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

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A groundbreaking, masterful, and absorbing account of the last hidden atrocity of World War II—Ravensbrück—the largest female-only concentration camp, where more than 100,000 women consisting of more than twenty nationalities were imprisoned. Shortly before the outbreak of World War II, Heinrich Himmler, the head of the SS and the architect of the Holocaust, oversaw the con A groundbreaking, masterful, and absorbing account of the last hidden atrocity of World War II—Ravensbrück—the largest female-only concentration camp, where more than 100,000 women consisting of more than twenty nationalities were imprisoned. Shortly before the outbreak of World War II, Heinrich Himmler, the head of the SS and the architect of the Holocaust, oversaw the construction of a special concentration camp just fifty miles north of Berlin. He called it Ravensbrück, and during the years that followed thousands of people died there after enduring brutal forms of torture. All were women. There are a handful of studies and memoirs that reference Ravensbrück, but until now no one has written a full account of this atrocity, perhaps due to the mostly masculine narrative of war, or perhaps because it lacks the Jewish context of most mainstream Holocaust history. Ninety percent of Ravensbrück's prisoners were not Jewish. Rather, they were political prisoners, Resistance fighters, lesbians, prostitutes, even the sister of New York's Mayor LaGuardia. In a perverse twist, most of the guards were women themselves. Sarah Helm's groundbreaking work sheds much-needed light on an aspect of World War II that has remained in the shadows for decades. Using research into German and newly opened Russian archives, as well as interviews with survivors, Helm has produced a landmark achievement that weaves together various accounts, allowing us to follow characters on both sides of the prisoner/guard divide. Chilling, compelling, and deeply unsettling, Ravensbrück is essential reading for anyone concerned with Nazi history.


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A groundbreaking, masterful, and absorbing account of the last hidden atrocity of World War II—Ravensbrück—the largest female-only concentration camp, where more than 100,000 women consisting of more than twenty nationalities were imprisoned. Shortly before the outbreak of World War II, Heinrich Himmler, the head of the SS and the architect of the Holocaust, oversaw the con A groundbreaking, masterful, and absorbing account of the last hidden atrocity of World War II—Ravensbrück—the largest female-only concentration camp, where more than 100,000 women consisting of more than twenty nationalities were imprisoned. Shortly before the outbreak of World War II, Heinrich Himmler, the head of the SS and the architect of the Holocaust, oversaw the construction of a special concentration camp just fifty miles north of Berlin. He called it Ravensbrück, and during the years that followed thousands of people died there after enduring brutal forms of torture. All were women. There are a handful of studies and memoirs that reference Ravensbrück, but until now no one has written a full account of this atrocity, perhaps due to the mostly masculine narrative of war, or perhaps because it lacks the Jewish context of most mainstream Holocaust history. Ninety percent of Ravensbrück's prisoners were not Jewish. Rather, they were political prisoners, Resistance fighters, lesbians, prostitutes, even the sister of New York's Mayor LaGuardia. In a perverse twist, most of the guards were women themselves. Sarah Helm's groundbreaking work sheds much-needed light on an aspect of World War II that has remained in the shadows for decades. Using research into German and newly opened Russian archives, as well as interviews with survivors, Helm has produced a landmark achievement that weaves together various accounts, allowing us to follow characters on both sides of the prisoner/guard divide. Chilling, compelling, and deeply unsettling, Ravensbrück is essential reading for anyone concerned with Nazi history.

30 review for Ravensbrück: Life and Death in Hitler's Concentration Camp for Women

  1. 5 out of 5

    Erin

    I understood now what this book should be: a biography of Ravensbrück beginning at the beginning and ending at the end, piecing the broken story back together again as best I could. The book would try to throw light on the Nazis' crimes against women, showing, at the same time, how an understanding of what happened at the camp for women can illuminate the wider Nazi story. Brief History lesson Ravensbrück, the largest concentration camp for women, was constructed in 1938 and officially opened i I understood now what this book should be: a biography of Ravensbrück beginning at the beginning and ending at the end, piecing the broken story back together again as best I could. The book would try to throw light on the Nazis' crimes against women, showing, at the same time, how an understanding of what happened at the camp for women can illuminate the wider Nazi story. Brief History lesson Ravensbrück, the largest concentration camp for women, was constructed in 1938 and officially opened in May 1939, the camp was situated 90 km north of Berlin. In size, the camp was second only to Auschwitz-Birkenau and by January 1945, Ravensbrück would hold more than 50,000 prisoners, the majority- women from 30 different nationalities. Although there were Jewish female prisoners in the camp, the SS saw the camp as an appropriate place to house political prisoners( Communists), "asocials"( such as the Roma)Jehovah Witnesses, prostitutes, and race defilers( women of impure race sleeping with men of the Aryan race), members of the French resistance, British female agents caught in France etc. These women were forced into labor, including making supplies for the German army at the nearby Siemens factory. Many of the Polish women became "rabbits" for the camp doctors, including sterilization, and being injected with gangrene gas. When the Auschwitz- Birkenau camp staff was forced to flee from the Soviets in Poland, Ravensbrück quickly became an extermination camp as the SS hurried to hide evidence before the Allied troops would arrive in Germany. After the war, many survivors were told that their stories of Ravensbrück didn't need to be heard or that their countrymen wouldn't be interested in learning of their suffering and so many stayed quiet. Sorry to get personal.... but When I was 22 and at university studying for my education degree, I attended a session in which I heard my first Holocaust survivor testimony, a man who lost his parents and all seven of his siblings in the camps, who survived Auschwitz, immigrated to Canada and for forty years never spoke to anyone about his experiences during the war. Although his closest friends knew that he was Jewish, he never told them he was a survivor of the Holocaust. He only decided to talk when the stories of Holocaust denial began to surface and he realized that he no longer could be silent. During the Q&A, a young man, a history major, asked " As a Holocaust survivor, which film "Schindler's List" or "The Pianist" has done a better job of telling the story of the Holocaust survivor?" You can imagine that all 100 people, including myself, leaned in to hear what he would say because of course we had watched those films. He thought for a long moment and said " Honestly, if Hollywood were ever to make a movie on what we all went through in those camps, no one in Canada or the United States would ever want to see it." What he said that night lingers with me every time I read a book( or watch a movie)- fiction or non-fiction What I thought Sarah Helm presents a meticulously written account of what the many women of the camp endured during a six year period. The truth is that there are not many books devoted to the Ravensbrück camp and it is clear to see that Helm wants to have the voices of these women heard because for many it is the first time. It reminded me of A Train in Winter: An Extraordinary Story of Women, Friendship, and Resistance in Occupied France which also faced a lot of criticism from readers about how cumbersome it became having so many women introduced within chapters. My suggestion to future readers is to make sure you have a hard copy of the book to flip back and forth to the footnotes with ease. As well, don't be afraid to take breaks! Each chapter or multiple chapters present testimony after testimony of what women from the different countries endured at the hands of the Ravensbrück guards, doctors, and even among one another. I had to read the book in small increments of time because there was only so much I felt that I could handle. Although Helm does her best to maintain chronological order in the text, she also does have to let the readers know that sometimes she is actually speaking with one of the survivors. So, she mentions things like sitting at their kitchen table in Moscow or Israel, or Germany. I never felt this hinder my reading experience because there is also repetition of some names and events. SO, I couldn't exactly forget! Helm also focuses on some of the recognizable names that found themselves at the camp. Corrie Ten Boom and her sister, Genevieve de Gaulle( niece of a certain French general), Mary Lindell( British nurse living in France that helped Allied airmen until she was caught by the Gestapo), British agents under the command of "The Spymistress" Vera Atkins and Germaine Tillion, who published a memoir in 1946 about her experiences in the campRavensbrück . On the subject of the Nuremberg and Hamburg trials Helm mentions that Tillion was critical and wrote to the effect; It was impossible to try the crimes of the 'abnormal world' of concentration camps within the confines of a 'normal' court... Only the accused and the witnesses understood the 'abnormal world', which made them partners in the sharing of this awful knowledge; the rest of the world was in the dark. The camp was a training ground or stepping stone for female guards to practice their "skills" and if they caught the eyes of their leadership, they would be able to be promoted to the "coveted" job as a guard in Auschwitz. There is actually this segment in the book where Helm details how Rudolf Höss, commandant of Auschwitz, accuses one of the commandants of Ravensbrück, of "keeping the best female guards for himself." Proving that even German high command could resort to pettiness. There are inserts all the way through of the line of thinking of the top ranking Nazis, but Helm really concentrates on providing the reader with anecdotes on Heinrich Himmler as he often visited the camps. Some I felt were interesting and others seemed ill placed given whatever the focus of the chapter was. So why has the Ravensbrück camp been largely ignored? In her epilogue, Helm sums up some of the scholarly answers that have cropped up over the years; It was smaller scale than many others; it didn't fit easily into the central narrative; camp documents had been completely destroyed; it was hidden behind the Iron Curtain; the prisoners were only women yet it is precisely because this was a camp for women that Ravensbrück should have shaken the conscience of the world. I am going to leave it there because Sarah Helm goes on to say a lot of 'other ' that no doubt has and will spark great debate among many readers. It may or may not sit well with you, myself, I am still fresh from the reading and I think it will take awhile to process it all. I could probably go on and on about this book, but I know that many people will say 'I cannot read a sad book especially about concentration camps.' Is it sad? Absolutely! 'Do I have to read this book? No, it doesn't have to be this book. In fact, if you can attend an event in your community and hear a survivor or visit a Holocaust museum, that's even better. Thanks to all my Goodreads pals that cheered me along and have continuously engaged with me in discussions regarding this book.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Christine

