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Ravensbrück [PDF]

The next time anyone says to me, “But Ravensbrück wasn’t one of the death camps,” I am going to have to punch that person in the teeth.

It wasn’t set up as a death camp, and for most of the war didn’t function as one.This changed.No one’s really sure of the statistics.The agreed numbers suggest that in 6 years of operation, 120,000 women were interned here, of which 90,000 died.90,000 women died here.Seventy-five per cent, three out of four, of all women sent to this concentration camp ended up dead.During the last four months of World War II, at least one gas chamber was in constant operation at Ravensbrück—first secretly, then overtly—and an estimated 6,000 women were gassed here at a rate of about 150 or so every day.Why didn’t they get rid of them faster?It was the end of the war.They were short of gas.

(And that’s not taking into account the numberless anonymous women—almost all Ravensbrück’s records were destroyed before the camp was liberated—who were summarily transported out of Ravensbrück to be gassed elsewhere.)

Tillion’s interesting argument, and one I hadn’t encountered before but which seems convincing, is that Ravensbrück essentially filled a gap when Auschwitz was evacuated.The first gas chamber at Ravensbrück was built during the month that Auschwitz was shut down,and prior to that several thousand detainees from Auschwitz had in fact been transferred to Ravensbrück—so many that there wasn’t any place to put them.A tent was erected in the main square of the camp, and 5000 doomed women and children were stuffed inside it, not allowed out, and pretty much left to die of starvation and disease—conditions in this tent were so appalling that even the existing resident prisoners of the camp shunned it.(I’ve read several eyewitness descriptions of this notorious tent from the outside, but haven’t come across anyone who survived living inside it.)

Tillion also argues that the simple answer for the high number of random deaths of French prisoners (also a thing noted in other accounts I’ve read), for no apparent reason, is starvation.All French prisoners were labelled ‘political’ and most of them were ‘NN,’ ‘Nacht und Nebel,’ night and fog, which meant their imprisonment was secret.Simply, they couldn’t receive mail.Eastern European and German prisoners, by contrast, depended on food packages from outside the camp to supplement their meagre rations.Even when the Red Cross distributed food here, the French NN prisoners were not allowed to receive it.

Buried within Tillion’s statistics is a personal account.Her tone is both bitter and distanced at the same time, as she sets out to hammer home her points with endless lists of dates and head counts, most of them approximate, a few verified on paper.Occasionally she’ll interrupt her impersonal flow with a comment like, ‘I was suffering from lockjaw at the time and couldn’t speak or eat, so I may not remember the exact number’ or ‘This was told me by a girl who had been beaten so badly I had to hold her up during a sudden midnight roll call while we stood in our shifts in the snow for three hours.’ (I made up these specific examples.They’re representative.)The last section of the book is dated like a daily journal for all of March 1945, and there is a kind of desperation to the endless numbers of the executions tallied here, especially since you KNOW half of them are made up if not inaccurate.After a while you want to shake the author and yell, OKAY, I GET THE PICTURE.And then you realize that it was during this time Tillion was finally separated from her mother, who was gassed here in the LAST MONTH before the war ended, after they’d both survived an agonizing two-and-a-half year imprisonment for resistance activities.And then you kind of forgive her ferocious heavy-handedness with the dry, relentless details.



500 pages including 8 appendices in 8 point type, with large parts of that in 6 point.I confess to skimming the statistics in the sections about other concentration camps.Because this really was a book that focused on statistics.They are riveting in their terrible significance, but they’re still statistics, and lack the gripping visual jolt of testimony or experience.Still, I do feel it was worth the effort.

A note to other researchers:

If there is anyone else out there hungry for peculiar details such as “What number might be assigned to someone turning up here in September 1944” or “How many people would actually be present at a roll call in that month” or something like that, Appendix 7 provides a useful chronology.There is also an extensive bibliography and map of the camp… and this map is somewhat more detailed and explicit than the one on the Ravensbrück website, which goes a bit vague about what certain of the surviving buildings were used for.Although I do appreciate how some of this stuff might be on the sensitive side.
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