If this is a woman; inside Ravensbruck, Hitler’s concentration camp for women – Sarah Helm

I read this book back in June but it has taken me until now to think it through and get to a point where I can write about it.

This is a history of Ravensbruck from its inception, as a prison for “asocials” – prostitutes and criminals – to full blown concentration camp.  Helm pieces together the story of the camp from the testimonies of survivors, what few records remain and transcripts of war crime trials.  It relates the experiences of the different ethnic groups who were interred in the camp including the medical experiments that were carried out there and the Siemens factory staffed by the inmates.

There is quite a lot of detail in the book and it looks at both side of the fence; the guards and other staff as well as the women prisoners.

I found this book compelling but difficult to read.  It is one of those books where at some points you feel you can understand what these women were going through and then, in almost the same instant realising that you can, possibly comprehend small parts of their experience but never, ever the overwhelmingly, unremittingly, constant grind of horror piled on privation.  It is impossible for me in my safe, comfortable life to really imagine what it must be like to feel fear, uncertainty and hunger every minute of every day over a number of years.

I was slightly horrified to find that a well known and respected manufacturer like Siemens had established a factory at Ravensbruck and used slave labour to staff it.  I’m not sure why it shocked me as pretty well every other major manufacturer in Germany at that time did exactly the same thing.  I think it is possibly that I had never heard Siemens being directly linked to the use of slave labour before.

The thing that annoyed me most about this book was the author’s continuing assertion that Ravensbruck was totally forgotten.  It may not be as well known as Auschwitz, Dachau and Theresienstadt but although I didn’t know much of the detail of what went on there anyone who knows anything about Violette Szabo, Olga Benario and Karolina Lanckoronska will know something of it.

A minor niggle is that I think Helm could have come up with a better title rather than reworking Primo Levi’s If this is a man.

This book provides the detail missing from most accounts of the concentration camp network.  It shows how women were treated by Nazi Germany and shows the inadequacies of organisations such as the Red Cross who are unwilling to tread on the toes of murderous regimes to ensure humane treatment of prisoners.

Reading this book will leave you feeling sick and sickened at time.  It definitely isn’t bedtime reading.  But it is about something we should be aware of and, given the instability in the world and the rise of some regimes who would confine and constrain women’s freedom, we should learn from history and make sure it doesn’t get repeated.

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Where Nights Are Longest – Colin Thubron

Firstly, I bought this book in Washington DC, hence the title.  In the UK it is published as Among the Russians.  It’s subtitle is Travels by Car through Western Russia.  And actually this is about travels through the Soviet Union.  It was first published in 1983 when the Soviet Union still existed and was generally referred to as “Russia”.

Secondly, it struck me just how much the world has changed since 1983.  Oddly it seems both not so long ago and like a far off place where like was simpler.  In reality I guess I’ve done a lot of growing up and older since 1983 so see things from a different perspective.

Anyway, to the book.  This is the tale of Colin Thubron’s journey round the former Soviet Union in a battered car.  It is a Soviet Union with only certain roads designated for foreigners, with Intourist guides and KGB operatives keeping watch and long patient queues to buy anything in the shops.  It is also a country of camaraderie, endless discussions and lots of vodka.  I went to some of the same places as Thubron nearly 20 years later and, whilst things had changed, his Russia was recognisable in mine.

This is a book about travel but it is mainly a book about people and the author has a knack for getting to know people and being able to translate what he sees and knows into great pen portraits.  His books come to life when he is describing the wonderfully diverse characters he meets; Intourist Alex who spouts random facts about Soviet gigantisism at him; the Moscow intellectuals who live under constant suspicion; the Estonian Methodist preacher who, despite years of persecution has never lost his faith.  The characters are a mixed bunch but all brought to life.  For me this characterisation is one of the joys of reading Colin Thubron books.

The other joy is his descriptions of the landscape he is travelling through.  The book starts with the road to Minsk but could start anywhere on that long, seemingly endless Warsaw to Moscow road.  Mile after mile after mile of flat landscape with few villages and even fewer towns.  It is the same road Napoleon and Hitler took when trying to execute their grandiose invasion plans and you can sense how hopeless the defeat and retreat must have felt to the fleeing invaders wondering whether they would ever reach civilisation and safety.

It’s been a while since I last read a Colin Thubron book and I’d forgotten how much I like his writing.  I’d also forgotten how much I enjoyed travelling around the former Soviet Union.  Time to go back I think.

The downside of this book though is that Thubron writes about Georgia, Crimea, Armenia and Kiev and makes me want to see them.  The sad fact of the passing of the Soviet Union is that these places are no longer stable enough to visit.  I don’t lament the passing of CCCP.  I do regret that not everywhere is better for its passing.

Well, got to go; I have travel brochures to read and plans to make…