    Disclaimer: ARC via Netgalley. Is anyone else, besides me, tired of movies where men do everything and are the heroes and women are mere appendages? Why, for instance, are heroic men usually highlighted in various ways from best Oscar nods to HBO mini-series to be the detective who should get smacked? This isn’t to discredit men, after all the Founding Fathers were men so simply calling them the Founders is a bit, well, facile. However, not all women heroes are suffragettes, white women saving p Disclaimer: ARC via Netgalley. Is anyone else, besides me, tired of movies where men do everything and are the heroes and women are mere appendages? Why, for instance, are heroic men usually highlighted in various ways from best Oscar nods to HBO mini-series to be the detective who should get smacked? This isn’t to discredit men, after all the Founding Fathers were men so simply calling them the Founders is a bit, well, facile. However, not all women heroes are suffragettes, white women saving poor Africans (don’t get me started) or surviving cancer and/or abusive and cheating husbands. We have Band of Brothers and the Pacific. When we have shows about women in World War II, they are usually about women like Miep Giles who rescued. There is little about women resistance members (unless it is a love story), spies, snipers, or tank drivers. Take for instance, the subject of Sarah Helm’s previous book, Vera Atkins, who in many cases, if she is remembered, will be remembered as the inspiration for Miss Moneypenny, who seems to be far away from Miss Moneypenny was Winnie the Pooh is from a real bear. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that Helm’s latest book is about Ravensbruck Camp, a prison camp under the Nazis that housed women. At first glance, a reader might think that this is yet another story about women surviving victimhood, but it’s not. At least not unless you considered the Great Escape the same type of story. Honestly, there needs to be a movie made about the woman who escaped by basically tightrope walking the fence. Seriously, calling Angelina Jolie! Helm details not only life at the camp as well as the history of those who found themselves imprisoned there, but also the building of the place. She examines why guards wanted to work there as well as the conflict between the Johanna Langefeld, the head woman guard; and Kogel, the Sturmbannfuher. Langefeld and her relation to the camp is one of the most interesting aspects of narrative. Helms does not try to soften the woman, and more than once points out that Langefeld was an ardent follower of Hitler, but Langefeld was also conflicted for she saw Ravensbruck as a prison, and to her that meant certain things. A level of humanity that the Nazis above her were not willing to sanction. Another great aspect of this book is that Helm brings to light the treatment of groups other than Jews and gypsies. There is a particularly gripping account of the protests and treatment of Jehovah’s Witnesses, who were subjected to all types of punishments because of their refusal to work. Helms also looks closely at political prisoners and the captured female Red Army soldiers. The most disturbing, touching, depressing part of the book is the description on the anti-socials, largely prostitutes, whose names are largely forgotten for a variety of reasons. Helm herself is quick to note that more of her interviews and sources came from groups other than the anti-socials, mostly political and resistance figures. Helm notes that because of the opinions of the other groups as well as the lack of records means that what happened to these women is largely lost. Additionally, Ravensbruck was not just home to lost women relatives of de Gaul and La Guardia found themselves there as well. It is too Helm’s credit that she also focuses on what happened half, not only when the camp was liberated but also on what happened to some of the women afterward, in particular those of the Soviet Army. The book not only is a look at history that is not well known but also on how gender affects views of events as well as reaction to them. At least Helm’s book goes a long way in bringing light on a section of World War II not often discussed.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Jim

    Wow! What a chunkster of a book; basically 3 books in one! Too big a burden to carry most places, and you almost need a bipod to set the thing on while you read it. A thick, thick book...and I was riveted to every page! Any other book this dense has caused my attention to lapse at least a little, but this one caught my interest early and kept it right through to the Acknowledgements. Ravensbruck was an anomaly as far as death/concentration camps were concerned. Officially I suppose it's a concent Wow! What a chunkster of a book; basically 3 books in one! Too big a burden to carry most places, and you almost need a bipod to set the thing on while you read it. A thick, thick book...and I was riveted to every page! Any other book this dense has caused my attention to lapse at least a little, but this one caught my interest early and kept it right through to the Acknowledgements. Ravensbruck was an anomaly as far as death/concentration camps were concerned. Officially I suppose it's a concentration camp, since the Jewish council of Germany decided it couldn't be called a death camp because only Jewish camps were allowed that dubious distinction. Never mind that an unknown number of women were murdered here, estimated between 26,000 and 90,000 but who really knows, doesn't matter, can't be a death camp. They were starved, hanged, shot and gassed, possibly cremated alive, but no death camp designation for this place. Ravensbruck was unique in that it was a women's camp, it was on German soil, and also in that Jewish women were in the minority. Clustered within the walls you would find gypsies, British SOE agents, French resistance operatives, German "asocial types" which would include anything from murderesses and prostitutes to homeless women who had lost their husbands and sons to the Reich. Eventually, captured Soviet servicewomen, taken as POWs, would also suffer here. Sarah Helm has travelled extensively to interview the survivors of this camp, and tells as complete a story as is possible under the circumstances. Most documentation pertaining to the camp was destroyed, and much of the bit that survived was smuggled out by inmates. She tries to tell as fair a story as possible; where a German was kind, which was not unusual, it is noted. I felt particularly sorry for Johanna Langefeld, first chief woman guard of the camp, who was eventually fired for excessive kindness. As a result of the even-handed reporting, a lot of the inmates do not come out with particularly glowing report cards. There were whiners, informants, bullies, thieves, and sadists in the ranks, Helm has no reluctance in reporting this. Sometimes the inmates who volunteered to assist the guards were more brutal than the guards were. Ravensbruck was definitely a hard luck camp that besmirched everyone involved with it, whether they wore field grey or prison stripes. Sometimes the tormentors were outside the wire, as in the case of Cicely Lefort, an Englishwoman who joined SOE at the urging of her French husband. After her capture and internment, she gets a letter from him requesting a divorce! Talk about kicking them while they're down! And Frau Thuringer, who lost three sons to the war was imprisoned by the very country they had fought for. She was murdered in a hallway. In fact, the whole world seemed ready to crap on these women, with the exception of Sweden. The Allies would not negotiate their release with Himmler. American troops halted at the Elbe in order to let Russian troops take Berlin...meanwhile, these women are being killed in their hundreds daily. When Count Bernadotte of Sweden, on his own initiative, arranged limited release of inmates, the Americans refused them safe passage and at least one convoy was strafed by the British. The Russians finally liberated the camp...and then raped and raped and raped. They raped sick women on their cots...they raped women with babies....they even raped their own female POWs - their comrades in arms! They raped everything with a pulse and opposable digits, seemingly with very little opposition from authority. Does the Russian Army have no Military Police? What the hell is with these guys? As one woman is quoted on page 626: "The Germans never raped the prisoners because we were Russian swine, but our own soldiers raped us. We were disgusted that they behaved like this. Stalin had said that no soldier should be taken prisoner, so they felt they could treat us like dirt." I have the greatest respect for the Russian women soldiers who worked as a team and put up a brave front in captivity, but it's pretty hard not to feel contempt for the common soldiery. I'm not going to go on and tell you about the shitty treatment many of the survivors received after liberation. You'll have to read that for yourself. This is an important book, and you owe it to these women to read it.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Fede

