I drive with Robert, my friend and an expert on the Holocaust, north from Berlin, through the pleasant little town of Fürstenberg and along the road that winds beside the Schwedtsee, the lake Fürstenberg shares with Ravensbrück.
We turn right at the KZ Ravensbrück sign and go up the road until a fork splits off; we take another right. There the road turns to cobbles that bump and jiggle your body as you drive over them.
The bump and jiggle are dark souvenirs of a road laid in winter by bare-fingered women. They were among the first prisoners who arrived at Ravensbrück in 1939, months before Germany began its invasions of other countries.
Thick walls of trees rise as we pass the Soviet tank on the left, positioned as a memorial for the liberators of the camp and a stoic reminder of the scope of world war. Fragile remains of pitch-roofed SS barracks are nearly swallowed by overgrowth. And still, the bump and jiggle.
Of all the camps, Ravensbrück sits closest to my heart. That makes her the hardest to write about. I feel like I am inside her, or she is inside me. Because the camp was built for women, her pulse is most certainly a feminine one.
Ravensbrück is a feeling to me, a feeling encompassed by a few surviving structures and a hell of a lot of individual memories — remembrances from other times I’ve stood inside these camp walls — but it’s the women who haunt me. I’ve done extensive reading and spent hours speaking with historians about life at Ravensbrück, and at times it seems I hold those stories closer to my chest than my own heartbeat.
Grief and confusion are palpable inside Ravensbrück. The paralysis of terror and how it slows down your brain until it barely functions and your survival instinct simultaneously kicks your nervous system into overdrive. The fright of having every move controlled. Losing your identity. Shaved head. Filthy clothing. No hygiene. Worrying about your family or your child because you have no idea where they are. The roll call on the appellplatz, which is really just a Russian roulette of death. The hunger, the cold, the flea-infested bodies, the dysentery, the typhoid, the smell of burning flesh, the work marches, the shouts of the SS guards, the rotten soup, the stale bread, the infighting, the lifesaving, the treachery, the altruism.
Like clockwork, my stomach has fully risen into my throat by the time I arrive at the large dirt square. Opposite me, the hulking SS administration building holds court like a flat-faced, beige god of tyranny. My ears try to block out the lingering echoes of shuffling wooden clogs on the cobblestones. My eyes absorb winter in Ravensbrück for the first time. My heart pulls back and moves forward. That’s what Ravensbrück does to me.
I want to rush out and hold it all, but it hurts.
My first exposure to Ravensbrück came when I was nine years old and read The Hiding Place by Corrie ten Boom. There was no television in our house, and I was an avid reader who, bored by children’s books, regularly gobbled up the piles of books on my mother’s shelves.
There I sat, curled up on our cream-and-brown-plaid sofa in Northern California with a brightly colored blanket pulled up to my chin, eyes bulging over the words about life under Nazi rule and the author’s time in captivity at Ravensbrück. Striped uniforms. Starvation. Barbed wire. Snarling dogs. Brutal female guards wielding power, each like a villainess from hell. I don’t remember many details of the book, but I do remember the images seared into my mind as deeply as the question I silently asked the characters involved: How can women be so cruel to women?
Some survivors have said the Schwedtsee was used as a dumping ground for the ashes from the crematorium. There are historians who dispute that claim, saying that couldn’t have been a regular occurrence because the wind constantly blows everything back to the western edge, where Ravensbrück sprawls, and the ashes would have blown right back onto the thrower and returned to the shore. It has also been said the Germans would not have contaminated their own water in such a way.
Either way, an estimated fifty thousand women died at Ravensbrück, often by the hand of the female guards, and many of their bodies were burned in the crematorium. After the war, a pit of ash was discovered just a short walk from the shore of the Schwedtsee, in front of the camp wall. It has been turned into a bed of roses in memoriam.
Ravensbrück began as a prison camp for “undesirables” long before the Final Solution, otherwise known as the Holocaust, was even a thing. German women could be arrested and imprisoned for a variety of crimes: being a lesbian, listening to jazz music, being too outspoken, having an STD, having or giving an abortion, having sex with a Jew or foreigner, providing assistance to a Jewish neighbor, or being a Jehovah’s witness, an artist or musician whose creations challenged the status quo, a communist, a sex worker, or drinking “too much.”
Just up the road, there was the Uckermark. It was a jugendlager, or youth camp. There, young girls were imprisoned for any and all of the above.
After 1933, when Hitler rose to power, Germany wasn’t really a good time to be a female.
Initially, any Jews in Ravensbrück were there for other ‘crimes’, not that of being Jewish. As the war grew in size and years, political enemies, resistance fighters, and hostages from all the countries occupied by the Germans joined the Germans and subsequent Jews imprisoned, swelling the camp’s population until it overflowed beyond capacity with women from all over Europe and from all walks of life.
At Ravensbrück, they didn’t have guns. Himmler, the head of all the camps, believed women were more frightened by dogs than guns, so the guards had trained attack dogs at their sides. The SS didn’t build guard towers around the perimeter of the camp walls. Instead, they let the dogs roam the camp freely at night, believing that the women would not attempt escape under the watchful eyes of dogs who had been taught to maul and kill.
