Monday, June 1, 2015

Ravensbrück: Life and Death in Hitler's Concentration Camp for Women by Sarah Helm

Release Date: March 31, 2015
Publisher: Nan A. Talese (Doubleday Books)

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Before the beginning of World War II, Heinrich Himmler created a concentration camp 50 miles north of Berlin to house female prisoners. Once the war was over, it came to light that more than 100,000 women passed through the gates of Ravensbruck - each of them from one of over twenty different nations. Much of the history of this camp was suppressed or erased all together because of the atrocities which took place behind its wired walls. However, many heroic women told the story of their lives inside the camp once they were freed.

Compiled from salvaged letters, mountains of declassified papers and interviews from the remaining survivors or their families, Sarah Helm has created a comprehensive history of the camp from the first brick laid until the last prisoner left the grounds. She explored the various methods used to keep the prisoners 'in line' as well as the many protests, large and small, that the prisoners attempted to better their living conditions. Giving a voice to the thousands of voiceless, the book granted a lasting memory of those who were lost behind the gates of Ravensbruck.

I stumbled upon this book while searching through the Nonfiction section at NetGalley. Something about the book caught my eye and I decided to give it a read. What I found between the covers was one of the hardest yet profound books that I have read to date. Remembering the history lessons covered by years in school in no way compared to the information that the author compiled into this book. This particular concentration camp wasn't as well known or talked about like Auschwitz or Dachau, but the same atrocities occurred within its walls to the thousands of women prisoners brought from all over Europe. Maybe the press didn't put as high a value on the female lives as on the males. Maybe because the Jewish prisoners made up a small percentage of the total camp population. There could be many reasons as to why it's taken so long to have an in-depth account of the events at Ravensbruck.

From the camp's creation, Himmler wanted a place where he could contain the women which he consider inferior - political protestors, prostitutes, and Jews as well as many other nationalities deemed a poison to the German population at that time. The book not only presented the accounts of the prisoners with details and thorough fact-checking, but it also examined many of the SS guards which controlled the camp in the beginning up to the final year before liberation happened. In the beginning it was easy to tell which side was which as the prisoners had their uniforms and the guards had a distinctive look to their own as well. By the end of the war, there was such a shortage of officers and guards in the ranks of the SS that many of the prisoners were assigned jobs such as running each barrack or a particular area of the camp. Because of this intermingling, it was difficult to determine who was and wasn't trustworthy. In truth some of the prisoners acting as guards, or blockovas, were more ruthless than the SS guards - a fact that even disturbed Himmler at times. Rules were strictly followed as the camp accepted its first prisoners. Near the end of the war, thousands upon thousands of women streamed into the camp and made it difficult to enforce any of the rules all of the time.

The author gathered information from living survivors as well as the families of some who were now gone. Declassified documents from several governments and letters smuggled out of the camp helped to shape the manuscript into a comprehensive history of the camp and its inhabitants. It was written in such a manner that the events of each chapter flowed almost seamlessly into the next without a lot of backtracking when new people were prominent in the writing. The author's writing style would've made this book a quick, interesting read. However, the details of the horrific abuse and heartbreaking realities that these women endured made it difficult to wade through. There was so much in each sentence of the book that I could not skim the paragraph or chapter without losing vital information about the camp, a particular prisoner or even a significant change within a guard. The author's style of writing also gave dimension to the people involved in each of the situations. Everything about them came through in the narrative, creating a running movie in my mind and giving them the respect of being actual people who lived and breathed instead of merely characters in a story.

This book was truly a hard one to read because of the abuse and neglectful conditions that the women lived through. It occurred at any of the camps that they were sent after being processed at Ravensbruck, but the first taste of hell for many was the moments they stepped off the trains onto the grounds of Ravensbruck. What struck me first was the fact that a large portion of the women sent to the camp in the beginning weren't Jewish. They were mainly political prisoners, dissenters or even Jehovah's Witnesses who refused to help Hitler's cause. Once the war was under way, the women of each town the Germans conquered were sent to the camp until there were over 21 different nationalities and ethnic backgrounds among the women. This included Americans or the spouses/relatives of Americans such as Virginia Lake, the sister of Mayor La Guardia of New York at the time. Many of the women showed strength and determination in the face of such horrors and death itself in order to ensure what was happening to them got to the world outside the camp. This book gave a voice to the voiceless and allowed a light to shine on one of the few remaining unknowns of Hitler's reign of terror during the war. If you are a lover of nonfiction or are emboldened by people who find strength and determination when all hope is supposedly lost, this book is a must read.

Ravensbruck: Life and Death in Hitler's Concentration Camp for Women by Sarah Helm is currently available at several online retailers and local bookstores. It can be purchased in either hardcover or digital (Kindle) formats at the book's Amazon page. The link is provided below.
Ravensbruck: Life and Death in Hitler's Concentration Camp for Women by Sarah Helm

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