    This is the best non-fictional work available on Ravensbrück, the female concentration camp opened in 1939 fifty miles north of Berlin, and liberated six years later by the Russians. One of the most neglected horrors of the Nazi regime actually: only a few memoirs written by former inmates, often contradicting each other, have ever provided any account of the events that took place in the camp. Why? Because at the end of the war the small village of Ravensbrück found itself in the Russian-occupie This is the best non-fictional work available on Ravensbrück, the female concentration camp opened in 1939 fifty miles north of Berlin, and liberated six years later by the Russians. One of the most neglected horrors of the Nazi regime actually: only a few memoirs written by former inmates, often contradicting each other, have ever provided any account of the events that took place in the camp. Why? Because at the end of the war the small village of Ravensbrück found itself in the Russian-occupied zone, soon to become East Germany (DDR); the camp was therefore turned into a monument to the communist Resistence, even though no information was available to the West until the Iron Curtain fell. After the trials of 1946 the world forgot about the female lager, in spite of the huge number of victims. It's still impossible indeed to determine how many women died in the camp, since the inmates' files were mostly destroyed in the final days: 30.000 - 90.000 Jewish, French, Polish, Dutch, Russian women were killed by starvation, overwork, illness, beatings; not to mention the Gypsies, whose arrival was often unscheduled and left no trace of their presence in the camp. Sarah Helm's is the first real attempt to tell the story of these women, by providing the most complete anatomy of Ravensbrück to date. Helm's main source of information are British counterintelligence dossiers and interviews in which the author herself met some of the survivors. She wants the reader to be aware of a fact: a great deal of the witness available so far has been unconsciously used as a means of political propaganda, so that only the political prisoners (those wearing red triangles on their camp uniforms) have been remembered and honoured. The 'greens' (so-called criminals) and 'blacks' (the asocials, ranging from prostitutes to homosexuals to Gypsies to numberless other categories) were just not worth mentioning in any Memorial Day behind the Iron Curtain. Helm has indeed the merit to tell about their suffering and remember their existence: names, stories, words said and heard are finally brought back from the limbo of oblivion and treated with the respect that is due to any victim. Neither some of the greatest female personalities of the time were spared the horrors of Ravensbrück, though: Milena Jesenska (Kafka's Czech lover), Olga Benario (the legendary Jewish and communist activist), Grete B. Neumann (another communist who was imprisoned in one of Stalin's Siberian gulag before being handed out to the Nazis), the British secret agent Yvonne Basaden are only some of the inmate 'celebrities', as they were known by their fellow prisoners, who found themselves struggling for survival - their own as well as the other women's. Helm's work becomes unbearably - and necessarily - detailed when it comes to describing the unthinkable medical experiments that took place in the camp 'hospital'. As almost any concentration camp, Ravensbrück provided an unlimited supply of human guinea pigs and disposable victims; SS doctors were assigned the task to perform on the prisoners on account of the army and various farmaceutical firms. The Ravensbrück doctors, male and female, crippled dozens of Poles in order to experiment on their leg bones. They were called 'Rabbits'; the few survivors among this group would show their horribly mangled shins and thighs during the post-war trials, so that some of those doctors were sentenced to death as war criminals. As for the camp 'maternity ward', it's easy to guess what would happen to pregnant women as soon as the pregnancies were ascertained or they gave birth to their babies. The camp was also involved in the usual exploitation of slave labour through a net of sub-camps, but also inside the main lager: some first-rank German firms didn't miss the chance to spare money by employing the prisoners. No need to say that only a small part of these war profiteers payed for their crimes... From the meanness of the informers to the sadistic attitude of the kapos ('Blockovas' in the inmates' jargon), Helm unravels the darkest side of daily life in a concentration camp, in which courage and abjection, good and evil become part of everyone's soul. Nobody is totally guilty nor totally innocent when it comes to surviving: it's a state of the mind far beyond judgment - not by any common standard, at least. Not from our safe, distant, external point of view. That's why the author also talks about the trivial aspects of the guards' lives: they were part of it too and must be remembered, even though for different reasons. Lakeside picnics, delightful pastimes (Maria Mandl was seen playing the piano, in absolute ecstasy, after beating a prisoner to death), drunken orgies, Olympia rolls, inner conflicts (Johannna Langefeld, the first female commander, was deeply upset by the SS barbarous rules and was dismissed from both Ravensbrück and Auschwitz in favour of tougher women)... the guards were mostly country girls in their twenties who got involved in something bigger than them. Some of those girls surrendered to their worst instincts and turned into monsters, like the outstandingly young and beautiful Dorothea Binz and Irma Grese (soon to be known as 'The Beautiful Beast' of Auschwitz and Belsen). Binz became Oberaufseherin (female chief supervisor) and her insane ferociousness terrified her unfortunate prisoners for years. On the other side, the heroism of many inmates was incredible; some of them defied death to help a friend or sabotage the Nazi killing machine. The Red Army women and French partisans also played an important role in the camp underground resistence; the author tells us about the iron discipline of the Russians, as well as the French prisoners' pride in the daily struggle to survive and help each other. Alas, not even liberation was easy. The Red Army soldiers didn't hesitate to rape the exhausted women and pillage the camp, so that the inmates found themselves utterly abandoned - still suffering and starving, until the international Red Cross sent buses and trains to pick them up and give them medical care. It took a long time though for the women to join their families... those of them who still had any relative, of course. Whole families had been destroyed by forced migration, deportation, executions. In these cases, leaving Ravensbrück was the beginning of an entirely new kind of sorrow: the loss of hope. It was the hope to come back to their families that had kept those poor creatures alive; we can only imagine how devastatingly alone they must have felt; how painful freedom would be. Sarah Helm's work is perfect, from any point of view. The book is exceptionally documented and well written. Its 658 pages (followed by an interesting bibliography and detailed notes) are a tribute to six years of suffering and dying; the voices of these women are finally speaking again to the 'outside' world, to that world that's been ignoring them for decades. There are also many pictures of the women mentioned in the text: the Russian fighters, the guards enjoying themselves on sunny afternoons, the Polish 'Rabbits' with their wounded legs, the perpetrators on trial, the mass of anonymous victims. I can't honestly say that I enjoyed this book. How could anyone enjoy reading about such abomination? Nonetheless, I wish I had read it before. It made me realise how much I ignored - no, how much I presumptuously believed to know - about depravity and heroism, forever struggling throughout history for the possession of human soul.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Moira

    It has taken a fortnight to read this book…or, rather, to LIVE this book. It is haunting, horrifying and a major work. How Sarah Helm endured writing it is almost beyond belief. "Write it quickly," she was advised but here it is - over 600 pages of exhaustive research and interviews, of digging out obscure records and lively interviews.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Bill Kupersmith

    This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here. Ravensbrück A resolution I made upon finishing Sarah Helm’s excruciatingly detailed history of Nazi Germany’s horrifying punishment camp for women is never again to compare any politician in a democracy to Hitler or persons holding distasteful views to Nazis. This was the worst. Sarah Helm was the author of Vera Atkins and the Search for the Missing SOE Women. Some of them died at Ravensbrück and most probably Helm’s research led her to attempting a full-scale history, a 700 page opus telling the Ravensbrück A resolution I made upon finishing Sarah Helm’s excruciatingly detailed history of Nazi Germany’s horrifying punishment camp for women is never again to compare any politician in a democracy to Hitler or persons holding distasteful views to Nazis. This was the worst. Sarah Helm was the author of Vera Atkins and the Search for the Missing SOE Women. Some of them died at Ravensbrück and most probably Helm’s research led her to attempting a full-scale history, a 700 page opus telling the story from the camp’s beginning in 1939 to its ‘liberation’ by the Soviet Army in 1945. (Inverted commas as the Russian soldiers continued their orgy of mass rape even on the camp’s survivors.) Originally the camp was intended for criminals and enemies of the regime, ‘asocials’ and Communists, but also Jehovah’s Witnesses. The latter two groups proved to be amongst the most disciplined and principled inmates. As German conquests progressed, Czechs, Poles, Russians, French women, and British agents joined them. Though the uninterrupted and mostly gratuitous cruelty—systematic beatings, starving, musters for roll-calls lasting hours in frigid weather—almost dulls the reader’s capacity for shock, the accounts of the ‘medical experiments’ were worse. Yet this is also a story of great bravery and courage, particularly by the Polish ‘rabbits’ and the Soviet Army women doctors and their leader Yevgenia Klemm. Elizabeth Wein used this book as a source for her wonderful story Rose Under Fire, and though I cannot imagine many readers who could stomach the seemingly unremitting terrors of Ravensbrück (had I not been listening on audible on a long car journey, I couldn’t), the courage and sufferings of the victims deserves remembrance. As a male, I was continually struck by how much better women can be at forming relationships for mutual support—accounts of Japanese prisoner of war camps have a very different flavour. Not that many inmates did not behave abominably, especially the ‘asocials’ fated to perish without memorials. Understandably, the East German regime gave all the credit to the Communists and used them for anti-West German propaganda. Though the camp commanders and authorities were all men, women played a major role as guards in abusing the prisoners and as often they seem motivated by simply doing what was expected of them, rather than acting out of innate savagery. One of them, Johanna Langefeld, actually assisted the prisoners and saved some from death. After the war she was shielded from being punished by the Polish Communists by her former prisoners. Like so many wartime horrors, we are left feeling that they bring out the very worst in some and the best in others. The moral is obvious but it was worth Sarah Helm's magnificent efforts as a researcher and writer. I'd place this book alongside Max Hasting's Bomber Command as the best Second World War nonfiction books I've ever read.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Kirsty

