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Memoirs by Germaine Tillion, 1946, 1973, 1988

The title Ravensbrück refers to three distinct works. Each has as its starting point French ethnographer Germaine Tillion's internment in the Ravensbrück women's labor camp between 1943 and 1945. The first, published in 1946, relates her firsthand knowledge as directly as possible, at a time when the world was only beginning to read eyewitness accounts of the Holocaust. In spite of an attempt at objectivity in the form of a thorough discussion of the camp's historical context, it is an angry document, containing unscientific comments such as the different degrees of moral and physical strength exhibited by prisoners depending upon their nation of origin. The second, published in 1973, includes a corrected version of the 1946 edition in which she disavows her earlier generalizations based on race and ethnicity and is augmented by histories of the camp and the Nazi policies of slave labor and extermination as well as by a study of the fate of 959 French women who were part of a convoy sent to Ravensbrück from Compiégne in 1944. Tillion ends with discussions of the broader question of German guilt (once again abandoning her earlier belief in the inherent vices of certain nationalities) and of the problem of truth in testimonies. Studies by other authors of the gas chambers in Mauthausen, Dachau, and Buchenwald appear as appendixes for the purpose of repudiating recently published denials of their existence. The third version, published in 1988, reflects 40 years of research not only on Ravensbrück but also on the Holocaust in general, including archival material that had only been made available after the 1973 version was written. It is her most important work.

Despite vast differences among the three books, a few central concerns and characteristics remain consistent throughout. From the start Tillion intended to provide more than a factual account; she was always concerned with placing her experience in the larger historical context and analyzing philosophical issues such as the trustworthiness of testimonials or the attribution of responsibility for genocide. She pays careful attention to concentration camp terminology, such as verfügbar ("available"), applied to women who were not assigned to work in factories outside the camp, or Nacht und Nebel ("night and fog"), applied to women considered security risks, such as political prisoners from occupied lands, such as herself (as opposed to common criminals, prostitutes, ethnic minorities, and others). She uses whatever written document can be found, whether her own notes taken secretly while in captivity or Nazi archives that had escaped destruction during the abandonment of the camps. Despite such scholarly trappings, the 1946 edition is valuable primarily for its ability to convey emotion and a sense of closeness to the events being described.

The most significant addition in the 1973 edition is a systematic attempt to document the scale of murders in Ravensbrück based on a German list of 959 French female prisoners who were sent to the camp in early 1944. By carefully tracking the fate of each woman on the list, Tillion arrives at a coherent picture of the camp in general, especially the various means of murdering prisoners before the gas chambers were put into service toward the end of the war. The Revier, or infirmary, was one way the Nazis increased the death rate, as was the Jugendlager, or youth camp, which was in effect a death camp annexed to the larger labor camp. Tillion's purpose in researching this data was to arrive at a more precise figure for the numbers of deaths and explain how they logistically could have occurred.

The scientific approach that dominates the 1973 edition reaches its fulfillment in the 1988 edition. Passages from the earliest edition have all but disappeared. A revised analysis of the list of 959 prisoners is preserved, though it is dwarfed by the quantity of research and analysis of other aspects of the camp. Tillion introduces her study by describing the state of knowledge of Nazi war crimes in France during the war and follows with an overview of Nazi policies, with special attention to Heinrich Himmler's business interests. She continues with a more complete history and sociology of the Ravensbrück camp than in the earlier editions, owing more to archival research, depositions by German army personnel arrested after the war, testimonies from other survivors, and research by other scholars than to Tillion's own experience. The penultimate chapter consists of her thoughts on some of the dominant themes of Holocaust research. As if to respond to criticisms that her work on the Holocaust was insufficiently personal, she includes for the first time a full account of her mother's deportation and murder. Few people have Tillion's combination of scientific credentials and experience, a fact that places all three versions of Ravensbrück in a special category in the bibliography of Holocaust literature.

—M. Martin Guiney