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The Blessed Abyss

Inmate #6582 in Ravensbrück Concentration Camp for Women

Nanda Herbermann Translated by Hester Baer Edited by Hester Baer and Elizabeth R. Baer

Publication Year: 2000

On February 4, 1941, Nanda Herbermann, a German Catholic writer and editor, was arrested by the Gestapo in Münster, Germany. Accused of collaboration with the Catholic movement, Herbermann was deported to Ravensbrück Concentration Camp for Women in July 1941 and later released upon direct orders from Heinrich Himmler on March 19, 1943. Although she was instructed by the Gestapo not to reveal information about the camp, Herbermann soon began to record her memories of her experiences. The Blessed Abyss was originally published in German under the imprint of the Allied occupation forces in 1946, and it now appears in English for the first time. Hester Baer and Elizabeth Baer include an extensive introduction that situates Herbermann's work within current debates about gender and the Holocaust and provides historical and biographical information about Herbermann, Ravensbrück, and the Third Reich.

Published by: Wayne State University Press

Cover

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pp. 1-2

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. 3-8

Contents

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pp. vii-10

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Preface

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pp. 9-12

As work on this book progressed during the last four years, we were often asked how we had discovered the memoir by Nanda Herbermann, which we present here in its first English edition. Here is the story. In 1996, while looking through some family documents in German, Hester discovered a reference to...

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Introduction

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pp. 13-52

On February 4, 1941, Nanda Herbermann, a thirty-eight-yearold Catholic German who worked as a freelance writer and editor, was arrested by the Gestapo in Miinster, Germany. Accused of collaboration with the Catholic resistance, Herbermann was subsequently held in a number of police prisons before...

The Blessed Abyss

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pp. 53-56

Dedication

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pp. 57-60

Contents to The Blessed Abyss

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pp. 59-62

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1. Under persecution by the Gestapo

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pp. 61-63

"Are you the secretary of Father Friedrich Muckermann?"1 "Lead me to the editorial rooms of The Grail"2 The small, stocky man with the angry, flashing eyes who spoke to me in this way pulled a metal badge out of his pocket with his left hand and held it up quickly with the words: "Geheime Staatspolizei, secret police." Yes, I was...

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2. The SS and Gestapo in Holland

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pp. 64-65

Father Muckermann fled to Holland in 1934. In May 1940, Holland was occupied by German troops. The first thing that happened there was, of course, a thorough searching of the whole country for emigrants. The SS and Gestapo ransacked every last corner. Many people fell into their ruthless hands and spent...

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3. "You are under arrest!"

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pp. 66-68

On the morning of February 4, 1941, at around half past eight, I went to holy mass in the cathedral.1 As I entered through the vestibule, I saw three men standing under the giant figure of Christopher and conspicuously inspecting me. Apparently they were not in the cathedral to worship. All of their mannerisms...

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4. The first interrogation

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pp. 69-70

At a frantic pace we headed for the headquarters of the Gestapo on Gutenberg Street. The first impression that I got of this building had a shattering effect on me. This gray, sinister box was crawling with officials and clerks, with defiant women, all of whom turned their eyes on me, while I, entering the building,...

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5. The police prison

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pp. 71-73

The police prison in Miinster lay underground. It was a sinister, dirty dungeon, which stank horribly of unkempt bodies, dirty clothing, and the perspiration of sleep. We entered the room in which the sergeants of the municipal police sat. After the Gestapo people had whispered with them and taken their leave with "Heil Hitler until...

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6. "You have power!"

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pp. 74-78

In his story "The Dark Night of St. John of the Cross," Reinhold Schneider has St. John speak to one of the Dreaded during his arrest: "You have power, and it would not be difficult for the powers to conceive of a charge and then proceed at their own discretion. But what would be won by that? Beware, you are in great...

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7. In the court prison

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pp. 79-81

While the head guard of the women's division of the court prison was still dealing in whispers with the Gestapo, I leaned back a little against the wall and observed the woman who would now be guarding over me in prison. She had good, shining eyes, which I immediately and thankfully noticed. After the Gestapo...

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8. Fellow prisoners

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pp. 82-84

On the third day of my stay in the court prison, the senior guard, S., came to my cell at nine in the morning and summoned me to go with the other prisoners under her guard to the prison yard. I followed willingly and, because it was still bitterly...

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9. Sundays in prison

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pp. 85-86

Every Sunday provided me with a ray of hope. All week long I waited longingly for the next one. Then I was allowed to go along to the chapel and hear holy mass, to communicate and be united with Him, who is truly our entire love and sustains us, especially in the most bitter and desolate hours. The small but touching...