    In If This is a Woman, Sarah Helm has written utterly phenomenal study. She tells of the atrocities of Ravensbruck, a German concentration camp during the Second World War, and the only one of its kind exclusively for women prisoners. It is the first book to write extensively about Ravensbruck, one of the final camps to be liberated by the Russians. Only ten percent of Ravensbruck's prisoners were Jewish, contrary to a lot of other camps; the rest were arrested due to opposition to the Nazi Part In If This is a Woman, Sarah Helm has written utterly phenomenal study. She tells of the atrocities of Ravensbruck, a German concentration camp during the Second World War, and the only one of its kind exclusively for women prisoners. It is the first book to write extensively about Ravensbruck, one of the final camps to be liberated by the Russians. Only ten percent of Ravensbruck's prisoners were Jewish, contrary to a lot of other camps; the rest were arrested due to opposition to the Nazi Party, and were drawn from such groups as communists, Jehovah's Witnesses, and members of the Resistance in various European countries. There were also others deemed 'asocials', who ranged from lesbians to Gypsies. Among the prisoners were 'the cream of Europe's women', including various countesses, a former British golfing champion, and the niece of General de Gaulle. Helm draws upon the published testimonies of Ravensbruck's prisoners, as well as seeking out those who survived the brutal conditions, and studying records of the court case which followed, aiming as it did to punish those who were in charge. Her research has been carried out impeccably, particularly considering that the majority of the papers relating to prisoners and conditions were burnt before liberation. Helm has aimed to create 'a biography of Ravensbruck beginning at the beginning and ending at the end, piecing the broken story back together again as best I could'. The death toll from the camp is unknown, but is estimated to be somewhere between 30,000 and 90,000. Helm's writing style is immensely readable, and her research meticulous. If This is a Woman is such a well paced account, and the author never shies away from demonstrating how harrowing the conditions were, and how horrific the injuries and deaths which many within Ravensbruck faced. In trying to tell the individual stories of as many women as she possibly could, both prisoners and those who guarded them, she has added an invaluable biography to the field of Holocaust and Second World War studies. If This is a Woman won the Longman-History Today Prize, which was incredibly well deserved. One can only hope that further accolades follow. If This is a Woman is, without a doubt, one of my favourite historical studies in terms of its far-reaching material and the sensitivity which has been continually demonstrated, as well as one of my books of the year.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Book Riot Community

    This is a detailed historical account of life in Ravensbrück, the only German concentration camp designed solely for women. It covers the camp from its inception as a place to punish the unwanted in pre-war German society (i.e. communists, Jews, prostitutes, lesbians, etc.), it’s evolution into a massive slave labor machine, and finally its conversion into a full blown extermination camp. Ravensbrück fell behind the Iron Curtain after the war and it seems that most societies didn’t want to hear This is a detailed historical account of life in Ravensbrück, the only German concentration camp designed solely for women. It covers the camp from its inception as a place to punish the unwanted in pre-war German society (i.e. communists, Jews, prostitutes, lesbians, etc.), it’s evolution into a massive slave labor machine, and finally its conversion into a full blown extermination camp. Ravensbrück fell behind the Iron Curtain after the war and it seems that most societies didn’t want to hear about the horrors experienced by the victims. As a result, much of its history has been obscured until now. Ravensbrück deeply examines the logistics of the camp operation and the personal stories of both the prisoners and guards, lending unique insight into the psychological atmosphere of the camp. This is one of the most important books I’ve ever read–and one of the most difficult. –Kate Scott from The Best Books We Read In February: http://bookriot.com/2016/03/01/riot-r...

  9. 5 out of 5

    Nancy

    This book took me a really long time to read. I had to put it down for a few months. It is incredibly well researched and the author pulls no punches. The book is historical but told in categories and chronology. Ravensbruck was a concentration camp in eastern Germany built to "re-educate" women. In the beginning, the prisoners were mostly political and asocials. A large majority were Polish. Of particular interest, Himmler allowed medical experiments to be performed on 76 young, healthy women, This book took me a really long time to read. I had to put it down for a few months. It is incredibly well researched and the author pulls no punches. The book is historical but told in categories and chronology. Ravensbruck was a concentration camp in eastern Germany built to "re-educate" women. In the beginning, the prisoners were mostly political and asocials. A large majority were Polish. Of particular interest, Himmler allowed medical experiments to be performed on 76 young, healthy women, beginning with introduction of foreign objects in their legs to copy shrapnel. Additionally, bacteria, tetanus, typhus, staff were also administered to the women. Eventually, the doctors did experiments that removed bones, muscles, ligaments, to see if they would grow back, maiming the women permanently. Those who lived, lived under the protection of other prisoners. At all costs, the "rabbits" were to survive and show the world what had been done to them. Their physical maiming was an archetype of the abuse the women suffered every day. So then I put it down for a few months. In the interim, I picked up a historical fiction called Lilac Girls and recognized names from Ravensbruck. I used Ravensbruck as a reference and found myself reading it again. Ravensbruck is also the camp where Corrie ten Boom and her sister Betsy, were held. The difference between this and other books about Ravensbruck is that this book is not one single experience but a broad overview of the camp as told by hundreds of sources. The author writes about the historical holes that previously existed about Ravensbruck because it was liberated by the Russians (by liberated, I mean that the Russians arrived and raped and pillaged the camp and town) then fell under communist rule. The Polish rabbits that returned to Poland, returned to a country run by Stalin and the Stasi. The Russian prisoners were advised to never speak of it. Many first hand accounts were destroyed or died in the Gulags. It is the best and most comprehensive book I have read about Ravensbruck. For an uplifting perspective on forgiveness, read The Hiding Place by Corrie ten Boom. For a well researched book including hundreds of perspectives, read this one.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Tammy

    This is an important book.

  11. 5 out of 5

    BAM The Bibliomaniac

    Audio # 32 Just so brutally candid and a bit long but there was so much to cover Otherwise I'm not passing judgment It was well written and the stories are painful

  12. 5 out of 5

    Bob H

    (Reviewed in advanced-reading copy under the title "Ravensbruck: Life and Death in Hitler's Concentration Camp for Women", by Sarah Helm.) Sarah Helm has done an enormous feat of research and investigation: the story of Ravensbruck, the one camp in the Nazi system specifically for women victims, could well have been obscured or lost. The Nazis, as she shows, tried to eliminate documentation and witnesses; the site was behind the Iron Curtain for decades and mostly leveled for a Soviet army base; (Reviewed in advanced-reading copy under the title "Ravensbruck: Life and Death in Hitler's Concentration Camp for Women", by Sarah Helm.) Sarah Helm has done an enormous feat of research and investigation: the story of Ravensbruck, the one camp in the Nazi system specifically for women victims, could well have been obscured or lost. The Nazis, as she shows, tried to eliminate documentation and witnesses; the site was behind the Iron Curtain for decades and mostly leveled for a Soviet army base; even after the Soviet period, she tells us, the locals wanted to replace the site with a supermarket. The site has a memorial now, but Ms. Helm went to extraordinary lengths to find and interview the survivors, as well as go through archives, surviving documents and trial records. Many of the survivors had been kept in silence till now; the Soviet, East German and British governments had varying reasons to keep the story quiet. Now, in horrifying detail, here it is. The author did well to find the aging survivors and piece their stories together, some of it in more detail than the war-crimes testimonies, some of it new. Some is fragmentary: she relates an account of a children's party at Christmas 1944, as appalling as it sounds, but is unable to confirm a story of a bombing of that barracks that night. We're left to wonder if it was nightmare or some terrible crime; she obviously went to great effort to get at any detail, in this story as in all the rest. The author shows us every facet of this camp, from its opening in May 1939 till its fall in April 1945. It would be a major camp, with thousands of prisoners and thousands of deaths, and every evil of the Holocaust would visit: slave labor for German war industry, hideous medical experiments involving gangrene, forced sterilization, starvation, and mass murders by shooting, mistreatment and a gas chamber. We learn that the prisoners included large numbers of children, and babies born in the camp (almost none of the latter 600 would survive). We learn of the SS custodial and medical staff, and of camp society: its informers, collaborators, resisters, prisoners consigned to the "slum" section of camp. From an original body of German women prisoners the camp would take in every nationality and group set out for maltreatment, notably French women, Jews, Soviet women prisoners-of-war, Gypsies. We learn that the story doesn't end well: Swedish bus evacuations in 1945 arranged by Count Bernadotte but often strafed by Allied aircraft; the camp itself overrun by Soviet forces and the surviving inmates raped. It's all set out in readable (if horrific) detail -- this may very well be the definitive story of this place. Indispensable as a memorial of this part of the Holocaust; an important and careful work of scholarship; a detailed indictment of just how villainous human government can be. This needed telling.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Laurie Notaro