Here I stand, a handful of decades later, alone on the lagerstrasse, the main camp road. During Ravensbrück’s years of operation, the women’s wooden barracks lined both sides of the lagerstrasse. Now it’s a field of flatness lined by looming trees, with dark gravel and slight indentations marking where the barracks used to be. Robert walks ahead of me with a groundskeeper who is gesticulating off toward the right side of the camp, where the women once trudged to slave labor at the Siemens factory just down the way and beyond the camp walls. The sun is going down fast, and it’s only 3:00 p.m. I’ve always wanted to experience Ravensbrück in the dark, so I stop and let them walk ahead, the crunch of their feet on the gravel fading into the distance toward the textile factory.
As the shadows crawl out of their daylight hiding places, I feel the parallels between then and now like live wires, snaking and hissing all around me. Inside these walls, with their historical hushes and rushes of calamity, I can hear the disintegration of all that I held dear. It’s a steady drip, and it booms.
I think of the woman who was my best friend, then suddenly became a ringleader, or a pied piper, or a snakecharmer. I don’t really know which, if any, of those descriptions actually fit, and I’m not sure it matters. I only know how it all felt.
I think of the agonizing reality that slowly sunk in, I was losing her friendship in such a way that felt confusing at best, traumatizing at worst.
I think of the jolts of information that would follow, about how she was talking about me.
And then the shock of watching all the people follow her words without a pause.
It all felt like lies that I didn’t know how to defend myself against. So I stayed quiet and held hope. Hope for what, I ask myself as I write now. Hope for a miracle, I guess.
I think of my embarrassment when I realized that it was time to face the music: my business collapsed. My money had run out. My reputation was in ruins.
I think of my fear as a newly divorced woman with a young child, to be facing a radically unpredictable and sudden loss of my entire income.
I think of my regret, watching the ripple effect from my shriveled up bank account. The employees and contractors I had to let go. The small businesses I once loved to contribute to that I could no longer afford. The art teachers I once hired, providing thousands into their yearly income. The events I created had long been held dear by hundreds of women who called them life-changing. They had to be canceled.
I think of my desperation to resurrect projects, to create new ones, and to spin in slow motion as I returned to managing what was left of my business, alone. With a slow, dull, dumbfounded ache I experienced more breakage. None of my efforts to revive my work yielded the results I was accustomed to. My golden touch turned into something perpetually broken.
I think of that fine line between victim and perpetrator that fascinates me so:
How a perpetrator can portray themselves convincingly as a victim, and how a victim can be silenced into perpetual shame.
I think of how silence can be sweet or sour. These last months, the silence is really only sour.
I turn in a circle, and take in the deepening darkness of Ravensbrück. I watch the indigo richness of the sky begin to fall like a curtain behind the textile factory. The white exterior begins to absorb shades of blue, as night quickly spreads itself over this hallowed horrorscape. Hallowed because of extinguished lives that I solemnly remember; horror because of all that they endured.
The textile factory survived the end of the war and the eventual occupation of Ravensbrück for use by the Soviet army. It stands a mournful witness in a rear corner of the camp. Inside these walls the women labored. Textiles were produced, and uniforms for various aspects of the Reich were manufactured. The overseers were brutes, the women were tired and starving, and all around them, in a hellishly ripe cascade of choices and their consequences, humans were humans.
When they arrived at Ravensbrück, the women would form or fall into networks based on allegiance. This could be based on nationality (the strong Polish alliance), political belief (the communist women), or religious unity (the Jehovah’s Witnesses), and the list goes on and on. The powers that be allowed this because they believed these divisions would keep the prisoners distracted from any possibility of uniting and overpowering the guards.
Divide and conquer, nurture and nourish, rescue and betray. These are human choices and behaviors, natural states of being inherited from our cave-dwelling ancestors. We can’t help it. We were born with an instinct to survive. In wartime and in peacetime, women break off into groups as some kind of survival mechanism.
In places like Ravensbrück, it really was a matter of survival. Some women saved lives; some women betrayed lives. I look inward when I am here. Would I have been altruistic and stuck my neck out for my sisters? Or would I have thrust theirs out onto a sacrificial altar to save my own? I marvel at the stories about the women of Ravensbrück. The full gamut of human possibilities occurred within these camp walls. Birth and death. Evil and faith. Love and hate. Sacrifice and betrayal.
Betrayal. The word sends shivers down my spine.
Shivers that trigger sorrow. Lately I’ve slogged through betrayal’s sucking quicksand more than I care to ponder right now. Rather than allowing my whole body to succumb to its deep slurp, I chew the grit slowly, caught in a whirl of wonder at the ripple effect of devastation that can happen when the air people share gets clogged with misperceptions instead of holding space for differing perspectives to coexist.
To my nine-year-old self, the best answer I can give is “women can indeed be crueler than cruel, and it’s a human condition that can and does exist in ways big and small, even when there are no Nazis threatening to pistol-whip people into submission.”
Then I’ll stand beside her and watch as she makes it her life’s work to try and understand it all.
Together, we write this book, and we will inevitably feel the bump and jiggle on the road to Ravensbrück time and time again, hoping each time that at last it will yield the one piece that will complete that puzzle of human choices and their ripple effect of consequences.
This has been an excerpt from Erin’s book ‘The In Between’, a visual memoir documenting her journey through some of World War Two’s most infamous sites.