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10. Horror and injustice

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pp. 87-89

Through long, tormenting interrogations by the Gestapo, the weeks after Easter became a true ordeal for me. If I had found sacred peace in my God and, for a time, a few hours of sleep in the night, now the sleepless nights began again. I got up and often prayed for a long time lying on the floor. The thought of...

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11. Air raids on Miinster!

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pp. 90-92

May came full of blooms and warmth, but it remained cold in our gray home. The little piece of sky that I saw through my cell window became more blue every day, and the sun became stronger and more golden. Since I had had to give up my watch, I learned in these weeks to calculate the exact time according...

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12. Toward an uncertain future

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pp. 93-97

With mixed feelings I left my silent cell. Yes, if walls could speak! I left the house of horror, took in the peculiarly oppressive quality of this large prison one last time; my eyes wandered up the dungeon walls, I thanked the guards, who could not comprehend why I was being tormented. Often they had said to me, especially...

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13. "Please don't beat the priests!"

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pp. 98-101

The next morning I had the time to look around my "new home." The furnishings were paltry. First there was the cot, on both sides of which hung two thick chains. I still believe today that it was a cot to which felons or inmates condemned to death were chained. Mental images of people who had lain here and...

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14. On a transport

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pp. 102-104

The evening arrived on which I was to learn what stood before me in the near future. It was the end of July. The police sergeant, with whom I was now in good favor, came into my cell quite agitated. For a long while he stood before me silent and embarrassed. I could see that something out of the ordinary was weighing on his soul, but he had to be out with it and start talking. It was no...

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15. Berlin-Alexanderplatz

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pp. 105-108

huge contingent of police and dogs received us at the train station in Berlin. Small and large prison vehicles stood ready to transport us away. A portion of the inmates, people who always had to be making noise, was raucous. The others were silent and brooding. So much was going through my mind. We were unloaded....

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16. Into the concentration camp

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pp. 109-111

On the evening of August 1, 1941, the guard called out the names of the inmates of our cell who would be transported to the Ravensbruck Concentration Camp for Women near Fiirstenberg in Mecklenburg. Among them was my name. We were escaping from one hell only to head toward an even worse one....

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17. Shocking impressions

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pp. 112-114

We "admittees," as the newly arrived inmates were called in the concentration camp, were now brought by the overseers to the so-called admittance block. Now I could observe to a certain extent, as far as was emotionally possible on that first...

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18. The first four weeks inthe concentration camp

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pp. 115-123

In the first days there were all kinds of formalities for the "admittees" to attend to. First the inmates had to go to the "records department," where photos (full face and profile) were made of every newly delivered prisoner, which were added to her file, so that in the case of a possible escape (which was not rare) the woman...

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19. As "barracks elder" with the prostitutes

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pp. 124-127

From the above-mentioned admittance block, I was transferred to Block V, which housed political prisoners of all nationalities. It was a more bearable, more well-mannered environment than that in the admittance block. This block was also fully occupied, but each inmate still had her place, her own stool, her own cot. There...

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20. Alone no more!

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pp. 128-133

The communal life in Block II was extremely difficult and became more and more unbearable over time as a result of extreme overcrowding. There were no more cots for many of the inmates. They lay several to a bed; many had to sleep on the floor. The inmates of Block II were mostly prostitutes, young and old, ranging in age...

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21. Block elder over fourhundred prostitutes

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pp. 134-139

The current block elder in Block II was generally called "brothel mother" by the prostitutes. And so I had the "great honor," after a few months' work as barracks elder, of being promoted by the administration of the camp to mother of the prostitutes. I don t know what I would have given to have avoided this post. I was not the robust...

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22. Eight days of confinement in the darkragingunderworld

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pp. 140-146

I had already had to accompany quite a few of the great number of people entrusted to my care to the detention building. This was always a journey of sacrifice, for we inmates all knew that the building of detention cells was the most horrifying thing the human brain could ever devise. How I was always so glad and ready to be...

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23. We inmates are people, too

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pp. 147-166

I lived on among my prostitutes, but life now seemed to me like a new gift. It had been so desolate and bitter in the dark imprisonment of the last week that staying in Block II seemed to me like a salvation. And they made the effort, my poor, miserable sisters, not to vex me or bother me. I was very touched to observe how some...

Images

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pp. 157-168

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24. The sick among us

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pp. 167-170

In my comments thus far, I have already reported some things about the sick among us. The ailing in my block demanded very special care and nursing as well as time to recover. Since the block was overcrowded (270 cots and at times over 400 inmates) many lay in threes on two cots; others had to sleep on the dirty...