    Ten stars, if I could. How do you write a 700-page book on one of the most secret concentration camps during WWII? By talking to as many survivors as you can. Sarah Helm undertook this Herculean task, which mere mortals would shrink from. I don't know how she listened to their testimonies, day after day, then sat down to sort it all out and write the most comprehensive history of a camp we will ever have. This is a hard, difficult, painful read. But it is owed to every woman to survived and died Ten stars, if I could. How do you write a 700-page book on one of the most secret concentration camps during WWII? By talking to as many survivors as you can. Sarah Helm undertook this Herculean task, which mere mortals would shrink from. I don't know how she listened to their testimonies, day after day, then sat down to sort it all out and write the most comprehensive history of a camp we will ever have. This is a hard, difficult, painful read. But it is owed to every woman to survived and died in that camp to know their story, know their name, and know that they were people. We need to know about the women guards, many of them who started out as teenagers and became inhuman brutes with no grasp of the value of a human life. And how these prisoners suffered, struggled and tried to survive. Frankly, I think this should be standard reading for all high school students. Every single one. You will not be able to keep track of names, there are far too many as the story stretches out in years and waves. But read their names, know they were once alive, and that this happened to them. This kind of book is so incredibly valuable. It came out in paperback this week. It is 700 pages. Read them all.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Steven Z.

    It has been seventy years since the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps at the end of World War II. One would think that there would be very little to learn about what occurred during the Nazi genocide of European Jews and persecution of other minorities and groups during the war, but that is not the case. In Sarah Helm’s new work, RAVENSBRUCK: LIFE AND DEATH IN HITLER’S CONCENTRATION CAMP FOR WOMEN, the author reconstructs the history of the camp whose documentation was mostly hidden fro It has been seventy years since the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps at the end of World War II. One would think that there would be very little to learn about what occurred during the Nazi genocide of European Jews and persecution of other minorities and groups during the war, but that is not the case. In Sarah Helm’s new work, RAVENSBRUCK: LIFE AND DEATH IN HITLER’S CONCENTRATION CAMP FOR WOMEN, the author reconstructs the history of the camp whose documentation was mostly hidden from the west during the Cold War. Once the “iron curtain” was lifted in 1989 more and more documents and other materials have been released from East German and Soviet archives. This allowed the author to provide the inmates of long ago a voice from “the special camp” created by Heinrich Himmler for women, a place ethnologist and survivor Germaine Tillion describes as “a place of slow extermination.” The camp, located fifty miles north of Berlin opened in May, 1939 and was liberated by the Russians six years later. The camp was not designated exclusively for Jews who made up about 10% of its inmates, but Jewish prisoners represented roughly 20% of those who perished. According to Helm’s, at its peak the site housed 45,000 prisoners and by the end of the war roughly 130,000 women passed through its gates to “be beaten, starved, worked to death, poisoned, executed, and gassed.” Because of the paucity of records the final death toll is estimated at between 30,000 and 90,000, but we will never be sure. Wholesale destruction of records has kept the story somewhat obscure, but due to Helm’s relentless and assiduous research we have the most accurate and complete history of what took place there. Ravensbruck, as most concentration camps was not built at the start as an extermination center, it evolved. It began as a place to house women arrested for various crimes, including statements that were deemed as offensive to Adolf Hitler, working for the resistance of foreign countries, espionage, or just being in the wrong place at the wrong time. At the outset prisoners were categorized as political, asocial, Jews, and Jehovah’s Witnesses and the camp was broken down into blocks to separate these groups. Himmler’s plan was to make the camp self-sufficient and have the prisoners police themselves as much as possible. The Nazi SS chose individuals to be Kapos to supervise slave labor and carry out administrative tasks to minimize the cost of running the camps and freeing up SS personnel. The Kapos were appointed as barracks heads and many were worse than the SS guards themselves. The narrative parallels the course of World War II and as it does we can see how the mission of the camp changes from a prison, to a sterilization and medical experiment facility, a training ground for female guards and personnel to administer other camps that came on line like Auschwitz, a source for slave labor in munitions factories that created sub camps for German corporations like Siemens, Heinkel, and Daimler-Benz, and finally an extermination camp. As Helms weaves the war narrative she explores the daily lives of those imprisoned at Ravensbruck. She provides a detailed description of the day to day struggle that inmates had to endure. By including the life story of many individuals, whether communists, resistance fighters, prostitutes, physicians, nurses, or average people the reader gains insights into how individuals were treated and the coping mechanisms they developed as they confronted slave labor, deportations, beatings, medical experiments, and torture that resulted in so many deaths. One of the most interesting chapters describes the plight of women seized in Lublin, a Polish city which was overrun by the Germans during the summer of 1941. Helms follows the lives of these women as they traveled by train to Germany, and at each stop more prisoners are seized. Women named Wanda, Krysia, Grazyna, Pola and Maria are followed as they finally arrive at Ravensbruck were they first encounter the Chief female guard, described as “the Giantess and her hounds.” One of their most poignant observations was that the people they saw “don’t seem to have faces,” and years later all they could remember was the “din of the constant screaming of the giantess.” (165) As they adapted to their surroundings they became part of the camp social hierarchy and they developed ingenious ways to create normalcy in order to survive. Another group that Helms describes in detail were Red Army doctors and nurses that were captured. Under the leadership of one of the nurses, Yevgenia Lazarevna Klemm, whose survival strategy was to stress that her group were POWS, not typical inmates, and had rights under the Geneva Convention. She constantly reinforced the concept to the woman that loyalty to each other was paramount, and that they should not “break the [their] circle” in their dealings with the SS and Kapos. This was successful to a point, and when they were forced to engage in slave labor at a sub-camp for Siemens she instructed her people to sabotage the munitions they were forced to work on. This approach allowed a number of these women to survive, and to this day they praise the leadership of Yevgenia Klemm. Throughout the book we meet the likes of Dr. Walter Sonntag, a brutal individual who was charged by Himmler to conduct sterilization experiments and research on inmates to determine how to wipe out the sub-humans who were deemed a threat to the Aryan race as purported by Hitler and his henchman. Dr. Friedrich Mennecke a Nazi psychiatrist was brought in to determine how to choose candidates for euthanasia as these people were not worthy of life in the Nazi world view. Himmler was obsessed with “useless mouths” who did not carry their own weight and they were to be given “special treatment” as designed by Nazi doctors like Herta Oberheuser, an expert in “lethal injections.” Other doctors conducted experiments on “rabbits,” specially chosen women, to determine the best way to counter bacteria by injecting it into the bodies of inmates or removing body parts to see how people would respond. The narrative does not focus totally on Nazi medical practices and hygiene, but it is important that Helms presents this material to offset any belief that Ravensbruck was just for the incarceration of its women. Helms describes in detail how the camp administrative hierarchy carried out Himmler’s orders and its impact on the daily lives of the inmates. The inmates are the key to the narrative as Helms was able to track down numerous survivors of the camps and interview them. Many in their late eighties and nineties remember amazing details of their experiences that enhances our understanding of what they went through. Helm’s “combed through the transcripts of postwar trials of camp officials and guards and found archival material that were opened after the fall of Communism…... During the past 15 years a few other books about Ravensbruck have been published, but none as focused on as many prisoner groups as Helm’s.” (New York Times, April 7, 2015, ‘’RAVENSBRUCK” by Walter Reich) Helms’ is to be commended for her tenacity in uncovering documents that previous historians have been unaware existed. In so doing she includes excerpts of letters inmates were able to smuggle out and even mail home. In addition there are transcripts from underground radio broadcasts that provided evidence for the inmates that there messages were reaching beyond the barbed wire and watch towers that controlled their lives. Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the book were the chapters dealing with the International Committee of the Red Cross in Berlin and Geneva (ICRC). Headed by art historian, Jacob Burkhardt, they were fully aware of what went on in the concentration, labor, and extermination camps. Many letters and other documents were provided to them by resistance groups and governments, but they always had excuses not to take action. They refused to give out Red Cross parcels, make broadcasts, help with visas and transportation for individuals to escape, work behind the scenes, and try and influence certain Nazis that were wavering as the war went against Germany. The lack of action of the ICRC was appalling and their ever present excuse that the camps were “not subject to the rules of the Geneva Convention of 1929,” and they had to maintain their neutrality to be effective was not acceptable. In addition the perpetrator of the atrocities at Ravensbruck, Karl Gebhardt, “was a close associate of Ernst Grawitz, president of the German Red Cross, the most powerful medical figure in the Third Reich.” (333) When inquiries were made to the ICRC in Geneva they “gave the same stock answer: the Committee had no access to the camps and couldn’t intervene.” (436) We all recognize that the Red Cross was in a compromising position, but any effort on their part would have been appreciated by the inmates. Finally in April, 1945 with Sweden taking the lead in rescue measures, Burkhardt, concerned with his legacy arranged a prisoner swap of 299 French women held at Ravensbruck for 450 Germans held in France. As the war turned against the Nazis more and more prisoners were seized and sent to Ravensbruck. By fall, 1944 as the Russians advanced across Poland, Hitler was forced to shut down Auschwitz, Majdanek, and other camps moving camp inmates westward. Further, with the destruction of the Warsaw ghetto more and more people arrived from the east at Ravensbruck. With the allied landing at Normandy, the fall of Paris saw prisoners sent eastward furthering the health and logistical nightmare at Ravensbruck. To make matters even worse Hitler’s decree to empty Hungary of its Jews and exterminate them furthered the spread of typhus throughout the camp. If squalor and disease was not bad enough, late 1944 saw the arrival of Rudolph Hoss, the former Commandant of Auschwitz, Otto Moll, Auschwitz’s “gassing expert,” Carl Clauberg, the mastermind of Himmler’s sterilization program, and other unemployed Nazi murderers at Ravensbruck. Helms states further that “it is no coincidence that just before these men arrived, Himmler issued a new directive requiring an immediate, massive increase in the rate of killing and construction of a gas chamber to carry it out.” Himmler’s order read: “In your camp, with retrospective effect for six months, 2000 people monthly have to die…” (469) Himmler’s reasons for issuing the order are clear, Ravensbruck was out of control with typhus and other diseases spreading and an influx of women from Auschwitz and other areas increasing. For the first time, Ravensbruck would have its own extermination facility, “becoming the scene of the last major extermination by gas carried out in the Nazi camps before the end of the war.”(654) By winter, 1945 it was decided that the camp was to be liquidated and all evidence of its existence to be destroyed. Since the building of crematorium and its components could not keep up with the demands of eradicating all inmates thousands of prisoners were sent to Bergen-Belsen, Sachsenhausen, Buchenwald, Mauthausen, Dachau and Flossenburg to be gassed, while others were force marched to their deaths as Hitler ordered that no prisoners were to be left alive when the Russians arrived. The evidence exists that killings at Ravensbruck would continue until late, April, 1945. Helm’s has prepared the definitive biography of Ravensbruck and has done a remarkable job in compiling the stories of the women who perished and those who survived. There are a few things the author could have addressed more, i.e.; providing better documentation for the quotations that she cites, improved referencing of her sources and interviews, and trying to create a tighter narrative so the story of the camp is easier to follow. To read Helm’s book is to find oneself in a place that cannot be imagined or understood, but thanks to the author the evidence of its existence is there for all to witness. What is most important is that Helm’s narrative has allowed the victims of the Nazi horrors a means to communicate from the grave.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Leeanna

