men, they had no badge or rank and were merely SS ‘auxiliaries’. Most of them were unarmed, though some guarding outside work parties carried a pistol and many had dogs. Himmler believed that women were more frightened than men of dogs.

Nevertheless, Koegel’s authority here would not be absolute. He was only commandant-designate for now, and he had been refused certain powers. For example there was to be no camp prison or ‘bunker’ in which to lock up troublemakers, as there was at every male camp. Nor was he to have authority for ‘official’ beatings. Angered by these omissions, he wrote to his SS superiors requesting greater powers to punish prisoners, but his request was refused.

Langefeld, however, who believed in drill and discipline rather than beating, was content with the arrangements, especially as she had secured significant concessions on day-to-day management. It had been written into the camp’s comprehensive rule book, the Lagerordnung, that the chief woman guard would advise the Schutzhaftlagerführer (deputy commandant) on ‘feminine matters’, though what these were was not defined.

Stepping inside one of the accommodation barracks, Langefeld looked around. Like so much else here, the sleeping arrangements were new to her; instead of shared cells, or dormitories, as she was used to, more than 150 women were to sleep in each block. Their interiors were identically set out, with two large sleeping rooms – A and B – on either side of a washing area, with a row of twelve basins and twelve lavatories, as well as a communal day room where the women would eat.

The sleeping areas were filled with scores of three-tiered bunks, made of wooden planks. Every prisoner had a mattress filled with wood shavings and a pillow, as well as a sheet and a blue and white check blanket folded at the foot of the bed.

The value of drill and discipline had been instilled in Langefeld from her earliest years. The daughter of a blacksmith, she was born Johanna May, in the Ruhr town of Kupferdreh, in March 1900. She and her older sister were raised as strict Lutherans; their parents drummed into them the importance of thrift, obedience and daily prayer. Like any good Protestant girl Johanna already knew that her role in life would be that of dutiful wife and mother: ‘Kinder, Küche, Kirche’ – children, kitchen, church – was a familiar creed in the May family home. Yet from her childhood Johanna yearned for more. Her parents also talked to her of Germany’s past. After church on Sundays they would hark back to the humiliation of the French occupation of their beloved Ruhr under Napoleon and the family would kneel and pray for God’s help in making Germany great again. She idolised her namesake, Johanna Prohaska, a heroine of the liberation wars, who had disguised herself as a man to fight the French.

All this Johanna Langefeld told Grete Buber-Neumann, the former prisoner, at whose Frankfurt door she appeared years later, seeking to ‘try to explain her behaviour’. Grete, an inmate of Ravensbrück for four years, was startled by the reappearance in 1957 of her chief former guard; she was also gripped by Langefeld’s account of her ‘odyssey’ and wrote it down.

In 1914, as the First World War broke out, Johanna, then fourteen, cheered with the rest as the young men of Kupferdreh marched off to pursue the dream of making Germany great again, only to find that she and all German women had little part to play. Two years later, when it was clear the war would not end soon, German women were suddenly told to get out to work in mines, factories and offices; there on the ‘home front’, women had a chance to prove themselves doing the jobs of men, only to be expelled from those same jobs again when the men came home.

Two million Germans did not return from the trenches, but six million did, and Johanna now watched as Kupferdreh’s soldiers came back, many mutilated and all humiliated. Under the terms of surrender, Germany was to pay reparations, which would cripple the economy, fuelling hyperinflation; in 1924 Langefeld’s beloved Ruhr was reoccupied yet again by the French, who ‘stole’ German coal, in punishment for reparations unpaid. Her parents lost their savings and she was penniless and looking for a job. In 1924 she found a husband, a miner called Wilhelm Langefeld, who died two years later of lung disease.

Johanna’s ‘odyssey’ then faltered; she ‘got lost in the years’, wrote Grete. The mid-1920s were a dark period that she could not account for other than to say there was a liaison with another man, which left her pregnant, dependent on Protestant aid groups.

While Langefeld and millions like her struggled, other German women found liberation in the 1920s. With American financial support, the socialist-led Weimar Republic stabilised the country and set out on a new liberal path. Women had the vote, and for the first time German women joined political parties, particularly on the left. Inspired by Rosa Luxemburg, leader of the communist Spartacus movement, middle-class girls, Grete Buber-Neumann among them, chopped off their hair, watched plays by Bertolt Brecht and tramped through forests with comrades of the Wandervogel, a communist youth movement, talking of revolution. Meanwhile, across the country working-class women raised money for ‘Red Help’, joined trade unions and stood at factory gates handing out strike leaflets.

In 1922 in Munich, where Adolf Hitler was blaming Germany’s strife on the ‘bloated Jew’, a precocious Jewish girl called Olga Benario ran away from home to join a communist cell, disowning her prosperous middle-class parents. She was fourteen. Within months the dark-eyed schoolgirl was leading comrades on walks through the Bavarian Alps, diving into mountain streams, then reading Marx around the campfire and planning Germany’s communist revolution. In 1928 she shot to fame after holding up a Berlin courthouse and snatching a leading German communist to freedom as he faced the guillotine. By 1929 Olga had left Germany for Moscow to train with Stalin’s elite, before heading to Brazil to start a revolution.

Back in the stricken Ruhr valley, Johanna Langefeld was by this time a single mother without a future. The 1929 Wall Street Crash triggered world depression, plunging Germany into a new and deeper economic crisis that threw millions out of work and created widespread unrest. Langefeld’s deepest fear was that her son, Herbert, would be taken from her if she fell into destitution. Instead of joining the destitute, however, she chose to help them, turning to God. ‘It was religious conviction that drew her to work with the poorest of the poor,’ so she told Grete all those years later at the Frankfurt kitchen table. She found work with the welfare service, teaching housekeeping skills to unemployed women and ‘re-educating prostitutes’.

In 1933, Johanna Langefeld found a new saviour in Adolf Hitler. Hitler’s programme for women could not have been clearer: German women were to stay at home, rear as many Aryan children as they were able, and obey their husbands. Women were not fit for public life; most jobs would be barred to women and access to university curtailed.

Such attitudes could easily be found in any European country in the 1930s, but Nazi language on women was uniquely toxic; not only did Hitler’s entourage openly scorn the ‘stupid’, ‘inferior’ female sex, they repeatedly demanded ‘separation’ of women from men, as if men didn’t see the point of women at all except as occasional adornments and, of course, as childbearers.*# The Jews were not Hitler’s only scapegoats for Germany’s ills: women who had been emancipated during the Weimar years were blamed for taking men’s jobs and corrupting the country’s morals.

Yet Hitler had the power to seduce the millions of German women who yearned for a ‘steel-hardened man’ to restore pride and order to the Reich. Such female admirers, many deeply religious, and all inflamed by Joseph Goebbels’s anti-Semitic propaganda, packed the 1933 Nuremberg victory rally where the American reporter William Shirer mingled with the mob. ‘Hitler rode into this medieval town at sundown today past solid phalanxes of wildly cheering Nazis . ⁠. ⁠. Tens of thousands of Swastika flags blot out the Gothic beauties of the place . ⁠. ⁠. ⁠’ Later that night, outside Hitler’s hotel: ‘I was a little shocked at the faces, especially those of the women . ⁠. ⁠. They looked up at him as if he were a Messiah . ⁠. ⁠. ⁠’

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