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Day 5 (Ravensbrück Concentration Camp)

May 14, 2012

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The evening before our trip to Ravensbrück was ripe with anticipation.  For perhaps two thirds of the class, this was to be the first time at a concentration camp.  For that reason people were anxious, scared of what they’d see, afraid of what they’d imagine.

I got a real wake up call on arrival to Ravensbrück.  The scenery around the camp is so breathtakingly beautiful with its abundant greenery and nice, quaint homes.  Upon arrival to the camp, houses to the left on a hill overlook a beautiful lake with plenty of trees for shade and a cobblestone path to walk on.  Remember this paragraph.

As we walked closer to the camp entrance we looked on in shock as we saw something dark grey in the distance.  Just a dozen yards away we saw that beyond the yellow gate was hell on Earth.

Camp Entrance

We gathered at the spot right at the foreground of this picture to hear about stories of townspeople who encountered the camp on business visits.  One such story of a teenager who delivered meat to the camp was not exactly a hardline anti-Semitic, but he wasn’t necessarily sympathetic to the Jews either.  On one delivery day he saw the women inside the camp (he did not know that this was a concentration camp), shaven, dirty, and emaciated, and thought they were less than human.  He thought perhaps this is what the Jews looked like.  On another day delivering meat he saw women again, this time appearing at a healthy weight and not nearly as dirty (I do not know if the hair was shaved at that point).  He knew at that moment what was going on and what would be the fate of these women.  He knew then on that the Nazis were wrong and henceforth stopped delivering meat.

Ravensbrück Konzentrationslager was the only all-female camp during the Holocaust.  At first a camp for political prisoners, it became a camp for Jews, asocials, gypsies, and lesbians as well.  About 32,000 women, children, and a few men were known to have died at Ravensbrück.  Remember the paragraph from above?  The camp was purposely built near the lake to give the impression that women arriving to the camp would be in a not-so-bad place.  The cobblestone walkway that we walked on was made entirely through slave labor at the hands of the Nazis.  It is not known how many women and girls died toiling over the road.  Those houses on the hill belonged to the Nazi guards and their families and children would often watch and call out demeaning names to the women slaving over the road.  When we learned all of that information, I felt nauseous.

Inside the camp there was nothing but what looked like fields of coal.  Porous and jagged, we hobbled across the stones to stop at the site of subtle shallow divots in the ground.  These long, rectangular divots indicated where barracks used to be.  I asked why there were no barracks left and it was because the Soviets had occupied them after liberation and / or had sold them as parts to townspeople who needed them on their farms.  In some ways, it was almost better that they weren’t there.  The darkness of the place was enough.  Today what remains is a former machine labor building (inaccessible), the crematorium, the prison, the SS building, and the SS houses in the distance.  Plaques indicate the site of the former gas chamber as well as barracks and roll call platforms.  Pictures of these sites can be seen in the slideshow at the bottom.  Included are pictures of the gate, the cobblestone road, inside the prison, the crematorium (poor quality I apologize), as well as the ash field with the remains of thousands of women who perished.  These pictures do not really do the place justice– it is hard to capture evil in a 4×6 photograph, but to see the place in person is haunting.

Each blog post has been published reflecting the date the place was visited, although the posts are being transcribed in the present.  To be perfectly honest, in the month that I have been back, I still have trouble falling asleep every night.  I have never been one to fall asleep quickly, and every night I try to push what I saw and what I imagined out of my mind.  I visited four concentration / extermination camps including the notorious Auschwitz (-Birkenau), however Ravensbrück continues to haunt me the most.  I hope I never go back.

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