    This review originally appeared on my blog, Leeanna.me. == I have read a lot of books on World War II and the Holocaust, from history textbooks to historical fiction to survivor memoirs. There’s a lot of literature out there, and for good reason. It’s something we should never forget or allow to happen again. But RAVENSBRÜCK is one of those books that stands out, and for another good reason: it’s about the only concentration camp designed for women. I spent almost 21 hours reading RAVENSBRÜCK, and This review originally appeared on my blog, Leeanna.me. == I have read a lot of books on World War II and the Holocaust, from history textbooks to historical fiction to survivor memoirs. There’s a lot of literature out there, and for good reason. It’s something we should never forget or allow to happen again. But RAVENSBRÜCK is one of those books that stands out, and for another good reason: it’s about the only concentration camp designed for women. I spent almost 21 hours reading RAVENSBRÜCK, and consider every one of those hours well spent. I learned an incredible amount while reading. Have you heard of the Polish students -- the “rabbits” -- that were experimented on at the camp? They smuggled out letters written in urine to tell the world their story because they feared the Nazis would silence them forever to cover up the crimes. When women were beaten for punishment, Heinrich Himmler personally approved each beating. Ravensbrück trained women guards for the rest of the concentration camps. I learned more about satellite camps than I have in any other book. I also learned that many Soviet women were imprisoned again upon release, because Stalin considered them traitors. I really feel like the author did an incredible job of making a readable history of Ravensbrück. Yes, it is hard reading because of the atrocities, but I so appreciated that the author didn’t gloss over those, but instead told me how the women survived. I was in awe of the women mentioned, at their thirst to live in horrendous conditions. How they rebelled a hundred tiny ways, sometimes escaping punishment and sometimes suffering the ultimate fate for their rebellion. How many of them returned home and never said a word, because nobody wanted to hear about Ravensbrück. In RAVENSBRÜCK, Sarah Helm combines historical evidence (records, trial transcripts, etc.) and the voices of the survivors to create a biography of the camp, from founding to liberation. If she couldn’t corroborate an account, she told the reader what the survivor said anyway, adding additional evidence for or against, if there was any. Many, many voices are represented, from guards to Soviet prisoners of war to Polish doctors and students to German communists and more. I do have one small wish: a list of all the women who had a voice in RAVENSBRÜCK, along with their fates, would have been a good addition in my eyes. There were so many interesting women mentioned, and I doubt I could ever track down information about them. I can’t recommend this book enough if you have any interest in WWII, concentration camps, or even women’s history in general. == Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. See more of my reviews:

  16. 5 out of 5

    Megan Conte

    What can I say about this book? It is emotionally devastating. It took me longer to read this than it normally would have but I had to take an emotional break from it several times. It's incredibly difficult to read, only in an emotional sense. I finished it because I feel as though I owed it to the women of Ravensbruck to finish it. Their stories deserve to be heard. This is an incredibly thorough, incredibly researched book. The stories of the women, some named and others who remain nameless, What can I say about this book? It is emotionally devastating. It took me longer to read this than it normally would have but I had to take an emotional break from it several times. It's incredibly difficult to read, only in an emotional sense. I finished it because I feel as though I owed it to the women of Ravensbruck to finish it. Their stories deserve to be heard. This is an incredibly thorough, incredibly researched book. The stories of the women, some named and others who remain nameless, should never be forgotten. It's a beautiful testament to the human spirit that these women survived and that they had the courage and the presence of mind to make certain their voices were heard. I don't know how they did it. I don't know why American history classes cover so little of this topic. It's a great book, a devastating book and a very, very important one.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Sookie

    Sarah Helm brings attention to a part of WW2 history that doesn't get discussed quite often or get the attention it deserves. A women only prison set on German soil and run mostly by women as labor camp. The extent to which women were separated and differentiated is hardly surprising at this point. Jews were in minority where as asocials - prostitutes, lesbians, small time criminals were large in number. Helm has interviewed women, guards and auxiliary personnel to compile this book. She notices Sarah Helm brings attention to a part of WW2 history that doesn't get discussed quite often or get the attention it deserves. A women only prison set on German soil and run mostly by women as labor camp. The extent to which women were separated and differentiated is hardly surprising at this point. Jews were in minority where as asocials - prostitutes, lesbians, small time criminals were large in number. Helm has interviewed women, guards and auxiliary personnel to compile this book. She notices early on that most of the women who died in this camp were asocials who go till this day, unidentified. When the camp closed, the records were burned and the ashes were dumped into the river. No extensive records exist for this camp. Many of these women, even in death, didn't get dignity of identity. They lived in memories of those who remain and in the book they get a mention. The lives of the women when they lived in the camp is incredibly inspiring. Knowing where they were and resigned to fate, they made do with what little space they had. Formed friendships, made alliances, escaped even. It puts a perspective on our own lives - as women and as individuals, the privileges that we have and the struggle that still exists. Thanks to Sarah Helm for conducting extensive research, interviews across borders and make this book happen.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Melinda Elizabeth

