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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