domingo, 11 de enero de 2015
Inside the Nazi death camp for WOMEN: Injected with petrol, infected with syphilis and raped by their liberators, the shocking fate of prisoners at Ravensbrück
Katharina Waitz stared at the 15ft wall topped by barbed wire, took a deep breath and, undaunted, began to climb the last leg to freedom.
She was one of the handful of inmates of Ravensbruck, the Nazi concentration camp exclusively for women, ever to break out, and it took the ultimate in daring high-wire acts for her to get away.
A trapeze artist by profession, the crime that consigned her to this grimmest of places was simply that she was a gipsy and therefore classified by Hitler’s Third Reich as a degenerate whose very existence polluted the pure Aryan gene pool.
Twice this brave young woman tried to escape and was caught, spending months of torture in the camp’s punishment block.
Undeterred, she tried again. Under cover of darkness, she somehow slipped past the SS guards and their vicious Alsatian dogs and up on to the roof of the staff canteen.
From there, she used all her circus skills to climb the electric fence, wrapping a blanket round the live wires. Then she clambered over five rows of barbed wire and a 15ft wall before fleeing into the forest.
She was free for three days and nights, during which time all the other women in the punishment block were forced to stand at attention, without moving a muscle and without food. On the fourth morning she dragged back, covered in blood and dog bites.
She was thrown back inside the punishment block, where her fellow prisoners were told: ‘Do what you want with her.’
Crazed with starvation and fatigue, they picked up chair legs and clubbed her to death for what she had put them through — doing the guards’ dirty work for them.
Many thousands of women suffered similarly gruesome fates in the six years that Ravensbruck existed. They were worked to death, starved, beaten, hanged, shot, gassed, poisoned, even burnt alive in the crematorium.
Such barbaric treatment, systematic and on an industrial scale, is hard to comprehend. It plumbs the absolute depths of savagery, even for Nazi Germany.
And yet after the war ended, what took place passed so quickly into history that it was virtually forgotten. Seventy-five years on, the horrific crimes enacted there are largely unknown.
In all, 130,000 passed through its gates, of whom 50,000 were slaughtered, though so few SS documents on the camp survive no one will ever know precise numbers. In its final days, every prisoner’s file was burned, along with the bodies, and the ashes thrown in a lake.
But what really drew a veil over what went on in the camp is that those who survived its horrors found them literally unspeakable.
One told me how it was impossible to explain what it had been like: ‘So I said nothing.’
Another started to tell her family and friends about all she’d endured, ‘but my sister took me aside and told me not to talk like that again as people would think I’d gone mad’.
One survivor I spoke to tried to put me off writing about it altogether. ‘It is just too horrible,’ she said.
Certainly, as I researched the camp’s history, met survivors and read personal accounts in distant archives, the brutality and degradation I unearthed were so extreme I was often reduced to tears.
But I ploughed on. These were voices that had to be heard.
Oddly, when the first prisoners arrived at Ravensbruck, 55 miles north of Berlin, in May 1939, they broke into unexpected smiles.
Political opponents, prostitutes, down-and-outs and ‘undesirables’, they were brought there from dungeons, dark cells and grim workhouses all over Germany, where they had been locked up for not conforming to the ‘Kinder, Kuche, Kirche’ (Children, kitchen, church) Nazi ideal of womanhood.
As they climbed down from blacked-out buses, they looked out on the shimmering blue water of a lake. The scent of a pine forest filled their lungs. ‘Our hearts leapt for joy,’ recalled Lisa Ullrich, a Communist.
There were no watchtowers. Inside the barbed wire they caught a glimpse of beds of bright flowers and an aviary with peacocks and a parrot.
The illusion of tranquility was instantly shattered as ‘hordes of women guards with yelping dogs came rushing at us issuing non-stop orders and calling us hags, bitches and whores’.
Several prisoners collapsed under the onslaught. Friends who stooped to help them up were themselves knocked flat and whipped.
It was a camp rule that helping another inmate was an offence. Commands echoed through the trees as stragglers were kicked by jackboots.