    If this is a woman took me a while to read. And most of you will know by now that I can have a bit of a habit of speed reading through the boring bits of a book, or if the topic just doesn't grab me at the time. "If this is a woman" demands to be read, and even through the hardest parts to read, Sarah Helm commands respect for the material at hand. That it took so long for an in depth analysis of Ravensbruck is a shame in itself - there are stories that are screaming to be told from these walls, If this is a woman took me a while to read. And most of you will know by now that I can have a bit of a habit of speed reading through the boring bits of a book, or if the topic just doesn't grab me at the time. "If this is a woman" demands to be read, and even through the hardest parts to read, Sarah Helm commands respect for the material at hand. That it took so long for an in depth analysis of Ravensbruck is a shame in itself - there are stories that are screaming to be told from these walls, and with the passing of time, you would expect the shouts to quieten. However Sarah hauntingly delivers these truths in a way that showcases the ferocity of of tales Ravensbruck holds. There's stories of hope and salvation, of kindness in the face of cruelty, and stories that seem to be the stuff of nightmares. SS officers and prisoners alike are illuminated by Helm's narrative, and she brings a sensitivity to the subject matter with an unbiased analysis that one can only imagine was hard to uphold. The end result is a thorough look at the reality of Ravensbruck and it's surrounds. Once read, there's a sense that those voices from the pages of Helm's book can finally settle, with the knowledge that they were not forgotten after all.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Laura

    An incredibly detailed and thought provoking read; this is a mammoth book at almost eight hundred pages but is worth it for those interested in European history and the Holocaust. I once read somewhere that in times of war, it is the women who suffer the greatest. Whether or not everyone completely agrees with that statement, this book illustrates how women of all cultures and backgrounds were indiscriminately persecuted by the Nazis at the height of the Second World War. There are various first An incredibly detailed and thought provoking read; this is a mammoth book at almost eight hundred pages but is worth it for those interested in European history and the Holocaust. I once read somewhere that in times of war, it is the women who suffer the greatest. Whether or not everyone completely agrees with that statement, this book illustrates how women of all cultures and backgrounds were indiscriminately persecuted by the Nazis at the height of the Second World War. There are various first hand accounts of survivors and those who worked in the camps. This book shows the best and worst of humanity. The suffering documented by these women is indescribable and makes for some horrific reading but is important to understand. The author obviously spent a great deal of time painstakingly researching her subject and it shows. The book is well structured and features several pages of photos and illustrated maps. Reading this book is a big commitment but very much worth it.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Leah

    3.5 stars Holy geez, this book took FOR-EV-ER to finish. I appreciate the research that Helm did but man, my head hurts. How do you even rate something like this???? PROS: -Horrifying fascinating that anyone actually survived that. The things they went through… By far the most disturbing thing I have ever read. And I read a LOT. -Superb detail on something that almost no one knows about -Amazing camaraderie and strength among some of the women that helped others, fought back, found ways to get their 3.5 stars Holy geez, this book took FOR-EV-ER to finish. I appreciate the research that Helm did but man, my head hurts. How do you even rate something like this???? PROS: -Horrifying fascinating that anyone actually survived that. The things they went through… By far the most disturbing thing I have ever read. And I read a LOT. -Superb detail on something that almost no one knows about -Amazing camaraderie and strength among some of the women that helped others, fought back, found ways to get their story out. CONS: -So many names. I was so confused as to who was who and who was good and who was bad. -So long. I understand there was a lot to say, but at about ¾ through, I felt like I was hearing about the same atrocities just with different people/different locations. -SO DISTURBING WTF is wrong with the human race? So many times, I had to remind myself that this was real. If you’re interest in WWII, read this book, but it will take a lot out of you.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Cynthia Dunn

    And it only took me 3 1/2 years. Not an easy book to read but a very important one.

  22. 4 out of 5

    April

    Sarah Helm brings sensitivity, strong research and solid writing to her latest book, Ravensbruck: Life And Death In Hitler’s Concentration Camp For Women. Read the rest of my review here Sarah Helm brings sensitivity, strong research and solid writing to her latest book, Ravensbruck: Life And Death In Hitler’s Concentration Camp For Women. Read the rest of my review here

  23. 5 out of 5

    Terri Lynn

    This book is a very detailed account of what happened in Ravensbruck, the Nazi concentration camp for women. The amount of detail is stunning. I have now been truly educated on Ravensbruck. Heartbreaking.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Sarah

    http://www.bookwormblues.net/2020/05/... Ravensbruck is… difficult, as you’d imagine. It’s not difficult due to any stylistic issues. It’s difficult because of the subject matter, and likely you’ll already be aware of that going into it. You can’t read about concentration camps without realizing you’re in for some emotional days ahead. This isn’t a book you read if you want to be happy. This is a book you read if you want to know, and sometimes, knowing hurts. Ravensbruck is an interesting book. http://www.bookwormblues.net/2020/05/... Ravensbruck is… difficult, as you’d imagine. It’s not difficult due to any stylistic issues. It’s difficult because of the subject matter, and likely you’ll already be aware of that going into it. You can’t read about concentration camps without realizing you’re in for some emotional days ahead. This isn’t a book you read if you want to be happy. This is a book you read if you want to know, and sometimes, knowing hurts. Ravensbruck is an interesting book. Perhaps it is a bit different than most other books of this nature. It does not follow the story of one person through their time in a World War II concentration camp. Rather, this book is a biography of a different sort. It’s a biography of a concentration camp. The “person” you are following throughout their life, is, in fact, the camp itself. People come, and people go. The camp changes, and ultimately it is liberated and falls into disrepair, but this book tells the story of it all, from its inception to its end. This particular perspective was rather unique, and it gave me a very different perspective of life inside this camp than I’d likely have if Helm had decided to follow the life of one person in the camp. In this way, where the camp itself is the character we are following, Helm has a bit more liberty to dip into the lives of numerous people over the timeline of Ravensbruck, and therefore, she easily shows the gestation of the camp and its incarnation into various forms of existence, from factory slave work, to horrible medical experiments, even to some women being moved to the front to live in brothels that soldiers could frequent at will. (Himmler believed that soldiers would fight harder if they had easy access to sex whenever they wanted it, so he used women in concentration camps to stuff brothels.) There are a few brief detours, for example, Helm follows some of the camp leaders and officers as they are moved to the infamous Auschwitz, to prepare it and get that particular camp ready and operational for the horror that took place there, but aside from a few of those jaunts, Helm really does just stay with Ravensbruck, never shying away from the horror, and using eyewitness accounts and written evidence left behind to tell the story of those who would have been otherwise lost to history. What really interested me about the book was not just the eagle-eyed focus Helm had, but how she managed to tell these tragic stories about women who had come from all over Europe, giving the background of the Russian prisoners, for example, as acutely and accurately as the French ones. I never felt that she had a harder time focusing on one group than another, and through her obvious studious effort and her attention to detail, she made all of these different groups of prisoners come to life, and breathed their words into my psyche. The experience at Ravensbruck did differ, depending on where the women came from, and that was likewise interesting. The Russian women, for example, were already hardened to tragedy and starvation, so it was easier for them to focus on acts of rebellion than the French, who were knew and untried regarding all of this. The medical experiments that took place were some of the hardest parts of the book for me to read, likely because of the unflinching agony that these women suffered through. However, it was those chapters that not only showed the depths of human depravity, but also the heights of human kindness, as women who had been through pain the likes of which I could not even begin to imagine, and somehow survived, were nursed back to some semblance of health by the women around them, who gave everything they had, often putting themselves at risk, to give to help these people who had suffered so much. What surprised me was that most of the prisoners who were taken to this camp were not, in fact, Jews. They were lesbians, and prostitutes, criminals, defectors, conscientious objectors and so much more. And most of the guards were also women. I don’t know why that second fact hit me so hard, but it did. Furthermore, many of the guards had kids, who lived in and around the camp with them. There were schools and daycare facilities for the kids to stay at while their guard parents worked in the camp all day and that… I still feel nauseous even thinking about that. Dropping their kids off at the daycare outside the concentration camp before they go work a full shift subjecting people to unimaginable cruelty, and then picking them up afterwards like this is totally normal… I can’t wrap my head around that AT ALL. Perhaps the saddest part of the book was the ending, where the Russian liberators came and, instead of finding a life of freedom, many of these women traded one brand of cruelty for another. The Russian women seemed to suffer the most after liberation. They were not welcomed back as survivors into the arms of their country men and women. Instead, they were treated as defectors, and while many of them survived, many, unfortunately, did not. Stalin was notoriously cruel to those he considered as defectors, and prisoners of war were just that to him. I ended up listening to this as an audiobook, and the narration was superb, but I will admit I almost wish I’d picked this up at the library. After I finished the book, I ended up at my local library to flip through the hard cover copy of it, so I could see the pictures that you just don’t get in the audiobook version. So, if that sort of thing matters to you, you might want to track a copy of this book down somewhere. If, however, you feel like you can look pictures up well enough online, thank you very much, I’d suggest the audiobook. The narration, like I said, was superb, and the book itself is captivating and hard to stop listening to. It’s not an easy book to read, but I do feel like sometimes history demands a witness, and in reading this book, the lives of those women who suffered so much, are remembered, and that matters.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Lauren

