RAVENSBRUECK , Nazi concentration camp for women. This camp, the only one of its kind, was located near Fuerstenberg in Mecklenburg (in the former East Germany). Its construction by prisoners from *Sachsenhausen, begun in the fall of 1938, was completed in the spring of 1939. The first camp commandant, Max Koegel, was replaced in 1942 by Fritz Suhren, who remained in charge until the evacuation of the camp (April 30, 1945). The key posts were held by men, but the *ss staff was mostly female and excelled in its cruel treatment of the inmates. Originally intended as a prison camp for political prisoners, Ravensbrueck's role changed with the start of World War ii, eventually becoming a concentration camp and finally, in 1944, with the addition of a gas chamber, an extermination camp.
On May 15, 1939 the first prisoner transport arrived from Lichtenburg, a concentration camp for women in Saxony that closed in May 1939. The women were "Bibelforscher" (Jehovah's Witnesses) or criminals. On May 18, 1939, 867 women who were political prisoners (some were coincidentally Jewish, arrested for their political activities, not because they were Jewish), arrived from Germany and Austria. By late May 1939 there were 974 women imprisoned in Ravensbrueck including 137 Jews. In the summer of 1939 a transport of gypsies arrived from Austria. The camp's original purpose was the imprisonment and punishment of political prisoners. After the war began its prisoners served as a pool for slave labor. The outbreak of World War ii also brought thousands of Polish women (many with their children) and Czech women to Ravensbrueck. Later on other prisoners came, especially resistance fighters from all over Europe. Women wore color-coded triangles that designated them as political prisoners, criminals, asocials, Jehovah's Witnesses, or Jews. With the war and the increasing numbers of incarcerated women came a swift deterioration in living conditions due to overcrowding, malnutrition, and hard labor. The escalation of the war brought continually harsher and demanding work conditions in jobs that ranged from hard physical labor such as road building to factory work in the network of satellite camps. A clothing industry, especially for furs, operated in the camp. Work was required of everyone. Older women who were too weak to do hard labor were used to make clothes for the army or clean the barracks and latrines. The "Bunker"–as the camp prison was known–was completed in 1939 and became the site where women were regularly subjected to solitary confinement and torture. In 1941 the sick prisoners were included in the Euthanasiaaktion involving the killing of the mentally ill. The steadily growing death rate was caused by overwork and deteriorating living conditions. In the fall of 1944 a gas chamber was constructed (until then prisoners had been sent for gassing to other camps), and it is likely that the first female prisoners were murdered there in January 1945.
Ravensbrueck prisoners served as guinea pigs for pseudomedical experiments carried out by the *Auschwitz physicians, August Horst and Karl Clauberg. The surviving victims were often crippled for life. Ravensbrueck also became a training site for women SS auxiliary guards who went on to work in Auschwitz or *Majdanek. The rising number of Jewish inmates was concentrated in a special Jewish block, where the worst living conditions prevailed. With the implementation of the "Final Solution," all Jewish prisoners were sent to Auschwitz or Majdanek in October 1942. In the summer of 1944 Hungarian Jewish women arrived, followed later by others from other camps. Due to the intervention of *Himmler's favorite, the Finnish Dr. Kersten, and of the representatives of the World Jewish Congress in Sweden, together with the activities of *Bernadotte, on April 21 Himmler gave his consent to release thousands of women from Ravensbrueck and two other camps nearby. They were transferred by the Red Cross to Sweden and Denmark. Among them were at least 1,000 Jewish women. This rescue action had been decisively influenced by the personal intervention of Norbert Masur (d. 1971), a member of the Swedish section of the World Jewish Congress, who flew with Kersten to Berlin on April 19 and conferred with Himmler in a meeting arranged by Kersten, during the night of April 20 to 21. With the approach of the Soviet army, evacuation of Ravensbrueck was ordered by Himmler and 15,000 women were sent on a forced death march. Up to this time, 132,000 women and children had passed through the camp, of whom 92,000 died or were murdered in the camp. When the Red Army reached the camp on April 30, 1945, they found 3,000 gravely ill and dying prisoners there.
No armed resistance was possible in Ravensbrueck, but other examples of "illegal" and punishable activities are noteworthy. Those of a political nature include attempts by women working in the nearby Siemens factory to sabotage its manufacture of rocket components, to steal newspapers, or to keep lists of prisoners. Women also taught clandestinely and attempted small theatrical productions. Acts that offered reminders of home and emotional reassurance to the imprisoned women are also important. Women secretly created cookbooks, artwork, and other small items. These artistic and hand-crafted gifts that prisoners fashioned from scraps and threads of clothing and exchanged among themselves were unique ways in which women were able to resist the dehumanizing and deadly conditions.
W. Machlejd (ed.), Experimental Operations on Prisoners of Ravensbrueck Concentration Camp (1960); M. Buber-Neumann, Under Two Dictators (1950), passim; imt, Trial of the Major War Criminals, 23 (1949), index s.v.concentration camps; E.N. Masur, En Jude Talar med Himmler (1945); L. Yahil, in: Yad Vashem Studies, 6 (1967), 210–20; E. Buchmann (ed.), Die Frauen von Ravensbrueck (1959); D. Dufournier, Ravensbrueck: the Women's Camp of Death (1948); M. Maurel, An Ordinary Camp (1958); Ravensbrueck: German Concentration Camp for Women (1961). add. bibliography: R. Saidel, The Jewish Women of Ravensbrück Concentration Camp (2004).
[Yehuda Reshef /
Beth Cohen (2nd ed.)]