Stiff with terror, all eyes fixed on the sandy ground, the women did their utmost not to be noticed. Some were whimpering.
Another crack of a whip and there was silence before they were marched inside to be stripped, deloused and their hair shorn.
From then on, every minute of the days that stretched ahead of them was regimented by blaring sirens and rules. Inside the barrack blocks, they were tightly packed together in conditions so inhumane that one inmate described it as like ‘stepping naked into a cage of wild animals’.
Discipline was maintained not only by guards , but also by collaborators among the prisoners, kapos and blockovas (block leaders) recruited for their vicious natures and willingness to obey orders.
Encouraged to ‘vent their evil’ on their fellow prisoners, they were often worse than the guards as they doled out beatings and kept order.
From these over-crowded, disease-ridden blocks the women were roused each morning as early as 3am for roll call on the parade ground and made to stand for hours in their thin striped dresses even in the iciest winter.
A fat SS man on a bicycle circled round them, lashing out with a whip. He was the slave labour chief and this was his cattle market where he selected prisoners for work details.
Then they were herded off and set to work — heaving rocks and road-building, sewing military uniforms and making electrical equipment for the Siemens company, which had a factory there.
Ravensbruck’s first inhabitants were mainly German and had been arrested for petty crimes or voicing opposition to the Nazis.
As well as prostitutes, they included doctors, opera singers and politicians. Later the camp took in women captured in countries occupied by the Nazis, many of them members of the Resistance and enemy agents, including a handful from Britain.
On entering the gates, these new arrivals would stare in horror and disbelief at the corpse carts, the emaciated forms squatting around the kitchen block and the crematorium furnaces billowing smoke.
The conditions took a terrifying toll. Broken by slave labour, weakened by disease and starvation, beaten to a pulp for no reason, the women succumbed in droves — as was intended.
Ravensbruck had been built as nothing short of an enormous death machine where everything was designed to kill.Those who became too ill or exhausted to work were ‘selected’ for extermination.
Volleys of gunshots from the woods behind the camp signified a new round of killings. Trucks regularly arrived — known as Himmelfahrt (‘heaven-bound’) or black transports — to take away batches of women for unknown destinations from which they would never return.
Later these turned out to be the gas chambers of secret Nazi killing centres in Germany or Austria or — more often — the death camps of Auschwitz or Belsen.
The inspiration behind this facsimile of hell was Heinrich Himmler, the head of the SS, who supervised the network of concentration camps. He was a frequent visitor.
His mistress — he called her ‘Bunny’ — lived in a love-nest nearby and he took to dropping in when on his way from Berlin.
It was he who sanctioned the use of the Pruegelstrafe, in which a prisoner was strapped over a wooden horse and given 25 lashes on the buttocks with an ox-whip. It had long been used on men.
Now women were similarly thrashed within an inch of their lives. But worse perhaps even than these were the spine-chilling medical experiments carried out on the inmates. These began with the camp’s doctor, Walter Sonntag.
Encouraged by Himmler he began by testing ways of killing off prisoners. Injecting petrol or phenol into their veins was his favoured method.
Sonntag was a sadistic brute. Each morning, dressed in his immaculate, black SS uniform, he passed along the line of women waiting outside the camp hospital who were suffering from dog bites, gashes from beatings or frostbite and kicked them with his jackboots or lashed out with his bamboo stick, smiling as he did so.
He particularly enjoyed extracting healthy teeth without anaesthetic.
One of Himmler’s obsessions was his belief that regular sex made for better soldiers, and he instructed Sonntag to find a way for them to have intercourse in brothels without contracting venereal disease.
The doctor experimented on prostitutes in Ravensbruck in search of a cure for syphilis and gonorrhoea.
No records remain of how he carried out his trials, though everyone was aware they were happening. A camp survivor heard of ‘syphilis being injected into the spinal cord’.
