Friday, 23 April 2010

Ravensbrück Concentration Camp

Today we caught a train up to Fürstenberg, which is about 70km north of Berlin, and cycled to Templin - a distance of about 40km.

We passed by the former Ravensbrück Nazi Concentration Camp for women, on the shores of Schwedtsee, and stopped to have a look around this National Mahn- und Gedenkstätte (site of memorial and remembrance).

It was a sunny day, and Schwedtsee lake sparkling blue. The tranquil resort town of Fürstenberg could be seen prettily on the opposite shore. An impressive Jugendherberge (Youth Hostel) of large Tyrolean lodges stood beside the entrance to Ravensbrück, promising youthful summertime adventures hiking through the forest and boating on the lake.


It was hard to believe that between 1939 and 1945 130,000 female prisoners passed through the Ravensbrück camp system, of whom only 40,000 survived. But it was so.

The site of the camp has many statues haunting this place where so many women prisoners were gassed, strangled, shot, experimented on, buried alive, or simply worked to death. The most poignant statue is of a colossal bronze women standing looking out across the lake. In her arms she carries a limp male figure, obviously dead. Her head is covered in mourning, her face gaunt and grim. Her legs are frozen in shuffling motion moving towards the lake. The statue, by sculptor Will Lammert, is called 'die Tragende', which in English means something like 'the carrying or bearing woman'.

Here it is in close-up:

The meaning will be to each person's individual interpretation, but to me there is a sad futility expressed here around a woman who carried and bore a son as a baby, now bearing him in his death. The man's body is almost foetal in its positioning, smaller than the woman's, and held to her belly. What is surprising to me is that this central memorial at a concentration camp for women seems to say more about a mother's grief at the loss of a son, rather than the death of her sisters. There are also echoes of La Pietà (the Virgin Mary cradling the dead body of Jesus) which again, doesn't seem appropriate in this context (which anyway, Käthe kollwitz did much better in the Neue Wache in Berlin).

Rather more appropriately symbolic, I think, are a pair of statues in front of the Wall of Nations beside a mass grave for three hundred prisoners:

It is also by Will Lammert and is titled 'Frauengruppe', or womens' group. The distortions of their proportions look almost grotesque - the long arms and distended neck, the large hands, the short legs, the pendulous breasts and wide hips, the shorn head - but these are deliberately not classical sculptures to idealised feminine beauty. They are more real in their exaggerated dimensions.

Interestingly they are on separate plinths and could be moved apart, but by bringing them together, in this place, they seem to express to me a comradeship forged in horrendously brutal conditions. A sisterhood in adversity. And indeed, 'Frauengruppe' is the name given to Feminist self-support and politicizing groups.

In direct opposition to the strength of these two women, is a statue that 'greets' you near the entrance:

Here the woman is emaciated, her face skull-like, her ribs visible, a shift hanging on her shoulders with no semblance of a female form beneath. And from sideways, the statue presents itself as almost two-dimensional.

Then there is the miniature girl clinging to the woman's match-stick legs. The child looks as though she is almost wetting herself with fear, and yet her mother doesn't notice, her own despair consuming her with resignation, with inaction.

This group is disturbing, but also somewhat pathetic in its passiveness. I prefer to contemplate on the strength of the Frauengruppe and Tragende rather than this symbol of hopelessness.

When imagery can't adequately convey the facts of this place, words will have to do. The many memorials are unambiguous, such as this one on a large rectangle of earth planted with Spring flowers:

Hier ruhen die sterblichen Überreste hunderter ermordeter frauen und kinder aus über 20 Ländern Europas
This translates in English as:
Here lie the mortal remains of hundreds of murdered women and children from over twenty European countries.
Behind here is the so-called Wall of Nations - Mauer der Nationen - with individual memorials to the dead from each country. This included a memorial for Great Britain, and I was curious how women from the UK had ended up here. The plaque provides an explanation:

The inscription reads:

IN MEMORY OF
MEMBERS OF THE SPECIAL OPERATIONS EXECUTIVE (SOE) F SECTION
WHOSE LIVES WERE TAKEN HERE

DENISE MADELEINE BLOCH
KINGS COMMENDATION FOR BRAVE CONDUCT, CHEVALIER DE LA LEGION D'HONNEUR
MEDAILLE DE LA RESISTANCE FRANCAISE (ROSETTE). WOMEN'S TRANSPORT SERVICE (FANY)
SHOT. JANUARY 1945

LILIAN VERNA ROLFE
MENTIONED IN DESPATCHES. CROIX DE GUERRE AVEC PALME.WOMEN'S AUXILLIARY AIR FORCE
SHOT. JANUARY 1945

VIOLETTE ELIZABETH SZABO
GEORGE CROSS. CROIX DE GUERRE AVEC PALME. WOMEN'S TRANSPORT SERVICE (FANY)
SHOT. JANUARY 1945

CECILY MARGOT LEFORT
MENTIONED IN DESPATCHES. CROIX DE GUERRE AVEC ETOILE DE VERMEIL. WOMEN'S AUXILIARY AIR FORCE.
GASSED. FEBRUARY 1945

AND THOSE WHO SURVIVED.
So, they were all members of the UK's Special Operations Executive. That is, engaged in the support of resistance movements, sabotage, and espionage in Nazi occupied Europe. In particular, they were assigned to F Section, which sent agents into enemy France. F Section sent 39 female agents into the field, of whom 13 did not return. This memorial marks the resting place of four of them.

If you are interested, you can find out more about these brave women on Wikipedia:
Other countries lost far more of their daughters to Ravensbrück. One memorial remembers the French women and children deported there:

There is thankfully very little left of the buildings that once stood here: this is a memorial site after all, not a Ravensbrück Experience Theme Park. What remains is enough; a cell block in which the women were incarcerated:

And, most shockingly of all, the ovens of the crematorium:

Ravensbrück was liberated by the Red Army on 30th April 1945. As the Soviet Army approached, the camp guards began the extermination of as many prisoners as they could in order not to leave anyone behind who could testify to what had taken place there. When the SS couldn't murder the women fast enough, they sent the remaining 20,000 prisoners bare-footed on a death-march toward northern Mecklenburg. They were eventually liberated by a Russian scout unit that caught up with them.

A memorial to the liberators, in the form of a Soviet tank still freshly bedecked to this day with grateful flowers, stands at the approach to Ravensbrück:


We carried on with our bike ride rather more soberly, and a bit more thoughtfully, but glad for the sun on our face and the freedom to cycle where we wished.

2 comments:

  1. Damn. I visited the camp at Oranienburg. I still don't know if I'd recommend it.

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  2. I'm studying this in class, and i just CANT believe how horrific this is, i mean seriously, how can people do this type of thing? and NOT feel guilty about it, its just SICK, WRONG, UN-HUMANE, i could go on and on..

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