Much has been written about Max Koegel and Fritz Suhren, the two commandants of Ravensbruck Concentration Camp for women, but what about their wives, somehow lost in the churn of history? Anna Koegel and Elfriede Suhren are minor characters in my novel Lilac Girls, but I still love discovering even the smallest details about them. This past April, at Ravenbruck’s 70th anniversary of the liberation of the camp, I found a few more clues to their personalities and it turns out the two women could not have been more different.
Ravensbruck’s first commandant, Max Koegel (above, right) a former souvenir shop owner, married Anna Jilecek when he was an adjutant with the SS squad at Dachau. On her marriage application, Anna wrote that she had aspired to study gynecology or become a professional singer but blamed her father’s Jewish employer for financial troubles, which forced her to become a doctor’s receptionist, a nursery school teacher and a waitress (where she met her recently divorced future husband). Anna followed Koegel to six different concentration camps and the couple were the first residents in the commandant’s house at Ravensbruck, a newly-built, pretty villa with a nice garden, (below) perched on a ridge overlooking the camp.
Prisoners forced to work in the SS hair salon describe Anna Koegel as “an unpleasant character” and recount how she shouted and called the salon workers “disgusting” when the workers, who were not allowed to wear gloves, tried to style her hair with dye-stained hands. After the war, Koegel committed suicide and Anna remarried. Her marriage to Koegel produced no children.
Commandant Suhren’s wife Elfriede, (above) was a very different sort of woman. A seamstress, Elfriede Bruns married Fritz Suhren when he was a lowly personnel officer. Once Suhren was promoted to commandant of Ravensbruck, the couple and their four children moved into the villa on the ridge. By all accounts, Elfriede was a soft spoken woman and unconditionally faithful to her husband.
After the war, Suhren was captured by the Allies, escaped and went underground before being recaptured (above in 1947) and tried before a French tribunal in 1950. During his trial, Elfriede remained loyal to her husband and approached many former prisoners, hoping they would testify on his behalf. (Not one did.) After Suhren was executed, Elfriede approached her husband’s lover and told her she could apply for an orphan’s pension for the daughter she had with Suhren.
How could these women live with themselves? Did they know about the camp’s crematoria and how the prisoner’s ashes were disposed of in the lake? Did Suhren confide in Elfriede about the hastily-built gas chamber he had built, in which he was killing 150 prisoners at a time? We can only speculate, but since the view from their balcony looks into the camp, they saw enough to know their husbands ran a brutal, murderous business, a far cry from any souvenir shop.