- The Jewish Women of Ravensbrück Concentration Camp
As the number of Holocaust survivors who are able to tell their histories decreases, the urgency increases to leave a record of their experiences. It is this that has motivated Dr. Rochelle Saidel to document the experiences of the inmates of Ravensbrück concentration camp and, in particular, those of the Jewish inmates of Ravensbrück. In so doing, she has provided a well-researched account that is valuable both to scholars of the Holocaust and to friends and descendants of the Jewish women of Ravensbrück.
Dr. Saidel is the founder of the Remember the Women Institute, which is dedicated to the remembrance of the women of Ravensbrück and to the continued historical research of this unique camp and its enormously strong inmate population. This book exemplifies the purpose of this Institute. In parallel to the narratives of the survivors is the narrative of the struggle to realize the Jewish identity of the inmates through history and through recognition at the Mahn- und Gedenkstätte Ravensbrück.
Dr. Saidel began making contact with the survivors at the 50th anniversary of the camp's liberation in 1995. She was able to contact other Jewish survivors [End Page 180] with the assistance of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, which provided a mailing list of survivors as well as a cover letter for her initial contact. From this list of 300 survivors, Dr. Saidel received sixty replies, with most women completing the questionnaire and often supplying additional names. Dr. Saidel has interviewed many of these Jewish survivors and their descendants in Brazil, Europe, the U.S., and Israel.
Of the 132,000 prisoners of Ravensbrück, 117,000 were killed or died there. Jewish women were a minority among the inmates of Ravensbrück, comprising about 20 percent of the population, and their story has heretofore never been told. And although there are memorials to these prisoners at Ravensbrück, they are grouped according to nationality. As recently as 1980, the Jewish prisoners were not memorialized separately but together with their fellow inmates of a nation, with often inappropriate results—the Polish Jews were memorialized as a part of all Polish prisoners in a room with a large crucifix. It was this lack of singular identification that motivated Dr. Saidel to begin her research into the lives, and often deaths, of the Jewish inmates of Ravensbrück. Now there is a Jewish memorial at the camp, and this book, too, serves as a memorial to these women.
Beginning with a history of the camp, Dr. Saidel describes what she refers to as "a special hell for women." Indeed, Ravensbrück was unique in that it was built for female resisters and political prisoners. At the beginning, it was not a camp designed to implement the "final solution" but rather a place for females to work as slave laborers as they were being punished for their politics. Dr. Saidel provides the background for understanding this "special hell for women" and describes the particular cruelty of inmates having to work as draft animals pulling rollers to pave the streets and of being punished by having to stand for hours on ice in the bunker.
There is a description of the camp's population as delineated by their triangular badges: Political prisoners (German, French, Polish, Dutch, and Soviet), British spies, Jehovah's Witnesses, Asocials, and Criminals. Jews wore a yellow triangle and were often brought to Ravensbrück as political prisoners. Their educational and economic backgrounds ranged from professor to peasant.
The narratives provided by survivors in The Jewish Women of Ravensbrück Concentration Camp are rich in detail. Of particular interest are the aspects of survivorship that are attributed uniquely to women, such as the sharing of recipes, the development of strong friendships and surrogate families, communal childcare, and the exchange of gifts. There is a very moving display at the Ravensbrück memorial of these small handmade gifts that exemplifies a...