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25. Clothing and laundry problems

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pp. 171-173

Underwear was a catastrophe. As I already mentioned at the beginning, many inmates did not even have knickers because there were none in stock. We often wore undershirts and other underthings for weeks on end without being able to change them even once. The more inmates that were delivered, the harder it was to wash laundry. It was strictly forbidden to wash a piece of laundry, and yet it did...

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26. Camp punishments

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pp. 174-176

The individual and camp punishments were extremely diverse, and often innocent people had to suffer along with guilty ones.1 Whenever some camp theft had been committed and the inmate in question did not come forward, the commandant would order food deprivation or standing punishment. Hour after hour we had to stand at attention until we would fall unconscious—for hours...

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27. The lice plague

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pp. 177-178

Despite my best efforts and those of the two barracks elders, our block wasstill filled with lice all too frequently, just as were many of the other blocks.What caused this? The laundry problem was despicable, and the cleanlinessof a great number of the inmates left much to be desired. There were evena few, as I mentioned earlier, who took their dishes with them into their...

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28. Reverie

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pp. 179-182

How I liked to stay sitting at the window of our barracks in the evening, when everyone already lay in their cots, and to dream of my blessed, past freedom, to give myself up completely to the memory of my loved ones. Such evening hours were certainly very rare, for the duties of the day often detained me until...

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29. Heinrich Himmler's "visit"

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pp. 183-184

How does that sound: a visit?1 Yes, such a thing existed, even in the concentration camp—and what a visit it was! The Reichsfiihrer of the SS and the chief of the German police in person. This man, for whom we all felt only the deepest contempt, came with his staff and entourage and "visited" the concentration...

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30. Small performances

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pp. 185-187

Anything that could somehow create a diversion for the inmates, or even amuse them a bit, and do them a bit of good by carrying them away from the consciousness of being an outcast for a short time was naturally forbidden, as always by threat of punishment. And yet, despite the SS guards, there were a few relaxing hours...

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31. Mail censorship

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pp. 188-182

We all awaited Saturday with great excitement and impatience. This was the only day of the week on which the mail for the prisoners was distributed. The block elder picked up the letters, which had been laid out for each block in the roll-call room of the overseers, which was next to the office of the chief overseer. It is certainly...

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32. Taking leave of Block II

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pp. 193-194

One afternoon in late fall I was called into the office of the chief overseer.1 This happened fairly often in regard to various inmates from my barracks. But this time it concerned me. She told me tersely and succinctly that in the future I was to work with her in the office. This was certainly a sizable "promotion" for me—but...

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33. In the office of the chief overseer

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pp. 195-198

I began my new assignments with a very heavy heart. And the assignments were quite varied. It was a shame that Chief Overseer Zimmer was transferred out of this camp only a few days after my summons to the office.1 Though she did have a very heavy hand, she was by far less evil than many others. She was thought of by the prisoners as a curiosity, and she had a fresh, red-cheeked face, a very...

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34. Comrades

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pp. 199-202

Probably the most comforting thing in Block I was that I found a fewinmates there with whom I had a natural affinity. There was the good Mirzel.This young, completely innocent creature, being held here as hostage forher father, was an angel of gentleness and goodness of the heart; I oftenwondered how she, who was still so young, had remained true to her nature...

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35. My brother's visit

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pp. 203-204

Personal visits in the camp were something quite extraordinary and rare. Theconsent of the Central Reich Security Office in Berlin was required for this,and it was only granted with difficulty. I had never counted on a personalvisit. And yet I was allowed to experience this startling surprise and pleasure.was armed with a pistol and led to the political administration of the camp....

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36. Dignified endings

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pp. 205-208

During the first days after the visit of my brother, I was simply of no usefor my work, which demanded the most rapt attention. I despised it morethan ever. I would have liked to have lain down in a green meadow anddreamed and dreamed.. . . And why should I torment myself here, ruiningmy health? So that this hellish institution could keep on running nicely and...

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37. Jews

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pp. 209-210

When I was delivered to the concentration camp in August 1941 there were still very many old and young Jews there; there were whole barracks filled only with Jews. What these creatures had to be subjected to in terms of vulgarity,torment, perversion, and meanness cannot be described in words. The hates own in the hearts of readers of the most disgusting of all newspapers ever...

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38. Sick transports

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pp. 211-212

I never quite made head or tail of these sick transports, which began all of a sudden in 1942.1 In the concentration camp one could, if one keptone's eyes open, often catch a glimpse behind the scenes, but to get to the bottom of everything was still impossible for me, despite my job in the office of the chief overseer, where many things were revealed to me. It is clear,...

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39. Heydrich murdered!