But firm evidence does exist of a series of macabre medical trials that began in the summer of 1942, when 75 of the youngest and fittest women — all Poles — were summoned to the parade ground, where SS surgeon Karl Gebhardt lifted their skirts and inspected their legs.
Six of them were selected and sent to the hospital block.
There they were bathed and put in beds with crisp, clean sheets. Then a nurse shaved their legs before wheeling them into the operating theatre. ‘Be brave,’ she told them.
As she sank under the anaesthetic, one of them repeated over and over: ‘We are not guinea pigs ... we are not guinea pigs.’ But that’s precisely what they were, though the camp name for them would be Kaninchen — ‘rabbits’.
When that first ‘rabbit’ woke, her legs were in plaster. Within hours she and the others were screaming in agony as their legs began to swell.
They were being used in vivisection experiments to discover the best drugs for treating the war wounds of Germany’s soldiers. The women’s legs had been cut open and dosed with bacteria, with added dirt, glass and splinters to ensure that infection spread further.
Days later, the plaster was removed and their wounds agonisingly scraped out before being treated with different experimental drugs. ‘Rabbits’ who fought against what was being done to them, or screamed too loudly because of the pain or were no longer of any use, were put out of their misery with lethal injections or simply taken out into the forest and shot.
The medical experiments were supposed to be top secret. But the whole camp was aware of them, and was horrified. ‘We were terrified the same might happen to us,’ recalled Maria Bielicka, ‘and everyone went out of their way to help the “rabbits”.’
Inmates brought them titbits of food. The Poles in the camp set up an aid committee and assigned a Polish ‘mother’ to each ‘rabbit’ to try and look after her welfare.
But the tests worsened as ever more fanciful medical theories were explored and right to the very end, the ‘rabbits’ lived in fear of extermination, knowing that, alive, they were proof of the atrocity.
To aid the wholesale slaughter, Himmler now decreed that Ravensbruck should have its own gas chamber, which was built in January 1945. The camp had become overcrowded to breaking point and he needed to make space for even more prisoners, especially with the camps in the East forced to close.
Shooting and poisoning took too long. Gassing was quicker. It would double the numbers killed. A temporary gas chamber was fashioned out of an old tool shed close to the crematorium, just outside the camp wall.
Measuring 12ft by 18ft, it resembled a car garage. Gaps and holes in the walls were covered with mastic and a special airtight cover fixed over the roof with a small hatch.
The women were pushed inside, 150 at a time, and the door shut. Then a canister of gas was thrown in from the roof. According to a witness, there was moaning and crying for two to three minutes, then silence.
Prisoners in the closest blocks would hear the lorries pull up and wondered why the engines were left running for so long. Then someone said it was to cover the screams from the gas chamber.
The air was thick with smoke from the crematorium. Its three furnaces could barely keep pace.
The gassing at Ravensbruck went on almost right to the end, even during air raids and when Russian guns could be heard in the distance. Over one weekend alone, 2,500 women were gassed.
The aim was to destroy evidence of what had happened there before the Allies arrived.
But there were still thousands left on site on April 30, 1945, when the surviving women awoke to the roar of Russian artillery, the gunfire so close that the sky above the perimeter wall lit up.
The SS guards had fled, and the women prepared a red banner to hang across the camp gates.
But their Red Army ‘liberators’ brought a fresh horror — rape.
Ever since it had crossed the German border, the advancing Red Army had engaged in sexual rampage and now it even raped these starved concentration camp women — many of them fellow Russians.
Nadia Vasilyeva, a nurse, remembered how the troops ‘at first greeted us as sisters but then they turned into animals’.
‘I was little more than a corpse,’ recalled Ilse Heinrich, ‘and then I had to undergo that!’ Pregnant women and those with newborn babies were also raped.
Another woman complained that the soldiers were demanding payment for liberation. ‘The Germans never raped us because we were Russian swine, but our own soldiers did. Stalin had said that no soldiers should be taken prisoner, so they felt they could treat us like dirt.’
Given all that the brave women of Ravensbruck had been through and managed to survive against the odds, this violation by their own side was the final humiliation.