    This is one of the best historical non-fiction books I have read in a long time. The strength and bravery that these women showed in the face of such horrific circumstances was awe-inspiring. I really liked how the author considered all nationalities involved and I believe her approach to the topic was considerate, factual and respectful. The stories of humanity and compassion that arose from such depravity made this book hard to put down. Definitely deserves more attention. I can't rate it high This is one of the best historical non-fiction books I have read in a long time. The strength and bravery that these women showed in the face of such horrific circumstances was awe-inspiring. I really liked how the author considered all nationalities involved and I believe her approach to the topic was considerate, factual and respectful. The stories of humanity and compassion that arose from such depravity made this book hard to put down. Definitely deserves more attention. I can't rate it high enough.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Kusaimamekirai

    This is a book that demands a lot from its reader both in terms of time and emotional commitment to the story it tells. The latter can be at times grueling, uncomfortable, and lead to a cynicism about man’s inhumanity to its fellow human being. Yet, if you are willing to give yourself to this book, there are stories of heroism, courage, and perseverance that are unimaginable. Located on the outskirts of the small town of Furstenberg, Germany, Ravensbruck was built in 1939 as the sole women’s on This is a book that demands a lot from its reader both in terms of time and emotional commitment to the story it tells. The latter can be at times grueling, uncomfortable, and lead to a cynicism about man’s inhumanity to its fellow human being. Yet, if you are willing to give yourself to this book, there are stories of heroism, courage, and perseverance that are unimaginable. Located on the outskirts of the small town of Furstenberg, Germany, Ravensbruck was built in 1939 as the sole women’s only labor camp in the Third Reich. It was initially built primarily for political prisoners and the Nazi resistance but as the war escalated and years passed, it became a home for women of over 20 different nationalities and cross sections of life. From doctors to prostitutes, thieves to countesses, Communists to Jehovah’s Witnesses, there were few walks of life not represented at the camp. This is perhaps what makes Sarah Helm’s “Ravensbruck” so compelling and important. While there remains precious little documentation about what occurred at Ravensbruck (the Nazi’s were sadly equally efficient at destroying paperwork as creating it), what documentation she did find, as well as oral interviews with survivors and their relatives, is built into an almost month by month narrative of life at the camp. She details its routines, its guards, its captives, and its utter cruelty. We get a glimpse of what life was like for the Polish women of the camp, some of whom were subjected to horrific experiments on their legs which would lead to their fellow Poles dubbing them the “rabbits”. For the Russians and the female soldiers of the Red Army who showed fearlessness time and time again to the brutality of camp life. As well as many others who showed incredible solidarity not only with their group but at times with other prisoners as well. (Sadly, this was not always the case as prisoners who, in exchange for small creature comforts, were put in charge of maintaining discipline in each “block” and were often crueler and more violent than the Nazi guards) The individual stories of day to day life are at times so horrific that you simply want to look away and yet there are examples of such uplifting courage in the face of death that are truly inspirational. It is a story I knew little about and am grateful that Helm decided to shine a light on this neglected but vital part of the holocaust. Not only because it exposes the crimes of those who otherwise would have been forgotten, but also because it gives a name to the nameless who suffered and died by the thousands. They may have only been a number and a colored patch depicting their racial or class affiliation in Ravensbruck. Some of its callous and sadistic female guards were no more than young women simply looking for steady employment. But, they were mothers and daughters as well. There were some who were traitors but far more who endured the unendurable. In short, the story of Ravensbruck contains everything evil as well as sublime about the human condition. I feel I am a better person for having read this book and learned about these women and their stories.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Rick Slane

    This concentration camp is mentioned in The Nightingale & The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society so I became interested. If anyone is interested in true horror stories I recommend this. This concentration camp is mentioned in The Nightingale & The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society so I became interested. If anyone is interested in true horror stories I recommend this.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Ghost of the Library

    I am drained of energy and almost drained of hope in mankind after finally finishing this one...i spent a whole night awake this weekend to finish it, because each time i stopped i felt guilty to not continue and so i kept going till 6 am... At 658 pages of actual text - the remaining being notes, bibliography and "thank yous" - this is a beast of a book that will no doubt discourage many, like it did me the first time i tried. However, bear with it, take a weekend to give it time, and you will no I am drained of energy and almost drained of hope in mankind after finally finishing this one...i spent a whole night awake this weekend to finish it, because each time i stopped i felt guilty to not continue and so i kept going till 6 am... At 658 pages of actual text - the remaining being notes, bibliography and "thank yous" - this is a beast of a book that will no doubt discourage many, like it did me the first time i tried. However, bear with it, take a weekend to give it time, and you will not regret it - it will depress you no doubt, but IT IS A MUST MUST MUST READ for anyone out there remotely interested in ww2 and in making sure mankind never again goes down this horrible path of death and destruction. More than a memoir, a biography or even a study on women, this is a history book that also happens to be a labor of love and determination by its author - its easy to see and feel the sense of "mission" that permeates its pages, the determination of Sarah Helm in giving all these women a voice...and the sadness/frustration that so many were left unnamed... Ravensbruck was, in the universe of Nazi concentration camps, somewhat of an only child - given that was specifically for women - and was located in Germany. So at first the purpose wasn't death, even if no proper care was given to its many prisoners, the initial purpose was to house the "scum" of society - prostitutes, communists, lunatics, gypsies, Jehovah´s witnesses. Gradually as the needs of war started to change, so did the camp - till the final stage of "simple" killing of everyone and everything. Helm does a remarkable job here, piecing together the puzzle, travelling all over Europe, accessing documents and survivors that were for years hidden away from the world - given the division of Germany after ww2 the camp was behind the iron curtain. Sarah Helm isn't just an author putting together ideas, theories and possibilities, she is an historian collecting carefully, lovingly, every single scrap of paper and giving these women a voice, and whenever possible a name, after all these years. It can felt daunting at times, and perhaps even you will find yourself thinking "god when does this end, i get it everyone went through hell, i do not need 100 pages more to understand it" - well sorry, but yes you do! Especially because here its women who finally get to tell their story, and not another book on how the boys went through hell and saved the day...no offense boys! You see, the most important pieces of information to have survived the burning of documents at the end of the war, before the camp was taken, were only saved thanks to A LOT of nerve from the part of some of these women - it would be a betrayal of sorts not to publish as many of them as you can before all the voices still alive are gone. There are so many examples of courage, resistance, even hope in these pages that its hard to pick a name - actually you might wanna read this with a notebook close by - so pick up this little beast, sit down somewhere comfortable and be prepared for a sad yet necessary journey into the world of Ravensbruck.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Mara

    This is truly an outstanding book. I know most people are going to be reluctant to read a 600+ page book about such a somber subject, but Helm does an excellent job of not focusing only on the atrocities (though they're all here in graphic detail) but also equally on the bravery and resilience of the women who were imprisoned in Ravensbruck. Their stories deserve to be known. Highly recommended read.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Angie The Librarian

    Wow. This took me almost 3 months to read and not because I was a slacking off. It's immensely dense and chock full of information, just as I love history books to be. Read with caution. The author pulls no punches in depicting an accurate look at Ravensbrueck and those who were imprisoned there. However, I came away a changed person.

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