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pp. 213-214

Heydrich, Heinrich Himmler's deputy, had been murdered in a village in Czechoslovakia.1 The perpetrator was unknown. What did the Geheime Staatspolizei and the SS do? The village was set on fire and the ground was razed, while all male and female villagers were arrested and taken into custody. One day, then, the entire female population of this place was...

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40. Little black-haired Gypsy girl

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pp. 215-217

These verses of Hermann Stehr often went through my head.1 No, they no longer had any dreams, the authorities and powers of the Third Reich. They only knew murder, horror, power, greed, oppression, and deprivation of the rights of those who had fallen victim to their power. They were no longer...

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41. It was enough to drive one mad

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pp. 218-219

It is a good thing that one has yearnings. I, too, had to have something during these dark years I could yearn for. It was so horrible, day after day, month after month, in rain, cold, and snow, under the burning sun, hungry and thirsty,waiting, always just waiting for salvation. One lay there as if on a huge pillow into which one slowly sank deeper and deeper. The cold was so extreme that...

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42. Hope for salvation

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pp. 220-222

It was February 1,1943. Again I was called away from work by an overseer,and again I was taken, trembling and faint-hearted, out to the feared political division. I had no idea what awaited me. What was happening today? Oh,God, stand by me! This fear is dreadful. How many things could happen

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43. How did Himmler's telegram come about?

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pp. 223-225

My brothers and friends had, as I already mentioned, left no stone unturned in their attempt to get me set free. My oldest brother went through many difficult appeals for me, sending petitions to Berlin; and my brother Clemens went to Berlin and contacted lawyers there, who were in his opinion qualified to achieve something for me. But I had already been told during the...

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44. The last weeks

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pp. 224-229

It is not hard to imagine that I now lived in constant expectation, day andnight. If my fellow prisoners had taken almost all hope away from me,especially after the first fourteen days had passed (during which the questionof my release was, after all, supposed to have been decided), then the politicaldirector always gave me hope whenever he occasionally appeared at our...

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45. March 19,1943

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pp. 230-235

On the evening of March 18 (I had had a lot to do yet in the office) thepolitical director, Herr Borchard, came to me at my desk and asked, "Her-bermann, where does your brother live in Berlin?" I answered this question,but found it very peculiar. Did this possibly have something to do with myrelease? I didn't dare ask a question because there were various overseers in...

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46. Freedom! Freedom!

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pp. 236-238

After I had passed the gatekeeper of the camp and turned my back forever on the sinister walls, which were higher than a house, I took the deepest breath of my entire life, and looked back again, for the very last time. My eyes skimmed over the walls, up and down, and for a long time, for a very longtime, I could not break free from this sight, which brought back everything...

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47. Going home

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pp. 237-239

After about one hour we arrived at the train station in Fiirstenberg and bought our tickets. I telegraphed my sister-in-law in Berlin. Everyone gaped at us, since the overseer was with us, and one could tell from looking at her where she came from. And my little red-haired, shorn companion, who was not wearing a hat, also drew many stares. The Fiirstenbergers knew already:...

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48. The Gestapo yet again

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pp. 240-241

During my release, I had been told by the political division of the concentration camp that I was to register with the Geheime Staatspolizei immediately upon my arrival in Minister. So on March 22,1943, according to this order,I made my last, difficult journey to Gutenbergstrafie, to the building in which I had been subjected to so many terrifying interrogations and had...

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49. Epilogue

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pp. 242-243

After this morning, it was especially comforting that I was allowed to experience a reunion with my fatherly priest friend Prof. Dr. Donders on the afternoon of that very same day. So many noble friends were no longer among the living when I returned home.... I could only linger at their graves, which have since been smashed in air raids. But the oldest and most...

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50. A final word

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pp. 244-246

The grounds for my arrest are given as follows on the red warrant I have in my hands: "According to the results of the findings of the state police, she endangers, through her conduct, the stability and security of the people and the state, in that she does egregious harm to the interests of the Reich through her subversive activities and collaboration...

Note

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pp. 247-250

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Afterword

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pp. 249-251

Today a Soviet tank stands by the entrance to Ravensbriick, a staunchreminder of the liberation of the camp by the Red Army on April 30,1945. Just beyond the tank, on the left, stand several homes, pleasant inmien though now in disrepair, which once housed Nazi officers and theirfamilies. An exception to the general tumbledown look of these buildings...

Suggestions for Further Reading

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pp. 252-260

Bibliography

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pp. 261-270

Index

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pp. 271-280


E-ISBN-13: 9780814337684
Print-ISBN-13: 9780814329207

Page Count: 280
Illustrations: 18
Publication Year: 2000